Jim Northrup: Passing down traditions of making rice and syrup

By Christine Graef
News From Indian Country 4-08

Jim Northrup, Ojibwe, Bear Clan, author of Walking the Rez Road, Rez Road Follies and the nationally syndicated newspaper column, Fond du Lac Follies, is currently working on his next book, Best of the Fond du Lac Follies.

Last fall Jim Northrup sat at his kitchen table in front of a bowl full of wild rice, no doubt right about now he is in the woods making maple syrup and sugar. Picking out the brown kernels that had escaped the hulling of feet that danced on the frame outside his Fond du Lac home, he piled them onto a dish to later be fed to birds.

“If thousands of generations lived on this, there must be something good in it that keeps me alive,” he said.The fall’s harvest brought in 100 pounds in one day. Enough to last from one season to the next.“ In the old days, they’d get 500 pounds a day,” he said. “They’d have to stack up rice on the shore and go back out again.”

Mahnomin - Wild rice.

“There are stories connected to it, a lot of our stories,” he said. “We started on the east coast, traveled down the St. Lawrence River to come to where food grows on water. According to the old stories, we’ve always been here, but we had to leave four times because of glaciers.”

When the season turns to fall each year and mahnomin’s tall stalks emerge from the lakes heavy with ripened seeds, Northrup glides his canoe into the water and paddles through the shallows of the lake. In a rhythm handed to him through a line of ancestors stretching back thousands of years, his son, Ezigaa, joined the next link when he became Northrup’s partner who stands in the front of the canoe with a pole crafted from spruce or balsam trees that grow nearby, used to push the canoe through the rice.Northrup sits in the back using two 32-inch cedar knockers to grab the stalks, and strokes the rice to shake it into the canoe.

The warm sun dries the rice, then Northrup and his Dakota wife, Pat, parch the rice by stirring it in a scorching iron kettle set at an angle over an open fire. A couple of baskets full are then poured into a canvas-lined barrel sunk into the earth, covered with a wood frame that someone treads lightly on to break the chaff away from the seed.

To separate it from the chaff, the rice is tossed in fanning baskets that Northrup makes with three gifts from Creator: strips of the inner bark of basswood trees to stitch together the outer bark of birch trees and the branches of green willows to form the frame.
The entire process is called mahnominike – to make wild rice.

“These things I’m doing are treaty rights,” he said. “I always thought Anishinaabe put those in there because they didn’t trust the white man. They knew we’d survive if we had this.”

In the late 1980s, Northrup began hearing about Minnesota’s proposal to sign an agreement with the Reservation Business Committee for $1.85 million annually if they didn’t use their treaty rights to fish, gather and hunt on ceded lands.

“The RBC had already signed the agreement with the state by the time we first heard about it,” said Northrup. “They said they were just talking to the state about it. After the tribal council told us of their plans, people said this is wrong. The treaty is not ours to sell. It belongs to the generations to come.”

The people started meeting together and talking about protecting their 1837 and 1854 treaty rights.

“Everybody told what they had to say about it,” he said. “We put it in a referendum and there were enough signatures to oppose it. By then, the tribal council was hiding from us.”

The tribal constitution said the referendum had to be handed to the council’s secretary in person, so when Northrup heard from a friend of a friend that the secretary would be at meetings in Minneapolis, he drove down and handed it to him.

“It let them know what we were thinking,” he said. “We formed the Anishinaabe Liberation Front (ALF). We used ALF because we wanted to force the media and the legislators to use the word Anishinaabe.”

For one year, the Fond du Lac Ojibwe did not have their treaty rights. The following year, the people overwhelmingly again voted it down and, with a new council in place who listened to their voice, they canceled the agreement with Minnesota.
ALF and witnesses drove 50 cars to East Lake to hold a meeting. Northrup stopped at Agate Bay to set the canoes in there.

“We heard a shot in the air, so we went to Plan B,” said Northrup. “Game wardens and deputies were at the boat landing. David Aubid, an ALF member, knew a short cut, so we went there, cut the ropes tying the canoe onto the car, flipped the canoe over and put it in the water. We’d cruised along looking for walleye. A game warden came up and asked what we were doing. I said this is a canoe trip. They didn’t see my spear. I was wearing a motorcycle light taped to the helmet. I asked, am I under arrest? He said no. So I went back to fishing.

Then they pulled up, confiscated my light, my spear and wrote me a citation. Not my son though. Just me. They wanted to take my canoe. They were going to take my battery. If you take my canoe I won’t be able to harvest wild rice, if you take my battery I won’t be able to start my car. They said OK.”

Northrup plead not guilty in court. It required six trips to the courthouse 100 miles away in Milaca before the judge agreed with the treaty rights.ALF saw the DNR map that marked a belt of uranium along Lake Superior as “the most suitable for mining.”
“I think the State wants to remove us as an influence in the ceded territories so they can do what they want there,” he said.

Once the Ojibwe’s biologists determined suitable harvests and showed how treaties protect resources, the anti-treaty groups silenced their argument that the Ojibwe were going to “rape the resources.”

Northrup was named Chibenes by his grandfather, meaning large bird, bigger than an eagle, smaller than a thunderbird. When he rices, and in the spring, uses the same kettle for maple syrup, he gathers with family and tells stories about the past days when rice seeds dropped back into the water to take root for this year’s harvest.

Language related to the tradition is passed across the storytelling. New stories are added. The fight to protect treaty rights is reminded.
“Now my son knows how to do this,” he said. “I give him my kettle. I give him my pole. I teach him.”