Arne Vainio: The late Jim Northrup shared his calling with the world

A fire burns as Jim Northrup, 1943-2016, was laid to rest in Minnesota on August 5, 2016. Photo by Arne Vainio

You were put here for a purpose
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

We buried Jim Northrup two Fridays ago. By we, I mean a community buried him.

Jim was a boarding school survivor, a warrior in Vietnam, a cop on the reservation, a poet and an author of multiple books, a husband, father and grandfather. He was revered by many and he was a true friend. He was a world traveler and he chose to stay in the community he was born in in Sawyer, Minnesota. He and his wife, Pat, started the Kiwenz Ojibwe language camp on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota and have been running it up until this year. There have been well over a thousand people take part in the language camp in each of the past few years.

The language camp brought together some very good people as teachers and as participants and everyone starts looking forward to the next year as soon as the current year is done.

Jim made birch bark baskets and he harvested wild rice and he made maple syrup and he always took time to teach those skills to anyone who came to see him. Pat won a 1964 Corvette Stingray at the casino years ago and Jim wrote about driving it often in his Fond du Lac Follies column. He loved that car and he handed me the keys at his birthday party this year and my wife Ivy and I went for a drive. We crossed the railroad tracks and held hands as we drove the twisty road with the convertible top down and the wind blowing in our hair. That was his 73rd and last birthday party.

At his 70th birthday party, he took me aside and it was like a little ceremony with just me and him in the corner.

“Arne, you need to write. I know you have at least one book in you and maybe more. The only way you’re going to find out is by writing and I want to write the forward to your first book. When I was first starting out, the poet and author Simon Ortiz took me aside and told me, “Believe that what you have to say is important. The commas and punctuation will take care of themselves.”

He went on, “I’ve been writing all these years and I’m always looking for the next writer among us, Arne. Telling our stories is important and I want to pass something formally to you right now."

“Believe that what you have to say is important. The commas and the punctuation will take care of themselves. You need to write.”

The late Jim Northrup is seen with Karen Diver. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Ivy has been going to the Northrup’s every Sunday for the past 12 years or so. In that time we have met the who’s who of Indian country at Jim and Pat’s house. Actor Gary Farmer, poet Al Hunter, musician Kieth Secola have all been guests at Jim and Pat’s and we first met them there.

Jim was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio and by Michelle Lee from KBJR Channel 6 in Duluth and by several newspapers when he let it be known he had metastatic cancer and he talked about death with all of them. He was prepared for his death and not afraid of it.

His death came suddenly and Ivy and I were able to be with him and his family right before he died. Both of us, in turn, held his hand as he was sitting back in his recliner. “Weweni bimibizon”, he called out to us as we were leaving. Drive safely.

His funeral was a traditional Ojibwe ceremony and it was done beautifully and the way they have always been done. I watched the elder doing the ceremony and I was watching his helper take on a more central role this time. They have done far too many funerals together.

The elder doing the ceremony told the gathered mourners, “You were put here for a purpose and you need to fulfill that purpose in order to find true happiness.” Jim fulfilled his purpose well.

Watching Jim teach for all those years and watching the elder teach his helper how to conduct a traditional Ojibwe funeral really made me see the importance of what I need to do in the community. At his 70th birthday, Jim did take me aside to pass the torch to me and I later found out he had taken others aside with the same information. Rather than thinking this makes his advice less important, it actually makes it all the more important. He was hedging his bets and trying as hard as he could to get someone to carry on his work and he HAD to reach out to more than one person.

President Bill Clinton recently acknowledged himself as a man with more yesterdays than tomorrows and I am starting to see that in myself. Not that I’m worried about anything happening soon, but I feel I need to start looking for someone who will eventually replace me and will document and write about the things I see on the reservation.

I have worked with many students over the years and have worked with some who have gone on to be great physicians. All of them have their hearts in the right place and have a desire to address inequities in our health care systems. I have met with college students thinking about going into medicine and I connected with several students at the Association of American Indian Physicians conference just north of Seattle last year. I hope to be a part of their preadmission workshops for students to better their chances of getting into medical school in the future. The reason I do mad science demonstrations for kids is to spark an interest in science and learning, but also to find our future doctors and lawyers and congress people.

Maybe that isn’t enough.

We’ve had a resident physician with us for the last month or so and she knows medicine and she has a good heart. I want her to learn how to harvest wild rice traditionally and how to make maple syrup the old way. She can learn this from our elders and our community, but it takes time. I have stated before that true healing comes down to love and forgiveness and redemption. Hope for our future and tradition fit into that definition somewhere.

Medicine is a calling, just as writing is a calling and just as teaching is a calling. Jim was called by the creator to write and speak about the issues that affect us all as Native Americans and to remember where we came from.

He has completed his circle and accomplished much in his time here. Remember his lessons.

You were put here for a purpose.

Weweni bimibizon.

Drive safely.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at

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