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Joy Harjo's Biography

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Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke Nation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a poet best known for her critically-acclaimed books of poetry. “Born to a Creek father and a French-Cherokee mother” (Moyers 159), she lives a life very much rooted in the Native American culture of connecting to and celebrating the inner voice. As she states in her interview with Moyers, being part of a culture that still has living oral traditions and vital heroic figures and inspiration from her Aunt Lois Harjo Ball helped her develop this voice within her. As a result of this and her upbringing, she discovered multiple muses who have appeared in her writing process, such as the old Creek Indian, and found a motif—a round rocking chair from the Chicago Indian Center—that has consistently reappeared in the corner of her vision as various figures from the Indian Center sat in it to bring her inspiration. Most recently, her works won her the Wallace Stevens Award “for proven mastery in the art of poetry” ( by the Academy of American Poets, and in 2009, she even won a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year with her music. Aside from this, she also regularly contributes to the “Comings and Goings” column of the Muscogee Nation News, and is a Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Stylistically, Harjo’s poems are based upon a combination of prayer, chanting, storytelling and song. In her book How We Became Human, she displays a range of variations of her highly descriptive, freeform poems, many of which convey messages that are both heartfelt and profound. Harjo makes use of both first and third person narrative in her poems, displaying a versatility in perspective through works like “For Alva Benson, and For Those Who Learned to Speak” (Harjo 33-34)—with the third person—and “This Is My Heart” (167-168)—using a first person viewpoint. Some of her poems also make use of structural repetition and run-on sentences, like “Say I… ” and “Say we…” in “Desire” (Harjo 81), as well as “This Is My Heart”, with:

“This is my heart. It is a good heart.

This is my soul. It is a good soul.

This is my song. It is my song.”

Harjo’s writing is mainly focused upon the subjects of her Native American identity and personal survival, the twin realms of the earth and the spirit world, and human connection. In “Crossing the Border”, Harjo recounts her experience of crossing the Canadian border. She describes herself and her travel party as “Indians in an Indian car, trying / to find a Delaware powwow / that was barely mentioned in Milwaukee” (Harjo 20-21), a group of Americans both native to and separated from their home nation in the prejudice they are subjected to. Despite this injustice, Harjo continues to view the world around her with eyes open to its beauty, praying to the “gods of the scarlet light” (Harjo 127-128) and admiring how “the sun breaks over the yawning mountain” in “Songline of Dawn.” Similarly, Harjo is highly attuned to her spirituality, developing a sense of self-awareness and belief in powers that exist beyond our physical realm. In her poem “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles” (Harjo 141-142), she observes that “the shimmer of gods / is easier to perceive at sunrise or dusk” and that “we must matter to the strange god who imagines us as we revolve / together in the dark sky on the path to the Milky Way.” She seamlessly weaves spiritual concepts into poems regarding the physical realm and creates a world that is both ethereal and beautiful. Finally, Harjo emphasizes the power and importance of human connection—love, most vitally—in “The Creation Story” (Harjo 91-92), as it can “carry a friend from her death / to the stars / correctly” and “keep / [her] people safe / from drought / or gunshot.” To show genuine care and concern for one another is not a weakness in her eyes, it builds stars that constantly watch over us and protects us from fear instead.

Through these many scopes her poems are written through, Harjo conveys an admiration for the beauty of the earth within the context of Native American traditions and history, uniting all her readers in their roots as a single body of undivided tribal people (Moyers 162). In her interview in The Language of Life, she states that she hopes “on some level [her poems] can transform hatred into love” (Moyers 165). Though an ambitious goal for written works like poetry, she understands the full scale of power and influence language can have on opinions, therefore harboring hope that her words can bring positive effect to her readers somehow. Additionally, she wishes to embrace her fear as an ally, rather than antagonize it and view it as an enemy, so as to stop it from becoming a destructive force in our lives. Furthermore, as a poet, she urges us to acknowledge the presence of love, in all its forms, present in the poetry of today. Whether romantic, platonic, patriotic, maternal, or paternal, love is ever-present and allows us to form connections with one another. Finally, because of all these connections forged, Harjo seeks to persuade us into realizing our importance on this earth. Regardless of how little or insignificant we feel, we play a huge role within our own spheres in our world, thereby making us more important than we can ever imagine.

“I am memory alive not just a name

but an intricate part of this web of motion,

meaning: earth, sky, stars circling my heart

centrifugal.” — “Skeleton of Winter”, Joy Harjo

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