Columnist, poet, playwright and humorist Jim Northrup, Fond du Lac Ojibwe, will take on the role as an ambassador for Indian country next week during a speaking tour sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Hungary from February 10-14.
Many Hungarians already know Northrup’s work thanks to Hungarian poet Gabor G. Gyukics, who translated Northrup’s poetry into Hungarian for the book Nagy Kis-Madár (Big Little Bird). Gyukics, the catalyst for Northrup’s invitation to Hungary, has translated the works of several Native writers.
“I was told about Jim’s poetry by Carter Revard, an Osage poet, and another American poet, Chad Faries,” Gyukics said. “When I visited the States a few years ago, I wanted to meet Native American poets because I was and still am working on a contemporary North American Indigenous poetry anthology.”
“Gabor came to our house to learn about the Anishinaabe,” Northrup said about the visit. “It was sugarbush, and so we put him to work right away. We had to tell him it was safe to drink the sap out of the tree.”
At the Northrups’ Sawyer, Minnesota, home “we’ve had visitors from all the Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway—and Scotland, England, Macedonia, Japan, China, New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Germany, Italy, France … and Red Lake,” said Northrup, ending with a typical tease referring to the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.
In Hungary, Northrup will speak and read from his memoirs and poetry.
“We are organizing readings at literature-affiliated venues, but also try to focus on American studies departments of universities and even high schools,” Monika Vali, a cultural specialist with the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, wrote to Northrup.
One stop is at a cultural institute, Laffert Kuria in Dunaharaszti, known for its collection of “Native Indian replica” items. Northrup will bring actual cultural items, including birchbark baskets he makes and some locally harvested manoomin (wild rice).
“Jim can tell the Hungarians many things about Indians in the past and present,” Gyukics said. “Hungarians—me, too—were brought up by reading the works of J.F. Cooper and Karl May. We also had many picture books and albums of Indians. Hungarians feel a close tie to Indians and are very sympathetic to their cause.”
For Hungarians, added to the works of American writer James Fenimore Cooper and German writer Karl May, would be interpretations of Hungarian scholar Ervin (Goffesmann) Baktay, who studied and wrote about India and its culture, but who also was fascinated by the American West. Baktay organized the first “Hungary Indian Tribe” in 1931 and became its “chief” as “Reposing Buffalo.”
“These tribes still exist, though on a moderate level,” according to Gyukics. “So Jim can satisfy our interest in Indian culture and life and religion further and surely he will help us to understand Indians better.”
Northrup, a former U.S. Marine, treats queries about Native culture in whatever spirit the questions are asked. Many non-Native people, especially in Europe, are curious about Indians, but have ideas formed from mythos rather than reality.
“I’ll have to go to dispel the image of American Indians from Hollywood, the Karl May stories from Germany,” said Northrup, adding that those from foreign countries aren’t the only ones misinformed. “Oddly, I met a U.S. representative from Ohio who said, ‘You’re really Indian? I thought we killed you all off.’”
Northrup, who served in Vietnam, hopes to have time to meet with the U.S. Marines at the embassy in Budapest.
While Hungarians learn about the Anishinaabe people from Northrup, he plans to learn more about their country. “I remember the Hungarian movement in 1956, when the Russian tanks came in.” That revolt against Soviet Union domination ended with 2,500 Hungarian people killed and more than 200,000 refugees—an experience of displacement with which Northrup can empathize from Native history in the United States and Canada.
One thing Northrup isn’t sure of yet is how Indian humor might translate into Hungarian, but he has a few zingers at the ready:
“When do the Indians know it’s safe to go out on the ice? When the white men stop falling through.”
“Why is the United States interested in exploring on Mars? They think Indians have land up there.”
He’ll have to report back on how those jokes play in Budapest.