Already gone: a profile of Native American poet Joy Harjo

  • 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."

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