Photo by Ivy Vainio
I was born on the Rez, live on the Rez, will probably die on the Rez. ’Twas a lot that happened in between but it was just details. And from those details I make my stories.
~Jim Northrup, 2010 interview with the Pine Journal
Even in the last few days before he died, Jim Northrup was tired of the media’s fixation on his terminal cancer diagnosis. “If you’re not a careful reader, it looks like I’m at death’s door, and it’s not that way at all. We all have to die sometime of something. My son Aaron, who heard me say that, said, ‘Otherwise we’d all be standing on each other’s shoulders, huh, Dad?’”
Until his death on August 1 at the age of 73, Northrup lived in Sawyer with his wife, one of their eight children, one of their 16 grandchildren, and his 1964 Corvette Stingray. “When I drive it into Duluth, I get three looks: The first is, ‘What a beautiful car!’ Second, ‘What’s he doing driving it?’ Third, ‘Oh, must be a casino Indian.’”
Three of the Northrups’ sons live within a one-mile radius of home. Another mile down the road is the childhood home he once shared with his father, James Sr. (a trucker and Golden Glove boxer), mother Alice (née Shabiash), six brothers and seven sisters.
Rice poles hold up clotheslines in Sawyer.
Rabbit chokers live there.
Wind in the trees and time to wonder
what makes that sound.
Time itself is measured by the sun
not quartz on the wrist.
In Sawyer, one knows the name of
every dog in town
Nayquab, Johnson, Duke, King, Pal
and a lot of them named Puppy.
A Sawyer Shinnob knows the most devious, roundabout circular cop-free road to town when
The insurance is lapsed
the driver’s license is sick
and the license plates are dead.
The mosquitos are as big as eagles
and as common as leaves.
We’re glad they haven’t discovered
snowmobile suits or thermal underwear.
Teasing means I care, not that I want to hurt you.
In Sawyer, one can be mad at a brother or sister
And still have enough family.
Gossip is more common than surplus food,
People walk on trails, not sidewalks,
Getting longed by a short guy is unfortunate.
Hocking a satellite dish for bingo
Is possible but difficult.
In Sawyer, generations of relatives are buried
The air hasn’t been breathed by heavy industry
The colors of blue and green rest the eyes
The quiet makes it easy to hear the spirits
And their messages.
In Sawyer, the values and traditions of the
people are held sacred.
~“Where you from?”
At the age of six, Northrup was sent to Pipestone Indian School in southwest Minnesota. The Indian boarding schools were harsh and Pipestone was no exception. “The nights were the worst...We would all try to get to sleep and the dorm was about as big as a basketball court, rows and rows and rows of beds. A boy would be at one end quietly crying. He was crying because maybe he was homesick, or because he was sexually abused, maybe because he had been beat up.
"Whatever the reason, the boys on either side of him would tell him to be quiet, and then they would be reminded how homesick they were, and then you could hear the wave of crying travel from bed to bed, row to row, until the kid in the next bed was crying, and I was sobbing, and then we all got up in the morning and pretended like it didn’t happen.”
When the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to take away the children, some parents hid them. Others refused to hand them over. Federal agents bribed the parents with food and jobs in exchange for the children, who were to be assimilated at schools where Christian beliefs and speaking only English were enforced with “thumpings.”
“When we first got there, a kid was trying to get down the stairs and slipped on the stairs of the school bus. He started to fall and I grabbed him and kept him from falling and I used an Ojibwe expression, which literally means ‘I feel sorry for you.’ I was just showing sympathy, but the housemother was sitting there at the bottom of the stairs as we were coming off. She waited until it was my turn to get off. She grabbed me by the ear and she said, ‘We don’t speak that language here!’ What’s language? I was six years old—what’s language?
“Instead of trying to find a diplomatic way to get up after you’ve been pounded into the floor, I’d use the wood grain. I’d follow the wood grain with my finger. After I was done crying, I’d follow that piece of wood grain with my finger until pretty soon I was up on my knees still following that wood grain and then I’d be on my feet again, ready for the next go-round...It was an education. I learned to read there, and that’s something that’s still with me today, but it was lonesome.
“At six, I didn’t know how to write, so this girl named Pauline Moose from Hinckley, she used to write my letters home for me. I thought that was nice. She was about six years older than I was...I’ve always remembered that great kindness she showed, to do that for me.
“Over the years, any time I had a new book come out, I’d give her a copy. I’d give her some rice or some maple syrup. It’s just my way of thanking her for it. Finally, after about five or six years of this, she says, ‘I’ve got to tell you something. You know all those letters I wrote to your ma?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’
“‘Well, you didn’t know it, but on the bottom of all those letters, I wrote to send me candy.’ I said, ‘Well, did she?’ And [Pauline] said, ‘Oh, yeah, she was real good about that.’ I didn’t get no goddamn candy.”
Didja ever hear a sound
that brought you back
to Vietnam instantly?
Didja ever wonder
when it would end?
It ended for my brother.
He died in the war
but didn’t fall down
for fifteen tortured years.
His flashbacks are over,
another casualty whose name
will never be on the Wall.
