In these selections from his syndicated, award-winning column, "Fond du Lac Follies," Native American journalist Jim Northrup not only gives readers a rich, three-dimensional look at how Minnesota's Anishinaabe live, but also proves himself among the most sardonically funny writers anywhere.
After attending a powwow in Canada, for example, Northrup drives back into the United States in his "rez car" ("a rez car is one that is on its next-to-the-last stop before the junkyard," he explains), and is searched by armed U.S. Customs officials. A nervous Northrup admits, "just being around those guys with guns was scary." After he's cleared and drives into the United States, Northrup thinks, "We [Native Americans] should have had such a system in place when the white guys first got here. Chris Columbus would have had to declare that he was not carrying any drugs, weapons, or weird diseases. ... It sure would be a different country."
Northrup interweaves humorous questions into his writing: "QUESTION: How did Shinnobs [the Anishinaabe people] survive the Great Depression? ANSWER: I didn't know it was over."
He's always on the lookout for absurdity, and finds it. For instance, when traveling in Norway, he attends a healing service of a "rent-a-shaman" named Paul. As Northrup observes Paul dancing around a rented conference center, readers can almost see the skeptical Northrup's hackles rising: "The lights were dimmed and the healing circle switch was turned on, or the meter began running, I don't know which. In a soft voice, Paul told us to relax and listen to the music he provided on a palm-sized cassette player. The sounds were of tinkling bells, loons and wolves."
The malfunctionings of Northrup's "rez car" are another source of humor. Driving to Madison, Wis., for a book signing, Northrup's car conks out. "A tow truck dragged the rez car to the Ford dealer. The dealer began planning his trip to the Bahamas when he saw the car," Northrup says. When he travels to Manhattan, he's equally sardonic: "I took along twenty-four dollars worth of beads to see if I could buy the island back."
The book is funny, but Northrup is passionate about protecting the Anishinaabe way of life, its treaty rights and its access to natural resources. He spends hours in the woods with his grandson, teaching him how to tap maple syrup, fish and trap. "What I like about going to the woods," Northrup writes, "is I have to walk slow. That is good because it gives me a chance to appreciate what the Creator has given us."
Northrup winningly blends humor, passion and wit to celebrate the Anishinaabe. As he writes near book's end, "We are still here, still being Anishinabeg just as hard as we can."
Northrup transforms this endurance into a blessing undisguised.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.