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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Joy Harjo (b. 1951)

[8870] AMERICAN PASSAGES, JOY HARJO (2002) courtesy of Annenberg/CPB.

The daughter of a mixed Cherokee, French, and Irish mother and a Creek father, Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As a student and poet, Harjo has remained in touch with her Native American roots. She left Tulsa as a teenager to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, a high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of New Mexico and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her career as an educator has led her all over the Southwest; she has held positions at Arizona State University, the University of Colorado, the University of Arizona, and the University of New Mexico.

The Harjo family has a prominent place in the history of the Creek Indians. As the great-great-granddaughter of the leader of a Creek rebellion against their removal from Alabama to Oklahoma, Harjo comes from a people with a painful history. Still, her poetry often emphasizes the positive aspects of Native American heritage. Harjo uses words to begin the healing process and to explain the ruptures in current society. She is interested in questions of gender and ethnic identity and her work devotes special attention to the struggles of Native American women. Her poetry is rich with myth, and she draws inspiration from nature, as well as the oral tradition and culture of her Creek heritage. She often refers to herself as a wanderer, and her poetry explores the experience of movement, relocation, and journey, both physical and spiritual.

Joy Harjo travels widely throughout the United States, playing saxophone with her band. Her poetry also resonates with the rhythms and sounds of music, particularly jazz, blues, country, and Native American dance songs. Harjo’s works include The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994), A Map to the Next World (1991), and How We Became Human(2002). She co-edited Reinventing the Enemy’s Language (1998), an anthology that celebrates the experience of Native American women. The most comprehensive anthology of its kind, it includes poetry, fiction, prayers, and memoir from Native American women, representing nearly fifty Indian nations.

Teaching Tips

  • Harjo’s poems borrow from the Native American oral tradition and have a sense of rhythm that makes them even more powerful when read aloud. Have students read one of her poems aloud. How does the performance change the way they originally thought about the poem?
  • Harjo is a saxophonist in a jazz band that combines Native American drums and instrumentals with the jazz of the American South, the geographic homelands of the Creek Indians. Though twenty-first-century American youth may associate jazz with “easy listening,” it is important to consider jazz’s revolutionary influence on literature and aesthetics during the twentieth century. For American writers, jazz referred not only to a musical style, but also to a style of dance, literature, dress, and art. Jazz’s rebellion could be felt in the freedom of improvisation, as well as the ability to take old melodies, split them apart, and make them fit a new rhythm and worldview. Harjo borrows from jazz in her poetry both in terms of the syncopated rhythms of her work and in her affinities for improvisation, call and response, and collage. Ask students to explore the importance of jazz for Harjo’s verse.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Poets often use repetition for emphasis and to create a pattern when writing in free verse. Often the repetition is slightly different in each rendition, making the reader think about the subtle shades of meaning in language. In “Call It Fear” Harjo repeats phrases like “walk backwards,” “talk backwards,” “breathe backwards.” What does she mean here? What is the significance of these repeated images? What is the “edge” to which she keeps referring?
  2. Comprehension: Animals in poetry are often representative of a wilderness damaged or forgotten in the chaos of the modern world. What is the significance of the white bear in “White Bear”? What is the tone of this poem? What is the role of nature?
  3. Comprehension: “Summer Night” is filled with beautiful, delicate imagery. What is the effect of the line breaks on the page? How does the visual pattern of the poem affect its meaning?
  4. Context: In The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, Harjo relates Native American myth to contemporary life. How does her use of myth compare to that of the feminist poets in this unit, particularly Adrienne Rich (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”) and Sylvia Plath (“Ariel“)?
  5. Context: Memory is an important theme in Harjo’s work. Assimilation and the ever-decreasing number of people who can speak tribal languages threaten the preservation of the cultures of Native Americans, who have traditionally relied on oral tradition to transmit their heritage. Thus, it is not surprising that memory is so central to Harjo’s work. How does she represent memory, both personal and collective? You might look at “The Flood” and “White Bear.”
  6. Exploration: The relationships and understanding among different generations of women are central to many women poets. This seems particularly true of writers in the women’s movement. How do these poets represent the differences among generations of women? In what ways is the tone of their poems political? Consider poems by Lorde, Harjo, and Rich in your answer.
  7. Exploration: Many of Harjo’s poems bear the influence of jazz, using call and response, repetition, and visual patterns in a way reminiscent of that genre. Compare Harjo’s “Summer Night” to Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues,” also influenced by jazz. What similarities or differences in technique do you notice?
  8. Exploration: Travel is an important theme in Harjo’s work. How does this theme relate to the experiences of Native Americans, both in terms of a connection to the land and with regard to Native American spiritual images that often involve flight and journey? How does recent Native American history, particularly forced removal to Oklahoma, relate to these images of travel in Harjo’s poetry? How does she use this theme to bring closure to the past?

Selected Archive Items

[3708] Jesse Logan Nusbaum, Entryway of House Near Guadalupe from Under Porch, Sante Fe, N.M. (1912), 
courtesy of the Denver Public Library/Western History Department. 
Creek poet Joy Harjo attended high school in Santa Fe. One of her goals has been to make poetry and prose that is more inclusive of the experiences of people of color.

[7382] Duncan, Chitto Harjo or Crazy Snake, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait, Facing Front (1903), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-111977]. 
Photograph of Creek chief Chitto Harjo, leader of dissident Creeks who opposed land allotments that violated earlier treaties. Joy Harjo is part Creek and an enrolled member of the Muscogee tribe. Harjo’s work ties Native American heritage, including oral traditions, to contemporary themes.

[8313] Joy Harjo, Interview: “Native Voices and Poetry of Liberation” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Writer Joy Harjo discusses the staying power of oral tradition.

[8314] Joy Harjo, Interview: “Native Voices and Poetry of Liberation” (2003), 
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Writer Joy Harjo discusses the power of the spoken word.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6