Jim Northrup, an Ojibwe storyteller whose books, plays and poems were widely published and produced, died of complications of cancer Monday night. He was 73.
Northrup embraced his Anishinaabe language and heritage and helped non-Indians understand it through his plays, including a one-man show, “Rez Road 2000,” produced in 2000 at the Great American History Theatre in St. Paul, and his books, including “Walking the Rez Road,” “Rez Road Follies,” “Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View from the Rez,” “Dirty Copper” and “Rez Salute: the Real Healer Dealer.”
His books and plays contained sometimes ribald stories from his life and from Indian lore, including ones about shape-shifters such as the legendary half-man, half-god creature variously called Wenaboozhoo and Nanabush.
Northrup had been ill with kidney cancer, which he attributed to exposure to Agent Orange during his time in-country in the Vietnam War. He was born on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Sawyer, Minn., south of Cloquet, and considered it his home until his death.
He often greeted visitors in Ojibwe and with his Ojibwe name, “Chibenashi.”
The second of 11 children, he spent his first years shuttling between relatives on the reservation. There were no movies or television on the reservation in those years, the late 1940s, he told the Star Tribune in 2000, “so storytelling was the main entertainment of our lives.”
Then, like many Indian children of his generation, Northrup was ripped from his family at age 6 and sent to a federal boarding school in Pipestone, Minn. There, speaking in Ojibwe was forbidden; the goal was for the children to become “white.”
Northrup joined the Marine Corps at age 18 and traveled the world, including a stint in the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis and later, an eight-month tour in Vietnam, where he saw unspeakable horrors.
“I was glad to return to the world — what we called the United States then,” he said.
After the war, he worked variously as a policeman and sheriff in Waukegan, Ill., and Racine, Wis., before eventually deciding finally to go home.
“I got tired of walking in the sewer of humanity, and so I packed up everything and moved to the reservation,” he said.
But there were no jobs there in that pre-casino era. He solved his housing problem by buying a 22-foot tepee and improvising. He became a full-fledged storyteller, entertaining those who came to his home with humorous stories pulled from legend and his own imagination.
His first published work was an in anthology of Ojibwe writings published by New Rivers Press and called “Touchwood.”
Four books, three plays, six films and six anthologies followed before Northrup found himself on stage at the History Theatre.
He continued writing a column called “Fond du Lac Follies” that was syndicated in several American Indian newspapers.
He was a lifelong student of the Ojibwe language and traditions. He and his wife started a summer language camp on the reservation. They made birch bark baskets, took part in a yearly sugarbush — to make maple syrup — and harvested wild rice with sticks on the reservation’s lakes.
Information on survivors and services was not available Monday night.
Staff writer Rohan Preston contributed to this report.
Pat Pheifer • 612-673-7252