Award-winning ‘Walking the Rez Road’ 20th Anniversary Edition Still Haunts

At times humorous but also permeated with sadness, Walking the Rez Road illuminates those who have inherited generations of institutionalized oppression while adding their own layers of pain and dejection.

Returning to the Fond du Lac Reservation from the Vietnam War, the character Luke Warmwater finds poverty, abuse, and mass unemployment. Warmwater attempts to negotiate the grievous living conditions with the painful emotional and physical affects of war. This 20th anniversary edition of
Walking the Rez Road reprints Jim Northrup’s short stories and poems with the addition of selected newspaper columns, Ojibwe poems, and the play Shinnob Jep. The characters and community are fictionalized yet are penned by an unrepentant insider who creates a sense of realness. At times humorous but also permeated with sadness, Walking the Rez Road illuminates individuals who have inherited generations of institutionalized oppression while adding their own layers of pain and dejection.

The alienation a veteran feels when returning home from war is a consistent theme in Northrup’s prose and poetry. Warmwater shows readers that alienation doesn’t manifest itself in a single form but rather he “felt disconnected from all the things that made him happy” (16). Warmwater seeks treatment for his PTSD and finds solace by participating in traditional Ojibwe activities. Here Northrup sprinkles Warmwater’s emotional and cultural devastation with moments of hope and humor.

The juxtaposition between contemporary and traditional culture is evident in
Walking the Rez Road. A particularly strong example demonstrates how closely these two cultures coexist. For example when the character Lug leaves the powwow where he watched his sister dance, he then gets into his car and hears “the Animals singing ‘Sky Pilot'” (18). As a subtext, this song demonstrates the constant struggle to balance the modern and traditional with the ubiquity of war and the lasting memory of killing.

In the poem “wanna be [sic]”, Northrup casts the representations of war in popular culture as frivolous. Without first hand experience there is no authentic way to convey the horrors of organized violence. In this poem, Northrup takes offense with an unnamed character who appropriates war stories after seeing a movie. Northrup realizes this because the unnamed character “doesn’t have the eyes” (38) of someone who has endured violence and is living with death’s aftermath. He ends the poem with the realization “nice try fella, don’t steal my war” (38). The author makes a strong point here that the glorification of war and violence in our culture has run amok. Popular culture has been careless with telling war stories and has reiterated a non-authentic narrative glamorizing war.

Likewise, Native American culture has been romanticized and monetized. In the poem “1854-1988” Northrup demonstrates capitalism’s insidious control of traditional culture and “they’re already looking down/the trail for the next chunk of treaty cash” (124). Here Northrup demonstrates a startling contrast between those who listen when “money talks, whispers, threatens/ and finally seduces” (124) to those who are wallowing in the Rez’s poverty.

Warmwater embodies how multiple forms of oppression concurrently denigrate an individual. First, Warmwater must contend with the reservation’s dire poverty. At one point he sells his blood for money, remembers sending his military paychecks home so his family could pump water, or “when someone opened the refrigerator, the gas line would freeze” (87). To Northrup’s characters this poverty is home but also the focal point for a “lifetime of sad” (68).

The second form of oppression outlines the terrible treatment of veterans who are chronically suffering from PTSD. Northrup adroitly asks “how about a memorial/ for those who made it/ through the war/ but still died/ before their time” (9). Northrup’s characters sought treatment and visited VA hospitals but still struggle with the memories and flashbacks. Accordingly “the shooting is over in five seconds/ the shakes are over in a half hour/ the memories are over never” (15). Without a doubt, American society is constantly grappling with how to properly support its veterans. However, Northrup demonstrates the support systems are inadequate. These systems are far less effective for veterans who are surrounded by poverty and completely disenfranchised.

Walking the Rez Road was the deserving winner of the Midwest Book Achievement Award, the Minnesota Book Award, and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Northrup blends devastation with humor ultimately showcasing the power of tradition, community, and family. The prose and poetry are thought-provoking and lyrical. Northrup passed away in 2016 but his text leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

RATING 8 / 10