My partner Dave and I visited Pat and Jim Northrup at their home on the Fon du Lac Reservation, on July 28, 2012. I had told Jim we were coming by bicycle at the end of an epic adventure, but our hosts in Duluth had offered their car so we could make it an afternoon excursion, and we accepted the generous offer. As we drove up in civilian clothes, cleaned and rested, I felt as if we had violated the invitation.
When we arrived Jim was making a birch basket and Pat was watching the Olympics. Jim occasionally interrupted the conversation to explain what he was doing.
“We only make baskets in the summer.”
“ The oil in the bark makes it curl.”
“Pat does the sewing, I carve and make the holes.”
“Making baskets you can’t be angry or in a hurry.”
“We found that’s true for bike touring as well,” Dave said.
I thanked Jim again for speaking to my classes at St Cloud State eight years earlier. I had assigned Rez Road Follies. The students, most of whom came from small towns in Northern Minnesota, were thrilled to meet an author from their neck of the woods. I was jealous and grateful of his ability to connect with the students. Yet Jim was a neighbor they did not know. Most grew up in proximity to reservations but many had never had a conversation with an indigenous neighbor. I reminded Jim that out of four classes and 129 students, I had only two students from the Rez… and they were white.
Jim shook his head. “White ownership goes back to the Dawes Act of 1887 that turned communal reservation land into 80-acre allotments. What was not claimed by Indians was open to anyone. Now those 80 acre allotments, passed down to multiple children, are so fractionalized they are not worth much. Allotment was an extreme form of divide and conquer.
Today our tribe owns 25%-33% of Fond Du Lac, up from 20% a few decades ago. We are using Casino money to buy back land little by little. What we own is divide into three parts, one where the business is done, another where our ceremonies are held, and a third, which we are restoring, where we have the best birch and maple trees, wild rice, hunting and fishing. Our food sources.”
Pat, who is Dakota, added, “On my reservation we are supposed to own 10 miles on either side of Minnesota River. They created that war in 1862 so they could have that land. Look at how valuable it is today; rich topsoil and access to the river all the way to the Cities.”
Jim’s book, Rez Salute had yet to come out. We bought a copy of Anishinaabe Syndicated and had Jim sign in it. On page 42 he quipped ‘Why do we call it a Rez instead of a reservation? Cause the white man owns most of it.”
Jim’s written works are acerbic, witty confrontations with the trauma of colonialism that never ends and the trauma of war that keeps on giving.
“I write in the morning and a couple days past deadline.” Jim mused. “I write about what pisses me off. Now I’m pissed about the news coverage of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Reporters said it was the worst incident of gun violence in American history since Fort Hood. What about Sand Creek? 160 people shot down with cannons and guns; unarmed people. I guess it doesn’t count because they were Cheyenne.”
A Vietnam vet, veterans’ issues were central in Jim’s writing. In my classes he quickly bonded with young Iraq war veterans. They wouldn’t let him go, following him to the cafeteria afterward for more. Both Jim and Pat were fierce advocates of veterans rights. I wanted them to help me figure out a question that had dogged me for 12,000 miles. The veterans memorials we encountered riding through 31 states, seemed to perpetuate war, glorifying the soldier experience and the ultimate sacrifice. I asked Jim how he would design a memorial that honored veterans and ended war.
“The Vietnam memorial has 55,000 names. I would depict 55,000 families crying.”
Pat added, “If people knew we couldn’t own things they wouldn’t fight over them. We don’t take anything with us when we go.”