Joy Harjo is the First Native American Poet Laureate

November is Native American Heritage Month. It’s a time of celebration of one’s cultural identity, diversity, and the power of song. Joy Harjo is one of many Native American poets worthy of praise and consideration. 

This year the Library of Congress appointed Harjo as the first Native American and 23rd Poet Laureate. In September, Harjo began her laureateship by opening the Library’s annual literary reading with an awe-inspiring performance. Members of the audience stood to welcome her onto the stage with electric applause. 

The title of Poet Laureate in the United States goes back to 1937 when it was previously called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Once someone is appointed, they’re encouraged to pursue their own poetry emphasized projects, with many past Laureates choosing to focus on activism and education.

Though Harjo doesn’t have a finite plan at the moment, she intends to bring the contributions of tribal nations to the forefront of poetic discussion. According to The Washington Post, Harjo intends to use her pulpit to humanize Native Americans in a way that will dispel enduring misconceptions about them — and looking at her track record, it seems she’ll do just that.

Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951 to the Muscogee Creek Nation.

A shy child, she dreamed of becoming a painter so she wouldn’t have to speak. But, as she recounts, “One night Poetry came to me and said, ‘You’re coming with me. You need to learn how to listen. We know it’s going to be a hard road for us, but we’re teaching you.’”

That night propelled her to eventually pen seven books of poetry, a memoir, and a YA coming-of-age novel. 

In addition to her several literary awards (including the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas), Harjo is also an accomplished musician. To date, she’s released five award-winning CDs of original music.

Coming from a dark and complicated Native American history, her many accomplishments are directly tied to the connection she has with her past and her ancestry. After European settlers came to America, war ensued over control and sovereignty of the land. In 1830, President Jefferson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which displaced eastern Native American tribes and condensed them all into the state of Oklahoma. This displacement created strife against assimilation as each tribe had to move into unfamiliar territory. Gradually, parts of Native American life such as religious freedom, education, language, and rituals were made illegal. 

These injustices strengthened the need to preserve tradition and language. Stories of previous warriors were passed down to younger generations as a reminder of their history — some serving as prayers to the gods of nature, each one deeply spiritual. 

It is through these deep connections that Harjo engrains her ancestral history into her lyricism. Through words, she explores themes of colonialism, feminism, and other social justice causes.

Poetry Foundation quotes her saying, “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…”

Through a combination of both her inner life and the mythical, the artist uses First Nation storytelling methods to express her message. World Literature writer John Scarry described Harjo as a “poet of myth and the subconscious; her images and landscapes owe as much to the vast stretches of our hidden mind as they do to her native Southwest.” One of her most famous poems, “She Had Some Horses,” is an excellent example of her literary style: ethereal, powerful, and intoxicating. 

During her reading at the Library of Congress, Harjo said, “When you go into the place of poetry, you go into the place beyond time, you go into the place beyond words…” 

It is this place that serves as her means of survival. Poetry is as much a part of her as her spirit.

Johanie Cools is a blogger, writer, book editor, and aspiring author. Follow her on Twitter at @jmartdotcom or on Medium at @jmcools.

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