Some can find peace
only in death.
The sound of his
family crying hurt.
The smell of the flowers
didn’t comfort us.
The bitter taste
in my mouth
still sours me.
How about a memorial
for those who made it
through the war
but still died
before their time?
At the age of 14, Northrup was sent to Brainerd Indian Training School, a Methodist boarding school in Hot Springs, South Dakota. “The Christian boarding schools were easier because they were real hard-shell. It was come down and be saved, confess your sins and be saved.”
He no longer faced abuse from the staff, but was now among Indian children from rival tribes, all acting out a Hatfield-and-McCoys-style grudge. “We knew from the old stories who the enemy really was—the Lakota and the New York Indians!...I don’t know why. The usual excuses, I suppose. Territorial, spoke a different language.”
Three years later, he went to jail after chasing down some classmates who were attempting to flee on foot for their home in New York. “We heard about [their plans] and my friend Alvin Broken Rope and I went after them to try to talk them into returning to the school or wait for a bus ticket. It was silly to walk to New York.
“It took us four hours to convince them to come back to the school and we got back there and the sheriff was sitting there. The president wanted us thrown in jail to teach us a lesson...For what? We were doing right by the school, but they said, ‘You guys are the ringleaders.’ So Alvin and I went to jail. And at that time, they didn’t separate the adults and the juveniles. They all went in the cell block.
“There was a big cowboy [in jail] that used to get up every day early, and he would eat everyone’s breakfast. So Alvin and I took apart one of those mop buckets with the big rubber rollers. We took it all apart and we each had a rubber roller, and when he made his move towards the food, we attacked. We beat the shit out of this grown man, us being just teenagers with these rubber rollers.
“Then they said we could come back to the school if we cut our hair and apologized to the student body and the staff members. I said, ‘You can probably cut my hair, but you can’t get an apology out of me. I didn’t do anything wrong.’ So they weren’t sure what to do with me.”
He was sent to the Red Wing Boys’ Reformatory—the institution that would later inspire Bob Dylan’s “Walls of Red Wing”—and it was here that Northrup began to write.
“We had a journalism class and we had to put out the institution newspaper. We got to write the stories and photographs and the artwork and all that. So I constructed a quiz, The Common Sense Quiz: How high is the bluff behind the school? How deep is the Mississippi in front of the school? Who is the eldest teacher? Where is the tallest cedar? At the bottom of [the quiz], I put, ‘Answers on page nine.’ It was an eight-page newspaper.”
It was really crazy at times.
Once we got caught out in this big rice paddy.
Bad guys started shooting at us.
I was close to the front of the formation
so I got inside the tree line quick.
They couldn’t see me anymore.
When I leaned over to catch my breath
I heard this snick, snick, bang sound.
Someone firing a bolt action rifle
at the marines still out in the rice paddy.
I could tell where he was by the sound of his rifle.
Snick, snick, bang!
I fired a three round burst at the noise.
That asshole turned and fired at me.
Saw the muzzle flash, heard the bullet snap by.
I fired another three round burst and moved closer.
Then through an opening in the brush
I could see what looked like a pile of rags.
I went over and gave him one in the head to make sure.
We used to do that all the time.
One in the head to make sure.
When my 762 bullet hit it knocked his hat off.
All this hair came spilling out.
It was a woman.
She had hair like my grandma’s.
Although his tour of duty in Vietnam, part of a five-year stint in the Marines, is often the subject of his poetry, Northrup has little to say about the war. “Just patrolling and ambushes at night. There was no light. I was a rifleman. People shot at me and I shot at them. They missed.”
When he returned from the service, he became a deputy sheriff on the Fond du Lac Reservation—the first Indian on the force, to which his fellow officers did not take kindly. “I was walking back in the jail office to get a cup of coffee, and there was a couple deputies sitting back there. We all had to go to the police school in Duluth, and walking back I heard them say, ‘Yeah, they got to teach our bow-and-arrow how to write. They oughta show him what end of the pistol the bullet comes out of too.’
“So that gave me a little incentive. I came in first out of a class of 30-something, and driving back to the sheriff’s office, it was really quiet in the car. Nobody had a word to say about that. So I said, ‘Well, the fucking bow-and-arrow learned how to read and write pretty quick, eh, boys?’ And if it was possible, it got even quieter.
“When there was a fight on the Indian side of the Rez, drunken brawl or something, I’d go to break it up and I’d ask where my cover squad is. ‘Oh, your cover squad is in Esko. They’ll be there shortly’...[Another] time, I found a car parked behind a tavern down in Kettle River. I went in and discovered that the front door was open and this guy was up on the stage, sleeping on a little cot.
“There was two of them. I let the guy sleep, but I went and confronted the guy in the bathroom. ‘You’re under arrest for burglary.’ ‘No, let me tell you, we are guarding the presents for the wedding tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that makes sense, guarding the presents.’ Then I called up the owner of the place and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you these two were going to be guarding the place.’
“The next week, the chief stopped me and showed me a little letter that was in the newspaper, complimented the sheriff on his bravery, taking care of that problem. He was nowhere near it. He was 10 miles away...I thought, ‘These fuckers are going to get me killed.’”
