Already gone: a profile of Muscogee (Creek) poet Joy Harjo

The author of She Had Some Horses and In Mad Love and War discusses her new memoir, Crazy Brave.

  • Native American poet Joy Harjo

    Paul Abdoo
 

The poet Joy Harjo claims to remember her struggle through the birth canal –– leaving a past world as a warrior with weapons in hand and entering this one "puny and female and Indian in lands that were stolen."

Most people don't wonder about the lives they might have lived before they were born into this one; most of us don't go beyond abstractions such as "heaven" or "spirit" when we wonder about what follows our departure from this earth. But Harjo has spent decades exploring the connections between worlds in story and song. Now 61, with striking dark hair and a warm, husky voice, Harjo has written seven books of poetry -- including She Had Some Horses and In Mad Love and War -- and performed solo and with her band, The Arrow Dynamics. She's taught creative writing across the West, including at the University of Arizona and the University of New Mexico, and traveled the world collecting accolades and awards, such as the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award and the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She's also written children's books, including For a Girl Becoming, and most recently a memoir, Crazy Brave.

Everyone, Harjo believes, enters this world with a map buried deep in the heart. People know, she says, when they abandon the instructions they're supposed to follow. She had wanted to write about her experiences as a teenaged mother, or about what music has meant to her life –– riding with her parents through Oklahoma in the 1950s, she first heard Miles Davis on the car radio and his trumpet suspended her in "whirling stars." But the story Harjo needed to tell wasn't about motherhood or music. And finally, after 14 years of trying, Harjo surrendered and wrote Crazy Brave.

Writing the memoir may have returned Harjo to places and moments she'd rather not revisit. But reading it offers relief to those who don't always consider "home" a refuge, or who learn in childhood that adults and ancestors are not always graceful or good. "For most people the definition of 'home' is definitely rooted. There is that statement of fact: 'I was born in Tulsa, Okla., in the Creek Nation,' " she says. "But it's a place of shifting: This is not our original home, we were removed by the U.S. government -- and maybe that makes me aware of the disjuncture between the standard definition of home and what home really might be for some people."

Harjo didn't find home until the 1960s, when she came to New Mexico as a teenager. Escaping from her stepfather's house of "bad spirits and pain," she left Oklahoma and attended the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. "As soon as I crossed over the state line, as soon as I was heading up that route from Clines Corners toward Santa Fe, I knew," she says. "My spirit, the heart's voice, the heart's presence, knew I was in the presence of home."

Harjo had already discovered poetry -- on her eighth birthday, her mother gave her Louis Untermeyer's Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry -- and at IAIA she immersed herself in drawing and painting, then performance art. Being surrounded by other American Indian students was a transformative experience. "It was in the fires of creativity at the Institute that my spirit found a place to heal. I thrived with others who carried family and personal stories similar to my own," she writes in Crazy Brave. To be acknowledged and encouraged as artist, she says, saved her life.

Even today, Harjo can't say exactly what made New Mexico feel like home. It seems as though she isn't so much grounded on this earth as she is moving between the worlds, creating new stories and connecting the voices of her ancestors with those of younger generations.

"I feel like I carry a home with me, that has been with me through time," she says. "I'm also aware that this time falls away fast. On some level, I'm already gone. I'm already gone, and I'm very aware of that."

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...