Jim Northrup, an Anishinaabe Native American, Vietnam War veteran and award-winning author, has been diagnosed with kidney cancer as of April 2016. He believes that the cancer is a result of exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange during his 1965-1966 service in Vietnam. Although many people would be devastated by such a diagnosis, at age 72 Jim accepts it with the wry humor that has characterized his fiction and poetry for so many years.
One of the epitaphs Jim has suggested for his tombstone states, “Here’s one deadline I didn’t miss.” Someone perusing Northrup’s early biography would wonder what he has to smile about. At 6 years old, Northrup and his older sister were torn from their family and sent to a government boarding school 300 miles away, where they were forced to renounce their Native American language, learn English and conform to European-American culture. At age 15, Northrup was sentenced to reform school. At age 19, he joined the Marines and was eventually sent to Vietnam, where many of his platoon comrades died in battle.
Northrup returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder, before it was recognized as a diagnosable condition. He returned to the reservation in Minnesota and set up a teepee beside Perch Lake, where he lived without electricity or other modern amenities and began to write. He devised an autobiographical character named Luke Warmwater and created stories and poems about him based upon his own experiences during the war and afterwards. Eventually, Northrup wrote stories, poems, plays and a long-running syndicated newspaper column.
Northrup and his wife continue traditional Anishinaabe pursuits such as creating birch bark baskets, harvesting wild rice and making maple syrup. They also mentor others in the Ojibwe language. Despite his illness, Northrup continues to write. While being treated in a hospital, he had dreams of paddling in a canoe and approaching a shore from which he heard the voices of Ojibwe-speaking people. He assures listeners that no matter when death comes, he is prepared for it. “And making a joke about it makes it easier for survivors. “Northrup’s literary legacy ensures that he will not be forgotten.