“Hold up on that patrol,
We got a chopper coming in.”
Good, no reason to stand
So we all sat down.
The slapping sound of the rotor
blades told us a landing was near.
Two gunships went over
Looking for danger to the
Chopper they were escorting.
It landed, they walked in our direction.
Starched jungle utilities, spit-shined boots,
Shiny rank insignia
told us that these were rear echelon marines.
They surrounded a large green clad man.
“It’s John FuckingWayne,” one grunt said.
The Duke centered himself in
The circle of men, smiling, posing for pictures and
He was enjoying himself until
the Indian patrol leader
invited him for a walk with the grunts.
The Duke patted his ample belly and said
“Heh, heh, heh, I’ll leave that to you professionals.”
John FuckingWayne, who killed Indians by the dozens
with his movie six-shooter, refused.
The ranking officers looked
At the disrespectful marines.
Court martials and other
punishments filtered through
their rear echelon brains.
The grunts looked back with
whatcha gonna do? Cut my
hair and send me to Vietnam?
I’m already here, maybe for the rest of my life.
The Duke looked troubled
when he saw the killing
etched in the eyes of the young grunts,
more killing than he had seen
in a quarter century of movie killing.
The Duke gave some excuse about lung cancer
and was excused from the rest of the war.
Derisive laughter lifted the chopper away
from the young grunts.
“What a pussy, wouldn’t even
go on a little walk with us.”
After another law enforcement job in Waukegan, Illinios, Northrup moved back to Fond du Lac and returned to the two loves he’d discovered in reform school: Journalism and stirring things up.
“I was working for GLIFWC—Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission—as a reporter. Our reservation wanted to sell our treaty rights, or ‘lease them’ they called it, to the State of Minnesota, which meant that we were giving up the provision that said that we have the right to fish and hunt and gather in all the ceded territory, in all the land that we gave up [in exchange for the treaty rights].
“A group of us felt that the treaty rights were not ours to sell. They belong to the generations to come. So my boss at GLIFWC called me into the office one day and said, ‘Jim, we’ve got a problem here...You are supposed to write the news, not make it.’ I said, ‘No problem, I quit.’
“It was a hard time to find a job, but some things are more important. I got arrested for spearing [fish] in Mille Lacs. Mille Lacs [Band] was going to sell their treaty to the state. We thought that was wrong for them to do, because we also signed that treaty. We didn’t want the state to think that they bought all the rights. They were just dealing with one tribe, one band. So I was arrested...They confiscated my spear and my helmet...Eventually, the judge threw the case out.”
It’s 24 years old.
It’s been used a lot more than most.
It’s louder than a 747.
It’s multicolored and none of the tires are brothers.
I’m the 7th or 8th owner, I know I’ll be the last.
What’s wrong with it?
Well, the other day the steering wheel fell off.
The radio doesn’t work, but the heater does.
The seats have seen more asses than a proctologist.
I turn the key, it starts.
I push the brake, it stops.
What else is a car supposed to do?
Northrup continued to write, publishing Walking the Rez Road in 1993, Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers and Birch Bark Baskets in 1997, and Anishinaabe Syndicated, A View From The Rez in 2011. “I decided to call myself a storyteller. A little better, a little more prestige, but it still didn’t pay. So I became a freelance writer. At first it was more ‘free’ than ‘lance,’ but eventually I started getting money for my words.”
Whether it was being deprived of his language at boarding school or suffering various insults for his heritage all his life, Northrup remained fiercely committed to learning and teaching the Anishaabe language and the arts of ricing, making maple syrup, and weaving birch bark.
“That’s called nooshkaachinaagan, making a basket. It’s used for separating the hulls from the rice...It’s labor intensive. You have to go out in the woods and harvest the material and drag it home. The actual construction time is about 15 hours,” including intricate stitching on the edges.
Northrup is one of the founders of the Nagaajiwanaang Ojibwe Language Camp, which meets every summer in Fond du Lac, open to all comers. The idea was born over a botched game of Ojibwe Scrabble—no use for the F, L, Q, R, U, V, or X (Romanized Ojibwe doesn’t use them), but a shortage of Ws, Zs, and all the other vowels.
“So we decided to have a language camp. We had fundraisers, storytelling sessions, silent and live auctions. The annual cost was about $30,000 and we raised about $16,000. It was a full-time job.”
Now in its eighth year, the language camp held an “honor ceremony” for Northrup. He died two days later.
His one-year-old granddaughter is starting to talk now, her environment as rich in the sounds of Ojibwemowin as in the smell of burning sweetgrass. It’s a legacy that her grandfather worked all his life to ensure she would have.
Someone said we begin to die
the minute we’re born.
Death is a part of life.
Who knows why the Creator
thins the herd.
Another old saying says
we must all be prepared
to give up those we love or die first.
Take time to mourn.
Take time to remember.
Everything happens in cycles.
The pain you feel was once
balanced by someone’s joy
when that baby was born.
The loss you feel today
will be replaced by good
Is there a message here? Yea,
treat others like this
is your last day above ground.
~“End of the Beginning”