Introduction by Agate
Vern Northrup is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. He has worked as a wildland firefighter and a trainer of other Native firefighters. When he contracted Lyme disease, he worked to regain his health through outdoor exercise, bicycling the Munger Trail and hiking around Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.
He was struck by nature’s visual patterns, and he began to photograph what he saw, using his cellphone.
A collection of his work was displayed at the Duluth Art Institute in early 2019. The Art Institute published a book based on the exhibit, titled Akinomaage, Teaching from the Earth. The captions are in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwemowin), with translations and short explanations in English. The exhibit is now at the Watermark Art Center in Bemidji, through February, 2020. From March 6 to May 29, it will be on view at AICHO, the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, with a book signing on March 6.
Here we present a few of Northrup’s lovely and revealing images, including some that appear in the book and exhibit. The Earth, through Northrup’s lens, has a lot to teach.
Agate Extra: a Conversation with Vern Northrup
Agate: Are you still taking pictures? Any new public offerings in the works?
Northrup: I’m working on another book, which will be about trees. I’m hoping it will be out this spring. I’ve asked the Duluth Art Institute to publish it.
Agate: Lots of folks have seen your photographs now. Have you had any reactions that surprised you?
Northrup: Last Friday at Watermark in Bemidji, there was a gentleman asking about the photographs; I happened to walk in behind him. He’d been a photographer his whole life, and he was 97 years old. He shook my hand and said, “I have to admire your sense of composition.” I was astonished; I didn’t know I used composition! Photography is still so new to me, it’s just that the Creator gave me an eye and I like to share it with people.
Agate: One of your pictures, Ishkode, shows shafts of sunlight shining through trees above a prescribed fire. How do you and the Fond du Lac band use fire to keep your land healthy and productive?
Northrup: We’ve been doing controlled burns since the early 1990s. We use fire for hazard reduction, wildlife openings, and food. Blueberries are on a five-year cycle, so we have five good blueberry stands where we rotate burns.
Agate: Did you know the Anishinaabemowin words for the things you photographed, or have you learned some that were new to you?
Northrup: I knew many of the words. I’ve known all my life that the Creator gave us this beautiful world, with everything we needed to survive—food, medicine. I knew the basic flowers, the ones we use quite a bit, but I didn’t know some of the smaller flowers. I knew they were food or medicine but I didn’t know their names. So we used The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, from the University of Minnesota. It even has an audio button so you can get the right pronunciation.
Agate: Thank you for sharing your beautiful work on Agate.
Akinomaage, Teaching from the Earth is available at the Sweet Grass Gift Shop at Black Bear Casino, at the Indigenous First Art & Gift Shop at AICHO, and by order from the Duluth Art Institute.