June 1, 2021

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo: A Life in Four Directions

A poet, writer, academic, musician, and activist, Joy Harjo is the first Native American to be named the United States Poet Laureate. Harjo’s poetry evokes not only her Muscogee (Creek) heritage, but is also often tied to landscapes in the Southwest, Southeast, Alaska, and Hawaii. To hear a Joy Harjo poem is to consider the role of memory and history through generations.

In 2014, Harjo published Crazy Brave: A Memoir, a book divided into four sections oriented by each of the cardinal directions (East, North, West, South) representing a period of her life. Using Harjo’s words and that same construction, we wanted to share the places that represent her life—starting with Ocmulgee, Georgia.

Ocmulgee, Georgia

Ocmulgee National Monument

photo by: National Park Service

Overhead view of Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia.

“For any spark to make a song it must be transformed by pressure. There must be unspeakable need, muscle of belief, and wild, unknowable elements. I am singing a song that can only be born after losing a country.”—from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015)

The Muscogee people are descendants of a culture that, prior to 1500 A.D. spanned the entire region in what is now the Southeastern United States.

As they state on their website, “early ancestors of the Muscogee constructed earthen pyramids along the rivers of this region as part of elaborate ceremonial complexes. The historic Muscogee, known as mound builders, later built expansive towns within these same river valleys in the present states of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.”

The Muscogee call the region around the 702-acre Ocmulgee National Monument “the place where we first sat down,” meaning the place where their ancestors first became a settled agricultural society. Designated in 1934, this area is considered sacred to members of the Muscogee Nation as well as to other tribal nations.

Tulsa, Oklahoma

“East is the direction of beginnings… When beloved Sun rises, it is an entrance, a door to fresh knowledge. … East is also the direction of Oklahoma, where I was born, the direction of the Creek Nation.”

Joy Harjo was born Joy Foster on May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the northern border of the Muscogee Nation. Tulsa was the ending place of the Trail of Tears for the Muscogee people, the long death march endured by Harjo’s father’s people in the 1800s when they were forcibly removed—by the federal governmentfrom their homes in Alabama and Georgia.

Growing up surrounded by artists and musicians, Harjo endured her hardscrabble youth by sheltering in her imagination and connecting with the natural world. Her Cherokee, French, and Irish mother wrote songs, her grandmother played the saxophone, and her aunt was an artist. Harjo has said she found her way to earth by her mother’s voice.

“Every soul has a distinct song. Even the place called Tulsa has a song that rises up from the Arkansas River around sundown.”

Joy Harjo
View of a river under a sunny sky in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There is a bridge in the background of the image while the river is a little low so the land can be seen.

photo by: Oakley Originals via Flickr CC BY 2.0

A 2015 view of the Arkansas River at Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

“North is the direction where the difficult teachers live…the direction of cold winds…. It is the direction marked by the full moon showing the way through the snow. It is prophecy.”

At 16, Harjo left Oklahoma, escaping an abusive stepfather, to attend high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. In the fires of creativity at IAIA, Harjo found a place to heal. Amid the opening of an Indigenous cultural renaissance, she made art, attended cultural events, and joined an all-Native drama and dance group. On their first theater tour to the Pacific Northwest, the students were surprised when, walking on a road in eastern Oregon, residents threw rocks at them and called them “dirty Indians.” Later, she changed her last name to Harjo, which means “courage” in Muscogee, honoring her grandmother, Naomi Harjo Foster.

“Think for yourself, girl. Your people didn’t walk all that way just so you could lay down their dreams.”

Voice in Harjo’s dream as a pregnant teenager

Albuquerque, New Mexico

“West is the direction of endings. It is the doorway of our ancestors, the direction of tests. It represents leaving and being left and learning to find the road in the darkness.”

After graduating from IAIA, Harjo enrolled at the University of New Mexico in pre-med with a Muscogee tribal scholarship. She soon changed her major to art, and in her final year, switched to creative writing. She wrote songs for an all-Native rock band. Her first book of poems, The Last Song, was published in 1975. Set in Oklahoma and New Mexico, her early compositions revealed Harjo’s insight into the fragmented history of Indigenous peoples.

Looking up at Sky City

Acoma Sky City in New Mexico is a National Trust Historic Site.

3 A.M.

(From The Last Song, 1975)

in the Albuquerque airport
trying to find a flight
to Old Oraibi, Third Mesa
TWA
is the only desk open
bright lights outline New York
Chicago
and the attendant doesn’t know
that Third Mesa
is a part of the center
of the world
and who are we
just two Indians
at three in the morning
trying to find a way back

and then I remembered
that time Simon
took a Yellow Cab
out to Acoma from Albuquerque
a twenty-five dollar ride
to the center of himself

3 A.M. is not too late
to find the way back

Iowa City, Iowa

“South is the direction of release. Birds migrate south for the winter…. It is fire and creativity. It is the tails of two snakes making a spiral…an eternal transformation.”

After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Harjo earned an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1978, after which she returned to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She later taught at the Universities of Colorado, New Mexico, California, Hawai’i, Illinois, and Tennessee.

Harjo’s poetry is framed around the traditions and histories of Indigenous people and uses—as described by the Poetry Foundation, "feminist and social justice poetic traditions...incorporat[ing] Indigenous myths, symbols, and values."

In addition to her memoir Crazy Brave, Harjo has produced many books of poetry, two books for young audiences, and five award-winning albums.

Washington, D.C.

In 2019, Harjo was named the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States and was appointed to a third term in 2020. She is the first Native American to hold this post.

Image of a woman standing in the center of an ornate hallway that is the Library of Congress.

photo by: Library of Congress

Shortly after being named poet laureate, Harjo was asked, “what makes you distinct?” She responded, “A sense of justice has always motivated me; that Indigenous people were the original peoples, and yet, often, we're not present at the table or our voices are not heard. The other thing that motivates me utterly is the need for healing.”

She once commented, “I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings.”

Peggy Mainor is the executive director of the MICA Group, a national nonprofit founded by Chief Wilma Mankiller in 2006. MICA partners with Indigenous communities, governments, and foundations to build social and economic capital in Indian Country through innovative, culturally appropriate strategies.

Priya Chhaya also contributed to this story.

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By: Peggy Mainor

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