Future unknown, Ojibwe writer Jim Northrup recalls life well-lived

Jim Northrup outside his home in Sawyer.
Now 73 and facing grave illness, Jim Northrup says traditional Ojibwe beliefs and practices combined with a sense of humor help him and his family.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Jim Northrup isn't feeling great. In fact, he's very sick. But he's not worried. He knows where he's headed.

As he contemplates the end of his life, the Ojibwe writer, poet, performer, and basket maker is finding peace and satisfaction in the traditional life he's led.

Recently he sat in a chair outside his home on the Fond du Lac Reservation south of Cloquet, Minn. As is his custom, he introduced himself in Ojibwe.

"I said 'Hello my relatives. I only speak a little Ojibwe, but I'll try speaking Ojibwe,'" he translated. "My name is Jim Northrup in the English language. I am called Chibenashi in Ojibwe. My clan is Bear. I am from the Fond du Lac Reservation and I live in the village of Sawyer.'"

He grew up speaking Ojibwe, but his teachers put an end to that when he went to one of the infamous Indian boarding schools. Northrup is 73 now. He uses Ojibwe as much as he can.

Jim Northup drinks coffee and chats with friends.
Jim Northup drinks coffee and chats with from left to right, his wife Pat, neighbor Sarah Agaton Howes, and old friend and Marine Corps buddy Ted Charles, who was visiting from New Mexico on April 20.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"Because I'm dreaming in it," he said. "I've got an 8-month year-old great-granddaughter, and I speak to her all the time in the language. Because I want her to get familiar with the sounds of it, so when it comes time for her to speak, she'll be ready."

Northrup moves slower than he used to, and occasionally pauses to catch his breath.

"I have cancer of the lung, and I have lymph nodes," he said. "And my nose, I had a polyp in my nose that turned out to be cancer, And I go in for radiation on the spot that's in my brain. We must thank Uncle Sam for Agent Orange, because I think that's where it's from."

Northrup served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. A lot of his poetry focuses on that time. He also chronicled modern Native American life in his pointedly humorous syndicated column Fond du Lac Follies.

Humor is helping him now. He's been composing inscriptions for his tombstone.

"Here's one deadline I didn't miss," he chuckles. "And I think I read this in a cartoon somewhere, 'See! I told you it wasn't the flu!'"

He paused and got a little more serious. "Gone to feed the trees and grass."

Northrup and his wife Pat live a traditional life on the Fond du Lac Reservation, gathering the bounty of nature through the circle of the seasons. They're known for their birch bark wild rice baskets.

The bark is gathered during the late spring when a skilled collector with a knife can pop whole sheets off a tree, without harming it. Inside the house singed baskets hang on the wall, bearing the smoke smudges from when they were used to parch rice gathered in the fall.

Pat Northrup shares a laugh with her husband.
Pat Northrup shares a laugh with her husband and their neighbors outside her home in Sawyer on April 20. She and Jim Northrup have been together for almost four decades.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Friends come a long way to learn what the Northrups have to teach.

An old friend, Ted Charles, also introduced himself, but he did it in Navajo. He came from his home in New Mexico to check in on his ailing friend.

"I knew Jim since 1961-62, when we were in the Marine Corps, and we spent some times together," he said. "We were in Cuba together, plus some other choice spots, like Hong Kong." He began to laugh, as does Northrup. "Yeah, we'll talk about that later."

Somehow the talk never returned to stories of Hong Kong. Charles did explain about how he makes traditional hunting bows from hickory and deer sinew. He gets some of his supplies on these trips north. He also gets knowhow.

"Every time I come up here Jim's always teaching me something," he said. "We went out to the ditch-banks the other day and we collected some kinnikinnick," peeled bark from medicinal plants such as sumac, mixes well with tobacco or can be smoked on its own. "We don't have that down in New Mexico either."

Pat and Jim Northrup have been together 37 years.

Shaved kinnikinnick from sumac bark.
Shaved kinnikinnick from sumac bark.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"A few months ago he said, 'Pat I am going to give you a year,'" she said. "And I said 'good. OK.' And then not too long ago he says 'Pat! I'm going to give you a year.' I said 'Jim, you said that six months ago!' And he said 'OK, I'll give you another year!'"

They say they argue a lot. Jim claims often when he says one thing, she'll say the opposite. It can get heated, Pat said as she delivered Jim a fresh cup of coffee and joined the conversation. But she recently put it to him what with him being ill, a lot of it is unimportant.

"If we have our disagreements can we just say 'Let's start over?'' she said she asked him. "And he said, 'Yeah we can do that.' And so we've had 'let's start over' maybe just a handful of time these last few months."

This prompts another tale. Jim recounted how they were out driving near Cloquet.

"And a black dog ran across the highway," he laughed. "And I said 'Black!' And she said 'White!' And then a white dog ran across the highway!'" They both chuckled at the memory.

"And it was just a reminder," Northrup continued, "If you are going to argue, argue about something important."

They are focusing on teaching traditional crafts. It's harder for them both to get out into the woods nowadays, but that's not stopping them. Family and friends harvested birch bark for them this year so they can make baskets. They started that after finishing up the annual task of tapping their maple trees and boiling down the sweet sap for syrup.

"People always ask me, 'how much did you get?'" Northrup said. "And I say 'I got enough for an Anishinaabeg, not enough for a Gichi-mookomaan. I got enough for us, but not for a white guy."

When asked if he is insinuating something, his face split into a grin. ''Yes! Yes, I am!"

Northrop spots a neighbor and calls out to her in Ojibwe. "Sarah! Ambe omaa!"

"It means 'Come here!'" he explained.

A chalked greeting in the Ojibwe language.
A chalked greeting in the Ojibwe language welcomes visitors to Jim and Pat Northrup's home.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Sarah Agaton Howes has lived across the street from the Northrups for several years.

"Jim and Pat are like the patriarch and matriarch of this community," she said as she joined the group in the growing circle of lawn chairs.

Agaton Howes says after much encouragement from the Northrups her family tapped their own maple trees this spring.

"They borrowed us their kettle, and we did sugar bush for the first time!" she said. "And we burned sap and I'd text Pat and she'd come over and I'd figure out what I did wrong with my sap. So I figure this is the best place to live in Sawyer, right here."

This causes a glint in Jim Northrup's eyes, and an amused lifting of the edge of his mouth. Many things amuse him. He liked one newspaper article he read which had him standing on death's doorstep. Could be, he says. Or maybe not. He's not feeling sorry for himself.

"It's just one of the many things you can die from," he said. "Traffic accidents that are killing thousands every year. Cancer is just another one of those things that are, to quote myself in a poem, I said 'thinning the herd.'"

Another joke, balanced with a world view that leaves him at peace.

He's confident of the next journey.

"I know where I am going. I'm going to, as the Ojibwe call it, in the language, the land of everlasting happiness."

There's nothing to be afraid of, he said. "It's just a different world. I'm changing addresses," he said.

And Jim Northrup breathed deep of the pine scented air and smiled again.