Ojibwe Poet Jim Northrup: The Voice of a Generation

Minnesota Public Radio via AP/Euan Kerr /This April 20, 2016 photo shows Jim Northrup outside his home in Sawyer, Minnesota. Ojibwe author, poet and playwright Jim Northrup walked on August 1 of complications from kidney cancer. He was 73.

We knew the time was coming. We knew it was very close, the way you can smell the next gentle rain in the air.

Jim Northrup told us so, and now we gather up our voices and push our collective breath guiding him across the lake to his ancestors. Miigwech for all you have given us brother. His Anishinaabe name is Chibenashi, he is Bear Clan, although he was moving slower and sometimes had to catch his breath, he was always quick with his famous humor. “We must thank Uncle Sam for Agent Orange, because I think that’s where this cancer came from.”

The Duluth News Tribune announced Jim’s passing on Monday, August 1, the night his family said he passed due to complications of the kidney cancer that had spread in his body. The family announced details about farewell ceremonies. His wake will be held on Thursday, August 4 at 7 p.m. at the Sawyer Community Center. His funeral will be held Friday, August 5 at 10 a.m. at the Sawyer Community Center. A traditional fire has been lit at his residence and all are invited to stop by and pay their respects at any time. The address is 1244 Northrup Road, in Cloquet, Minnesota.

Back in April Jim told us that he was preparing for his journey in an astounding manner that most of us are not used to. We tend to not discuss death, certainly not our own. But our ancestors knew that death is part of life, that all of life and each and every one of us, are all spirit. Jim has reminded us all, in a simple and humble way, how we should conduct ourselves and how we should represent our lineage. The beginning of life at birth gives us joy and the end of life brings grief and sadness. We can cry when overcome with happiness and emotion and laugh at the end recalling fond memories and deep friendships. We should treat each day and night the same way—be happy to be here, break some bread with friends, then tell stories into the night and watch for falling stars.

Larry Anderson, president of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and a tribal member, told the Duluth News Tribune in April. “Jim’s gift of humor has always connected him to the people of the Fond du Lac Band. Jim was born to be an ogichida (warrior) and has faced tremendous evils in Vietnam, and many hardships in his life. He is extremely intelligent, a man of wisdom, and has always been able to translate his Ojibwe knowledge, his Ojibwe heart and soul, to us who need his good words.”

Ann Regan, press editor at Minnesota Historical Society Press, told ICTMN: “Jim’s voice is unmistakable, and it will last forever in his books. He writes about traditions and current events, all at once, because that’s how he lived: the-past-in-the-present-for-the-future. Plus, he’s funny—bitingly sarcastic, or gently teasing, always surprising. In ‘Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View from the Rez,’ by merely reporting what was going on around him, he captures an amazing view of the changes in Indian country of the 1990s brought by casino gambling and the continuing push for sovereignty. His books will continue to introduce people to that time, and to him, for years to come. I loved working with him.”

“Jim Northrup took a serious interest in the work of other Ojibwe poets,” Denise Sweet, an Ojibwe poet, told ICTMN. “He would reach out to me on occasion to see if I was okay, but mostly to see if I was still writing. No one has made me prouder to be an Ojibwe poet than Jim. He and his wife Pat hosted an Ojibwe language camp every summer, and he would always begin his readings with words in Ojibwemowin. Each time, that self-introduction would get a little longer. I am comforted by the fact that Jim will soon be with our friend, Walt Bresette; they will drink coffee, laugh and tell stories deep into the night, while the rest of us take comfort in all the lasting memories they gave to this world.”

Barney Bush, a Shawnee poet, shared his thoughts with ICTMN: “You would think that with all the wars and deaths on the streets, jails, prisons and murders, that I would have a stronger grip on myself when someone passes on. Jim was one of those ‘real’ poets, in my estimation… What a good guy, and not to have been around him in the last few years, I suddenly miss him… and wish I would have listened better. What do we say when a warrior like this goes on?”

“In the wake of Jim Northrup passing to another world we see in this world ripples that are wide,” Margaret Ann Noodin, long-time collaborator, writer, and editor, told ICTMN. “He questioned everything, found or invented many answers and was able to listen to the busyness of living in a way not many can. He never liked over-used English adjectives but, gii maamakaadendagozi (he was amazing).”

Adrian C. Louis, Paiute poet, said this about Jim on Tuesday: “The main enemies of a warrior are the demons inside himself. Jim Northrup conquered most of those. He was a kind man, a good man, a traditional man, and my favorite Indian writer.”

Jim spoke for veterans, for the wounded and the scarred. His healing helped their healing. He spoke of generations not just his own and his extended family is evidence of tradition, perseverance and unconditional love. To get a wonderful sense of Jim and his family, you can read or listen to this interview on MPR News.

Our condolences to Pat and to Jim’s family, we know you will carry out the family traditions, making baskets, working in the sugarbush, gathering wild rice, burning sweetgrass and telling stories. We will miss Jim Northrup, but we will always have his voice, in the thunder, from inside the earth, in the rushing water, in the crackling fire. Let nothing hinder your path back to the Creator. Travel well, brother.

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