Vietnam vet Jim Northrup, noted Native American author, approaches death with humor
By JANA HOLLINGSWORTH | Duluth News Tribune | Published: April 3, 2016
SAWYER, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — To prepare his family for his death, Jim Northrup has made a list of potential tombstone epitaphs.
They include: “Here’s one deadline I didn’t miss” and “Hey, I can see up your dress from here.”
Those who know the award-winning author of short stories, poetry, plays and newspaper columns wouldn’t be surprised that he’s facing death with his signature dry humor.
“There is nothing so serious you can’t make a joke about it,” said Northrup, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “And making a joke about it makes it easier for survivors.”
Northrup, 72, has kidney cancer. It’s moved to his lungs, lymph nodes and brain. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he assumes he is succumbing to the effects of exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide the U.S. military used during the war to remove trees and other foliage that provided enemy cover.
“At first I couldn’t laugh about it,” said Pat Northrup, Jim’s wife of nearly 30 years. “Then I couldn’t keep crying.”
One day she sat outside thinking about her grandmother.
“She once told me, ‘accept death like you accept life,’ ” she said. “It made sense.”
These days, Jim is about minobimaadiziwin: living the good life. And he says he’s already seen what’s waiting for him when he dies, when he completes his four-day journey to a western land where many Anishinaabe believe they go when they die.
Twice in the hospital, “when I was probably circling the drain,” he said, he found himself in a canoe, paddling. He heard voices, laughter and song coming from the shore. He began paddling toward them, he said, hoping to share a story or two of his own. Somebody saw him, and in Ojibwe, told him to leave, that it wasn’t his turn.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” he said, in response to a question about Anishinaabe beliefs regarding death. “I am going to have a great time over there.”
Northrup served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. His experiences as a grunt in the war and dealing with the aftermath at home became a major focus of his writing. His darkly humorous poem “Shrinking Away” deals with coming home and trying unsuccessfully to get professional counseling. “Grandma’s Hair” is about an episode of combat in which he discovered an enemy soldier he was exchanging gunfire with was, in fact, a woman. It’s a discovery he made after moving closer and shooting the soldier one last time to make sure the person was dead. The shot made her hair tumble out from her hat; hair that looked like his grandmother’s.
He was asked to recite some of his work at LZ Lambeau, a 2010 gathering of Wisconsin Vietnam veterans and their family members totaling 70,000 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. When he was done, he was given a standing ovation.
Northrup said he was honored to be asked.
“I knew my poetry was being used in vets’ groups to help people open up (and) maybe even write their own poetry as part of their healing,” he said. “It worked for me, so I hoped it helped (others).”
As a child, Northrup was made to go to a boarding school — one of the federal assimilation schools where Native Americans were forbidden to speak their native language and practice their traditional beliefs. At the Pipestone (Minn.) Indian School, he recalled, he was beaten by both adults and other children and experienced severe homesickness — once attempting to walk home, making it nine miles before he was found.
His work describes that experience, along with the changes on the reservation that resulted from the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, after which enormous poverty transitioned to financial stability for the band. Northrup writes about racism and politics. He has weighed in on local mining and tribal issues and treaty rights with sharp and honest commentary.
“He has really been an articulate witness for incredible and continual change,” said Margaret Noodin, Northrup’s longtime editor, an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education.
Northrup is a modern Native American storyteller, she said.
“It wasn’t always from the standpoint of recovery or a victim of colonization,” Noodin said, describing his work. “He’s really good at saying ‘and these are the ways we live our lives right now.’ Of Anishinaabe literature, you’ve got some major voices, and he’s definitely one.”
Despite what happened to him in boarding school, he didn’t fear or avoid the educational system unlike so many others, who had very good reason to, Noodin said.
“What I always saw in Jim’s house was constant encouragement to educate oneself and to engage with education,” she said.
He graduated from Carlton High School in 1961 and has been told he was the first Native American to graduate from the school. An honorary doctorate of letters degree from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College hangs in his home.
“Jim’s gift of humor has always connected him to the people of the Fond du Lac Band,” said Larry Anderson, president of the Fond du Lac college and a member of the band. “Jim was born to be an ogichida (warrior) and has faced tremendous evils in Vietnam, and many hardships in his life. … He is extremely intelligent, a man of wisdom, and has always been able to translate his Ojibwe knowledge, his Ojibwe heart and soul, to us who need his good words.”
Northrup, whose Ojibwe name is Chibenesi, or large bird, is an ardent keeper of Anishinaabe tradition. He and his wife started a summer Ojibwe language camp on the reservation. They make birch bark winnowing baskets, partake in the yearly sugarbush to make maple syrup and harvest wild rice on the reservation’s lakes. Northrup has been a student of the Ojibwe language for nearly two decades.
“It seemed to me I always had a void in my life because I wasn’t fluent,” he said. “There was a hole in my heart because I couldn’t understand; I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in Ojibwe. … When we came back from boarding school we tried to use the language. The older people said ‘eh, you sound like a white man.’ ”
He’s teaching his 7-month-old great-granddaughter Ojibwe words.
“I want her to be familiar with the sounds of it,” he said. “There are sounds not heard in English. She knows ‘gawain.’ Don’t do that.”
Northrup is a mentor to many who admire his use of Ojibwe in his writing, said Heid Erdrich, a well-known author and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
And his work illustrates how Native Americans are part of the larger picture of America, she said.
“You always feel like the characters and point of view in Jim’s poems are not trying to make Ojibwe people anything special, but at the same time worthy of existing on this earth, having a right to exist on this earth and wanting to hold our way of life and the beauty of that,” Erdrich said. “He gives a sense of what it means to be in a place and love it and live in it, good and bad.”
He also acts as an ambassador, inviting people into his home and his experiences, making lifelong friendships with everyone from neighbors to professors to visitors from other countries, she said, and “there are not many people like that.”
Northrup doesn’t worry about the Anishinaabe traditions he practices dying with him. Two of his sons, who live near him on Northrup Road in Sawyer, come over with their families to gather around the fire when rice is being parched or sap is being boiled.
“They sit and listen to the stories that everybody tells,” he said. “We have time for everybody to tell their own story. I’m not worried. Whatever I am doing, it’ll go on.”
At 72, Northrup says he feels like he’s lived a long life, considering that the past life expectancy of Native Americans was decades lower. But his grandfather lived to be 105, he said.
He’s working on a new collection of short stories, focusing on his longtime character Luke Warmwater. He and his family are in the midst of this year’s sugarbush, which Northrup has juggled with his doctor appointments.
The way he’s handled his illness, Noodin said, has shown many people “how to look death in the eye.”
In a community with “extraordinarily high” suicide rates, that’s important, she said. It’s important “for young people to see getting old isn’t pretty and isn’t easy. But there you sit, holding your grandkids. There you sit, telling your stories. And that kind of strength isn’t to be underestimated.”
Every morning, Northrup goes outside to his yard, overlooking forested land. In Ojibwe, he recites a prayer:
“Thank you for the morning, thank you for the day. Give me a good life today. As the sun comes peeking through the trees, help me help my Anishinaabe people. Help me live a good life. Take care of my wife, my children, my grandchildren and all soldiers. Help me with my health.”
He motions to the spirits in the east, south, west and north, and makes an offering of tobacco.
“No matter what happens during the day, I am prepared,” he said of the prayer. “If I die today, I am ready. If I die a year from now, I am ready.”
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