FARGO — I first read American poet Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek Nation) in a Native American literature class at Minnesota Moorhead State University in 2002.
In class, we read an excerpt from her collection, “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” which blends Native American creation myth with Harjo’s interest in jazz (she’s an accomplished saxophonist), and layers all to a landscape that celebrates nature, life, and life after life.
When I return to Harjo’s poetry today as a very different (much older) person, I am back in my twenties, eager to learn, share and act on his messages of consideration for our own stories (as heavy as they are), of nature, justice and the responsibility we have to nurture ourselves towards healing.
Although the cultural, political, historical and climatic nuances of Indigenous poetry are complicated, Harjo has a way of simplifying the issues in a relevant and very human way.
From the symbols of healing found in his mythical creation storytelling to the tale of his grief over the death of his mother, Harjo is a powerful voice for justice and happiness despite generational trauma, racism and chronic displacement.
Personally, Harjo helps me better understand indigenous issues. One in particular has stuck with me since I learned it from her all those years ago in college: the fact that it wasn’t until 1978 that Indigenous peoples were able to legally express their culture in any way.
It’s a subject Harjo returns to in “An American Sunrise,” where she writes, “Until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for native citizens to practice our cultures. This included creating and sharing songs and stories. Songs and stories in one culture are poetry and prose in another.
In “The Story of Wheel,” a poem that pays homage to the story of creation, I believe readers can better understand the struggle to reclaim what has been lost generation after generation by denying Native Americans their First Amendment rights. :
I leave you to your mourning ceremony
who is also festive
Given when a humble honored
Leave behind a trail of happiness
In the darkness of human tribulation.
Harjo also teaches us that although his ancestors were forcibly displaced, there is a path to healing, and it is open to anyone who has directly or indirectly suffered from the decisions of those in power. For example, later in “The Story of Wheel”, Harjo writes:
None of us are above the other
In this forever story.
Even if we follow this red road home,
one behind the other.
Harjo’s writing constantly reminds readers that while we cannot change history, it is imperative that we continue the healing process. She uses creation storytelling to express how the process of healing and forgiveness actually happens.
In “Memory Sack,” another poem from “An American Sunrise,” she writes:
This first cry opens the door of the earth.
We join the road of the ancestors.
With our souvenir pack
The slack slung over our backs
We venture into the circle
What is the circle
And do more—
Memories can be heavy and difficult to carry, but it is by carrying the burden of loss and grief that we can reinvent ourselves again and again. Maybe there can be healing without forgiveness, but sometimes forgetting is not an option.
One of my favorite poems in “An American Sunrise” is “Washing My Mother’s Body”.
In this document, Harjo weaves between cultural heritage, personal history and loss. Yet she finds a way to seek beauty and peace in the finality of death.
This poem is one of the longest in the collection, and readers get a great idea of who his mother was as Harjo takes the time to wash his mother’s body after her death.
I brush my mother’s hair and kiss her forehead.
I ask the guardians of the trip to make sure his trip is safe
I ask the angels, who she loved, who she talked to
to take her home, but wait, not until she finds her favorite scent.
Then I sing his favorite song, softly.
I don’t know the name of the song, just a few sentences,
one of those old homemade songs
where there is a moment of happiness
then I let her go.
As my own mother navigates dying from a decade-long journey with early-onset Alzheimer’s, I can understand how difficult it must be to say this final goodbye. I don’t know how I will feel until that day, but Harjo reminds me that I must find joy in memories, because in my stories, my mother lives forever, and so does her mother.
There’s so much to explore in Harjo’s work, and really, I’ve only scratched the surface of the issues she addresses and celebrates in her work. The best way to gain your own understanding of his voice is to listen to him in real life tonight at the Plains Art Museum.
If you can’t read, there are still plenty of opportunities to engage with Harjo’s work. Through February 26, the Spirit Room hosts “Displaced,” a nationally curated group exhibition where artists take a piece of “American Sunrise” and create their own representation of the work.
After that, “Displaced” will travel across the region exhibiting at galleries, libraries, and other area organizations through June 30. For a list of events, visit https://www.spiritroom.org/neabigread2021.
What: Joy Harjo reading and discussion
When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. tonight (Monday, February 7)
Or: Plains Museum of Art, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a non-profit organization that cultivates the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.