The late Jim Northrup is seen with his "REZ CAR" at Perch Lake on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Sawyer, Minnesota. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio: Taking Jim Northrup's rez car out for another journey

Arne Vainio: Taking Jim Northrup's rez car out for another journey
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

Richard Wagamese died.

Richard was a First Nations author from Ontario and when I first thought about writing over ten years ago I came across a passage in his book One Native Life. He was traveling through Canada and jumped a freight train. Writing is a gift and a craft and it needs to be honed and sharpened and the only way to do that is by writing.

Richard had been writing for a long time before he wrote that passage and even though it was brief, it was enough to pull me in and he brought me on that train with him. The moon was rising and it raced the train as it came up through the trees and he and a coal miner’s kid from Sydney, Nova Scotia, shared cigarettes and stories and a bottle of wine and for that brief time there was nothing that separated them.

I always meant to contact him and tell him what his writing meant to me and how somehow that train ride stayed with me all these years and how I thought of it when I went outside to look at the moon. George Earth died almost a year ago and I used to go outside at night and call him and tell him what I was seeing and hearing and how the wind swayed the treetops and what stars I was looking at. George was 80 years old and couldn’t go outside to see and hear those things for himself and he would remember those things from when he was young.

George and I took a road trip to the Wind River reservation in Wyoming just a few years ago and he knew it was his last road trip. He used to travel when he was younger, but not in a comfortable way. He hitchhiked and he walked and he wanted to see the entire country. Poverty and the need to work kept him from seeing the world and we traveled through the Black Hills and went to the monuments and we went to a museum.

The monuments and the museum interested him only briefly and what he wanted to see was the country and the way the trees of northern Minnesota changed to the rolling hills and farms of the southern part of the state, then to the prairie of South Dakota, then as that changed to the Black Hills and then to the big sky country of Wyoming.

We never once turned the radio on and we could travel for hours without speaking, then something in that huge sky would make him remember. He told me some of the kids were let out of boarding school to pick potatoes in North Dakota and being a ten year old boy dragging sacks to fill with potatoes in rows he couldn’t even see the end of. His hands would get blisters that broke open and filled with dirt and how it would hurt to wash them at the end of the day. He slept fitfully on that trip and his dreams were of a young boy losing his way through the design of others. He was helping me find my way and that remained unspoken and didn’t need to be said.

Jim Northrup died late last summer and he was one of our great Ojibwe authors. He wrote six books and told vividly of being a Marine in Vietnam and wrote about life on the reservation. Jim and I had a friendship that deepened over the years and my wife Ivy became part of his family. She would go to visit her parents every Sunday and would be at the house on Northrup Road right after that. She played Ojibwe cribbage with him and she became the official Jim Northrup photographer. She traveled with him and his wife Pat to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin for a gathering of Vietnam veterans and their families and he read his poetry to a standing ovation crowd of 45,000 people.

He pulled me aside at his 70th birthday and told me, “The poet Simon Ortiz came to me when I was just starting out as a writer and a poet. He told me to remember that what you have to say is important and I’m passing this to you. What you have to say is important.”

At first I held it to myself that he meant that only for me, but later found that he told that to other writers and I liked him all the more for it. He was hedging his bets to make sure our stories are always part of the dialogue and not just some old and forgotten memories.

His wife Pat went to the casino to be there for a drawing for a 1964 Corvette Stingray about fifteen years ago and asked if he wanted to come with. “I think I’ll just stay home. No one wins those things anyway.”

Pat came home with that Corvette and it became part of the essence of Jim. He wrote about it and it has a Marine Veteran banner over the top of the windshield. His license plates said “REZ CAR” and it was easy to find him if he wanted to be found. Cars like that eat money and it’s hard to find someone who knows how to work on them, but he did find someone.

When his cancer came back and then started to spread he started looking at things differently. He and I discussed a road trip in that Corvette, maybe to the Southwest to visit one of his Marine brothers on the Navajo reservation. The journey was to be the story and we would each see and write about this island we live on from totally different perspectives. He would be traveling as a warrior and the moon rising and racing the car through the night would have an entirely different meaning to him than it would for me.

The wind blowing through the open top and the sun beating down on him would no doubt bring memories of jungles and situations I have never seen. The tic-tic-tic of the tires on the highway and bullets going through the leaves all around him might well have been the same.

We never made that road trip and Ivy and I were with him and his family shortly before he died. Keith Secola sang NDN Kars at his graveside after the funeral and after the Marine detail had gone.

Ivy was deeply hurt by Jim’s death and losing him was like losing a father.

I brought that Corvette home on a flatbed tow truck a couple of weeks ago. It needs some work, but nothing I can’t handle and by the time the rain washes the highways clean, Ivy and I will be ready for a road trip.

The Black Hills? The Southwest?

I don’t know where our path will lead us.

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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