(Story by Megan Kamerick)
The United States has its first Native American poet laureate, and although Joy Harjo is originally from Oklahoma, New Mexico played a significant role in her creative evolution. Harjo, 68, is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She first came to New Mexico in 1967 when she was 16 to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She later went to the University of New Mexico.
Harjo has written eight books of poetry, a memoir and two books for young readers. She’s won a slew of awards. But she told the radio show Native America Calling in June 2019 that she did not start writing until she went to UNM, where she got involved in the Native student organization Kiva Club and heard other Native poets like Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon J. Ortiz. “That’s when poetry happened for me,” she said. “As part of the Native rights movement.”
Her poems are suffused with nature and landscapes. They incorporate ancient stories, mingling them with the collective feelings and challenges of living Indigenous in mainstream culture. In “Rabbit Is Up To Tricks,” she deftly combines tales of Rabbit, a trickster figure, with critiques of those who seek temporal power. In a world where there was enough for everyone, Rabbit decides to change the status quo and creates a clay man. He teaches him to steal corn and others’ wives.
The wanting infected the earth.
We lost track of the purpose and reason for life.
We began to forget our songs. We forgot our stories.
We could no longer see or hear our ancestors,
Or talk with each other across the kitchen table.
Forests were being mowed down all over the world.
And Rabbit had no place to play.
Rabbit’s trick had backfired.
Harjo calls poetry “soul talk.” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement when the institution announced the poet laureate selection, that Harjo has championed poetry for decades. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,’ and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making,” Hayden said. “Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”
Harjo’s poems are often intensely personal. Many describe a helping spirit or an ancestor. In her memoir, Crazy Brave, she writes about the night, while a UNM student, when she began to write poetry. It was a time of struggle when she had two young children, a lover who had become abusive and she had suffered a crippling panic attack. Poetry came to her. “I knew this is what I was put here to do: I must become the poem, the music, and the dancer.”
She is also a feminist and her work is steeped in social justice. After she broke away from her abusive relationship, her home became a safe place for other Native women escaping violent men. Harjo graduated in 1976 and later taught in the English Department in the early 1990s, where her students included now U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland. But before UNM, there was IAIA. It was still a more traditional boarding school under the Bureau of Indian Affairs when Harjo entered in 1967. But it was also a fertile ground for new approaches to art education, featuring teachers such as Fritz Scholder and Allan Houser. It gave Harjo an escape from a life of poverty in Oklahoma where her abusive stepfather had plans to send her to a more traditional Christian boarding school.
Harjo said on Native America Calling in June 2019 that she “fled to save herself” and found a place where she no longer felt alone. “Native Arts were being percolated with tribes from all over the US and all of us coming together thinking about what does it mean to be a Native artist? What does it mean to be a Native artist of our particular tribal groups? What are we making of our time and what do we have to say?” Harjo said that became a route to her own art. In the “fires of creativity” at IAIA, her spirit “found a place to heal,” she writes in her memoir. She was with fellow young Native Americans who had similar stories.
“We were all ‘skins’ traveling together in an age of metamorphosis, facing the same traumas from colonization and dehumanization,” Harjo writes. But hers was a generation ready to transform those experiences “poised at the edge of an explosion of ideas that would shape contemporary Indian art for years to come. The energy crackled. It was enough to propel the lost children within us to start all over again. We honed ourselves on that energy, were tested by it, destroyed and recreated by it.”
Harjo’s first book of poetry, The Last Song, was published in 1975. In his essay on Harjo’s poetry in World Literature Today, John Scarry writes that it “is a work filled with ghosts from the Native American past, figures seen operating in an alien culture that is itself a victim of fragmentation.” One of the poems, “3 AM,” is set at the Albuquerque International Sunport, where technology could transport you to a distant city, but not the center of the world, which is how Harjo describes Oraibi, an ancient village on Third Mesa in the Hopi Nation. “Poetry became to me as a way to speak beyond ordinary language the kind of language we use when we remember that we’re related, that we are the earth, and that we’re related to the life here and to each other,” she told Native America Calling. “For me, the language of poetry helps me get to those places.”
An American Sunrise is the title of a forthcoming anthology of Harjo’s poems. It is also a poem with the staccato rhythm of jazz. It has the familiar cadence of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” and Harjo told The Poetry Foundation it was written in response to a call for Golden Shovel poems, a form initiated by Terrance Hayes to honor Brooks’s poetry.
“An American Sunrise” evokes those heady days at IAIA and UNM as the Native rights movement was blossoming and Harjo and her contemporaries were birthing their creative voices.
We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing
so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars.
Harjo, an accomplished vocalist and saxophonist with four albums of original music, set the piece to music, working with producer Barrett Martin. “I was writing a musical that includes Muskogean indigenous peoples in the origin story of blues and jazz. We have been disappeared from the story, yet there would be no blues or jazz without our contributions,” she writes in Poetry Magazine. “A few years ago we’d gone into the studio in Albuquerque and recorded drum and leg-shaker tracks for a possible album. I pulled up one of the tracks and built the voice (poetry, singing, vocables) and saxophone tracks over it, at the same kitchen table where I write.”
The song will be part of a musical play Harjo is working on called We Were There When Jazz Was Invented. Poetry has also been part of Indigenous culture for centuries, long before colonization, Harjo told Native America Calling. “We’ve always had poetry but pre-colonization the poetry is our indigenous languages,” she said. “We also understand the power of words and how using words can create or destroy.”
Harjo called much of today’s language “processed.” “Just like we have too much processed food and that doesn’t really nurture us. Poetry comes in to introduce a kind of nourishment where texting language or political speech language doesn’t,” she said.
Harjo’s term as poet laureate begins this fall and she said it’s a huge responsibility. She told Native America Calling she is taking time to consider what she wants to do with the role. “It gives a spotlight not just on me but really it gives a spotlight on Native poets and poetry and we have some of the best poets.
Perhaps the World Ends Here
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., www.wwnorton.com.
Source: The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1994)