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Jim Northrup is a Native American novelist and newspaper columnist whose work offers political commentary on modern American Indian life in an accessible, folksy style. His syndicated column, Fond du Lac Follies chronicles Northrup’s life on a reservation in northern Minnesota. Northrup is best known for his books Walking the Rez Road (1993) and Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers, and Birch Bark Baskets (1997), which has been adapted to the stage and performed in theaters across America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
American Indian Heritage and the Vietnam War
Native American (Anishinaabe) writer Jim Northrup was born in a government hospital in northern Minnesota’s Fond du Lac Indian Reservation in 1943. At the age of six he was separated from his family and sent to a federal boarding school, one which he would later describe in his autobiography, Walking the Rez Road, as a harrowing place where he was often physically and mentally abused. Northrup was sent to a Christian boarding school in North Dakota for his secondary education.
After graduating from high school, he joined the United states Marine Corps, in which he served in the Vietnam War. During this highly controversial conflict, Northrup became active in the American civil rights movement. During the 1960s and 70s, civil-rights activists organized rallies and protests aimed at achieving racial equality. Hoping to obtain improved conditions on Indian reservations and such federally funded boarding schools as the one he attended as a boy, Northrup supported political initiatives that espoused equal rights and desegregation. After the end of the Vietnam War, he also actively supported rights for veterans. Northrup’s brother, who also fought in Vietnam, suffered a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder, and frequently was an inspiration for Northrup’s poetry and politics.
Stories and Poems from Fond du Lac
In the 1980s Northrup began expressing his political convictions through poetry and performance. In addition, Northrup started writing the column Fond du Lac Follies, which presented humorous anecdotes of reservation life with political undertones and commentary on the relationship of the United states government to Native American tribes. The column achieved widespread success and was awarded the prize for ”Best Column” in 1999 by the Native American Press Association. In addition, Northrup published Three More: Poems (1992) and Days of Obsidian, Days of Grace (1994).
These secured his reputation as a vital voice in American Indian literature. Northrup achieved his greatest success, however, with his two story collections, Walking the Rez Road (1993) and Rez Road Follies: Canoes, Casinos, Computers, and Birch Bark Baskets (1997). Readers and reviewers appreciated Northrup’s candor and humor. Northrup subsequently adapted the stories from his memoirs to public-performance pieces.
Northrup continues to work as a writer, columnist, and activist, and is frequently anthologized in collections of Native American writing. In addition he volunteers as a mentor to students, promotes creative writing in schools, and is often sought as a public speaker. In 1997 Northrup was featured in a film directed by Mike Riven entitled Jim Northrup: With Reservations. In this film, Northrup leaves his home in northern Minnesota, travels across the United States, and visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Northrup’s regular column, the Fond du Lac Follies, continues to be syndicated in several Native American papers, including The Circle, The Native American Press, and News From Indian Country.
Works in Literary Context
As critic Roseanne Hoefal has commented, Jim Northrup’s work is ”about survivors of oppression, trying to outlive the circumstances to which they’ve been sentenced and attempting to withstand acculturation, or alcoholism, or the struggle to obliterate someone else’s oppression yet furthering their own in the process.” Northrup tends to depict characters that have suffered through hardships such as war, poverty, and discrimination. Often, these characters persevere through the use of humor. Writer Gerald Vizenor states that ”the wild and wondrous characters in [Northrup’s] stories are survivors in the best trickster humor, no one is a passive victim.”
Life on American Indian Reservations
Northrup’s stories and poems capture, often humorously, the daily life of American Indians living on reservations. Indeed, reservation culture is a key recurring focus of Northrup’s work. In his introduction to Touchwood, a 1987 collection of Anishinaabe prose, Vizenor notes that Northrup’s ”direct and humorous stories are inspired by the rich language that people speak on the reservation” Throughout his works, Northrup focuses on traditional Anishinaabe rites and traditions, the importance of developing a relationship with the natural world, and a recognition of the cyclical nature of life. Also, he often cites the storytelling tradition of Native Americans tribes as one of their most important assets, and one that can be used to heal wounds and reaffirm faith.
The Vietnam War
In his poetry and prose, Northrup develops his most important themes—those of survival and rehabilitation—around his experience in the Vietnam War. His writing laments the trauma experienced by Vietnam veterans, and often portrays the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder, which afflicted a large number of those returning from the conflict. The poem ”Wahbegan,” for example, is a eulogy to Northrup’s brother, who ”died in the war / but didn’t fall down / for fifteen tortured years.” These lines express how Northrup’s brother, while not killed in the line of duty, was led by his misery and stress to commit suicide years later. ”How about a memorial,” the speaker asks, ”for those who made it / through the war / but still died / before their time?”
Works in Critical Context
Though he is also recognized for his poetry and journalism, Jim Northrup has received most of his critical attention for his collection Walking the Rez Road.
Walking the Rez Road
Walking the Rez Road is a collection of twenty-one poems and twenty-one stories whose subjects include the Vietnam war, Anishinaabe culture and history, and contemporary reservation life. The book received high praise upon its publication, and continues to be considered one of the most significant works produced by an Anishinaabe writer.
In Studies in American Indian Literatures,reviewer Roseanne Hoefal writes that ”Northrup employs everyday language and rejects conventional euphemisms in ways that allow the reader to bear witness to crucial moments.”
She goes on to comment that ”Northrup is generous to walk readers through not only the minefields he and the Anishinaabe have already negotiated and continue to negotiate, but also through the veritable gold mine of riches they inhabit.” In particular, reviewers praised Northrup’s frank style and abundant humor. A reviewer in the Denver Post, for example, remarked that ”it’s nice to have an authentic, nonfiction voice telling it like it is.”
- Coltelli, Laura, ed. Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
- Danziger, Edmund. The Chippewas of Lake Superior. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
- Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
- Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Touchwood: A Collection of Ojibway Prose. Minneapolis: New Rivers, 1987.
- –. Crossbloods: Bone Courts, Bingo, and Other Reports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
- Hoeful, Roseanne. Walking with Jim Northrup and Sharing His “Rezervations. Studies in American Indian Literatures 9, no. 2 (Summer 1997), pp. 11-21.
- LaLonde, Chris. Stories, Humor, and Survival in Jim Northrup’s Walking the Rez Road. Studies in American Indian Literatures 9, no. 2 (Summer 1997), pp. 23-40.
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