Ojibwe columnist Jim Northrup looks back on career 'Follies'

Jim Northrup
Writer Jim Northrup has commented on reservation life, and beyond for almost 22 years in his syndicated column "Fond du Lac Follies."
Image courtesy Ivy Vainio

For almost 22 years, Ojibwe writer Jim Northrup has entertained and chastened readers of his syndicated Fond Du Lacs Follies newspaper column. Now, a new collection of the Follies is about to hit the bookstores.

Northrup covered everything from the rise of casinos and treaty rights, to his love of tapping trees for syrup, and harvesting wild rice. And he always included a lot of jokes.

"Asked at a restaurant: do you have a reservation?" he intoned recently.

"Yes! Fond du Lac!" he answered to his own question.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press is publishing a collection of Northup's columns.

Northrup sits at his kitchen table, whittling with a large clasp-knife.

"I'm carving sugar bush taps," he said.

He uses maple branches about 1.5 inches in diameter, cut to about 4 inches long. He'll pound each one into a hole drilled in a maple tree.

"We tap about 170, 200, taps a year," he said, adding that while it sounds like a lot of work, it's actually not. "Lot of time spent sitting around the fire."

"What I like about this life is: once I asked my boss if I could have two weeks off to go to Norway, and I said yes."

Boiling the sap and telling stories, something that's important to Northrup. It's a way to explore his love of language.

"I grew up speaking Ojibwe, until I was age 6," he said. "And then I went to a Federal boarding school called Pipestone in southern Minnesota. And then as I like to say, I had Ojibwe pounded out and English pounded in.

"And it must have been a pretty good pounding because I make my living at it today, stringing words together, standing them up and saying, 'Wait right here and I'll be right back. I'll go get another word and stand it up next to you.' That's the process sometimes," he said.

Over the years, Northrup has stood many words up next to each other. "Anishinaabe Syndicated: a view from the Rez" is a distillation of his Fond du Lac Follies columns from 1989 to 2001. They were turbulent years and Northrup doesn't pull his punches.

"I guess it's the result of being in the military and seeing some pretty terrible things in Vietnam," he said. "There's no more shading on the truth. Just got to tell it like it is."

He admits he came back damaged from Vietnam.

"I've had PTSD before it had a name," he said. "First when I heard about it, I thought it meant 'party till someone dies.'"

Pieces of maple drilled through the center await Jim Northup's knife as he makes taps for his spring trip to the sugarbush.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Veterans issues come up a lot in the Fond du Lac Follies, as do his concerns about tribal management, and reservation politics. He said despite his bluntness, he's received few complaints about his column. Although there was that one joke that caused a fuss.

"Why do Indian men make better lovers?" he asked. "A lot of them don't have to get up and go to work in the morning."

"I got a little heat for that one," he said. "I got a letter and a petition from some of my fellow Fond du Lac-ers, apparently the ones with jobs, because they felt I was contributing to a negative stereotype."

Northrup dealt with it this way: he promised in his column never to write another joke like that. He did, however, repeat the joke. In three separate columns.

He wrote at length about the treaty rights protests in the early 1990s. He was one of the tribal members who went out spearing as angry crowds gathered on the boat landings.

"It's kind of hairy to ride along in a canoe, being the only source of light on the lake and hearing gunshots," he said.

Northrup no longer spears. He said since the Supreme Court upheld the 1852 treaty guaranteeing Ojibwe hunting and fishing rights, they can spear fish freely. He said without having to go creeping around in the woods anymore, it's just not as much fun.

In conversation, as in his writing, Northup often starts in one direction and ends up arriving someplace else. The journey is as interesting as the destination. Looking out his window he points to the houses where several of his siblings and children live. He likes that. He happily lives in the digital world, while doing things like tapping maple trees.

"The seasons dictate my activities, so I don't have to make too many long-term plans," he said. "The seasons do it for me. What I like about this life is: once I asked my boss if I could have two weeks off to go to Norway, and I said yes."

In a few weeks Northrup will travel the state to talk about his book, but in the meantime there are trees waiting to be tapped.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.