That voice, well it says it all. Deep, warm, friendly, like family, like someone you know, someone you know real well. Like riding along in the warm sun spinning tales from back in the day, whether you’re on horses or in a pick-up truck, suddenly the terrain changes and the journey becomes rough-and-tumble. The voice alters slightly, deeper, quieter, a little rumble in the timbre, now we’re going on a ride, it’s okay brother, we been down this road before.
As this country celebrates National Poetry Month, perhaps all those folks who have never heard of Jim Northrup will get to hear that voice and be amazed at the warmth, love and respect that all the rest of us hold for this man. They will hear the word warrior (ogichida in Ojibwe) because of his U.S. Marine service in Vietnam, but it is the man, the jokester, the storyteller, the grandfather, the elder, who we will be sharing stories about. His words and poems have been used more and more to soothe his fellow veterans, some still suffering from pain and trauma, even though their war ended many years ago.
That war has taken its toll on Jim Northrup. He is in the last stages of kidney cancer, he thinks caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam. It has spread in the body, and he’s getting ready for his last trip. Or is it starting a new journey? He’s wide open to the possibilities, and he’s leaving his mark on this earthly plane, going over possible epitaphs for his own tombstone. His humor is essential—to his family, to his community and to us on the outside around Indian country. That ever-present humor will help assuage some of the grief for the upcoming passage. It is time for us to go over that life so we can tell the stories to the next generation and maybe to those still lost and hurting out there, somewhere.
“I used to be known as a bullshitter, but that didn’t pay anything. I began calling myself a storyteller—a little better, more prestige—but it still didn’t pay anything. I became a freelance writer. At first it was more free than lance, then I started getting money for my words.” —Jim Northrup, from Rez Road Follies (University of Minnesota Press, 1997)
Northrup has won numerous awards and accolades for his syndicated columns, prose, poetry, films and radio shows, and probably should’ve won more, as if it really mattered to him. But I think what does matter is that this country get to hear the stories of his war buddies, his Anishinaabe community and family. This country still needs to hear, to actually listen to what an honest Native American experience was and is and probably will be for some time. Until the lights come on in their collective heads. Or maybe the lights, and the power, will go off all around them due to their idiocy, arrogance, blindness and hubris. When that happens, Jim’s family will be around the fire parching rice or boiling down maple sap and laughing like hell telling jokes that Jim spun about that very time.
Jim has received recognition from local grassroots and professional organizations both native and non-native, and that’s a great legacy to teach young Natives coming up as a demonstration of what’s really important. These days we all want to have an impact on the greater social media, the national community, society itself. But without being grounded in culture, in the land, and with some of the language, then all you will do is fly away with your big head. Right now, Jim is telling us to take it easy; he will be. The emotions will come from friends and associates, the stories will be told, books will be bought and shared, radio programs listened to, films watched, and characters Luke Warmwater and Ben Looking Back will re-tell their tales.
Most of us got the word from a wonderful article written in the Duluth News Tribune by Jana Hollingsworth on April 3. Again a tribute, because it was a regional paper recognizing one of their own who brought the world’s attention to the North Country. In the article, Jim tells a story of a dream, a vision he had as he was once in the hospital, “when I was probably circling the drain.” 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.”
Honor this man by reading, laughing, listening, watching, sharing, telling stories and using your voice that Creator gave you. Because you never know when Creator will want to bring you back to hear your stories about all the wonderful adventures you had walking this Creation that was laid out for us to enjoy.