While it seems that everyone else at the Black Bear Casino in rural Carlton County, Minn., has come to play the slots, Jim Northrup and I are meeting there to talk about Dirty Copper, his forthcoming novel, slated for release in June from Fulcrum Publishing. The title, Northrup explains, comes from a childhood memory of children on the rez shouting, “Dirty copper, dirty copper!” whenever they saw a squad car. “It was a signal to split for the woods.” During our two-hour conversation, Northrup spins many tales from his life. Several of his anecdotes are familiar—I remember them from Northrup’s other books (all of which have the word “rez” in their titles), as well as from Dirty Copper.
“I’ve got some great stories,” says Northrup, who is 71, as he sits back in the nearly deserted coffee shop, nursing a cup of joe. He sure does have some colorful tales to tell, beginning with his birth in 1943 in the government hospital on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation south of Duluth, and continuing through the next seven decades. Living a traditional Anishinaabe/Ojibwe life close to the land for the past 40 years, Northrup and his extended family support themselves creating birch bark baskets to sell both to museums and to private collectors; they also harvest wild rice and make maple syrup. Noting that his father, a truck driver who worked sporadically, spent time in prison during his childhood, Northrup wryly says that he was released “long enough to make another baby” before violating parole and getting sent back to prison. Times were tough for Northrup’s mother, raising “11 or 12 children” mostly on her own, he adds. Northrup can’t remember how many siblings there were in the little house on the rez. He does remember how his mother would send the older children outside to play to make sure there was enough food for the younger ones. Later on in our conversation, he isn’t quite sure if his wife, Patricia, is his second or third legal spouse or exactly how many children—eight or nine—make up the couple’s blended family. It’s the memories and the lessons learned from them that interest him, not the details like numbers or dates.
When Northrup was just six years old, he and his older sister were sent 300 miles away to southern Minnesota, to one of the infamous U.S.-government-run American Indian boarding schools that operated from the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. There, Northup was forced to adopt European-American cultural standards, speaking English at all times, cutting his hair short, and answering to an Anglo-Saxon name rather than to his given Anishinaabe/ Ojibwe name: Chibenashi. “It was a terrible experience,” Northrup says of the four years he spent at the school. “I was one of the youngest and one of the smallest. I learned to fight back there.”
Then, at age 15, he was charged with “aggravated buffoonery” and sent to reform school in Red Wing, Minn., where, he says, he found his true calling. Northrup, who describes himself as a prolific reader, laughs at the memory of an assignment in journalism class. He listed 15 “general-interest questions about the school” for the school’s newspaper. At the end he wrote that the answers could be found on page nine. “It was an eight-page paper,” he says. “For months afterward, people were coming up to me, asking, ‘Hey, where’s page nine?’ I knew then that I wanted to be a writer.”
In 1962, Northrup enlisted in the Marines, where he served for about four years. Those years had a profound impact on his life and writing. Northrup describes Vietcong mortar attacks on American bases during the 13 months (1965–1966) he was in Vietnam. Many in his platoon didn’t make it. After the battles, the Americans would gather up their dead. “The only way we could find the little pieces [of dead comrades] was to see where the flies were landing,” he says matter-of-factly, although his eyes tell another story. Even now, almost half a century later, Northrup admits, he feels that “death is perched on my shoulder, wherever I go.”
While Northrup launched his writing career as a poet, reading in Twin Cities coffee shops and churches, his first publication was Walking the Rez Road, a collection of prose and poetry published by Voyageur Press in 1993 (an expanded 20th-anniversary edition was released by Fulcrum last year). It features Northrup’s fictional alter-ego, Luke Warmwater, a Vietnam veteran who’s returned stateside and is trying to resume the life he left behind when he enlisted.
Dirty Copper continues Warmwater’s story of reassimilation. Hired in 1967 as the first Native American deputy sheriff in Carlton County (as was Northrup), Warmwater suffers from PTSD and experiences periodic flashbacks of the carnage he witnessed. About that time in his own life, Northrup says, “I was fighting racism and crime.” In Dirty Copper, Warmwater is even more explicit, declaring, “White people hate me because I am a fucking Indian. The Indians hate me because I am a fucking pig.” Northrup says that back then, when there was trouble on the rez, the Native deputy was invariably assigned to deal with it, which often involved confronting or arresting friends or relatives.
Being the first “Native cop”—and having to maintain order in a county with a large indigenous population—was “such a unique experience,” Northrup says, that “I just don’t think it should be forgotten.” He acknowledges that the world has changed for the better for Natives since 1967. “Racism isn’t as blatant and as open. We’re living a better life on the rez, and we have our own police department now.” But Native Americans are still discriminated against, he points out; it just doesn’t “bother” him as much as it once did. He’s become “bulletproof”—his frustration has evolved into an impulse to “drive on.” As he puts it, “It’s there. You’re not going to change anything about it. Just drive on.”
“Stories are so important,” Northrup insists, describing his writing process as consisting of first directing his attention toward a specific reader—usually his wife or another family member. He then writes a story to appeal to that specific reader before revising the story to appeal to a broader audience. “Come here, I want to tell you a story”: that’s how he describes his writing philosophy, which is influenced by Louise Erdrich, who, he says, writes “in so many different ways, uses language so beautifully, and lately, has been doing more Ojibwe,” and by Charles Bukowski—because “he says it like it is.” Noting that there is a character named Luke Warmwater in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, Northrup laughs, remembering that Alexie once told him it was because there was a “synchronicity” between them. “He’s a survivor, too,” Northrup says. “He’s seen rez life up close and he writes well.”
Besides writing fiction and poetry, Northrup has written his takes on contemporary Native American life and issues for the past 25 years in a column, “Fond du Lac Follies,” syndicated in several Native newspapers. Collections of his columns have been published as Rez Road Follies (1997), Anishinaabe Syndicated (2011), and Rez Salute: The Real Healer Dealer (2012).
He’s also got film credits under his belt: besides being an extra in the 1994 film Iron Will, shot in Duluth, Northrup was the subject of a 30-minute documentary called Jim Northrup: With Reservations, released in 1997. The filmmakers followed him for five years to make the movie. Most recently, he appeared in the 2008 film, Older Than America, a suspense-drama filmed on and around the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Northrup has no intention of slowing down, although now he lets his children tap the maple trees while he supervises. He continues to teach himself his first language, Anishinaabe/Ojibwe, and has just returned from a U.S. State Department–sponsored author tour of Hungary, where he appeared at museums, high schools, and universities. He’s also preparing to tour for Dirty Copper this summer and fall. Most important to him, though, is his writing. “I have stories I haven’t told yet,” he says, before spinning another tale that I expect will show up in his next book.