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The Native American Identity in Joy Harjo’s Poetry

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Just as Joy Harjo reflects, humans hold a natural sense of obligation to our ancestors to live out their traditions and a responsibility to our children to instill these same traditions in them. She urges us to speak our truths, not just for our personal sake, but for both past and present generations. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Joy Harjo grew up as a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She is also a musician, author, and the first Native American United States Poet Laureate. Joy’s work is often autobiographical, illuminated by the natural world, and focused on survival and the limitations of language. As highlighted in two of her poems, ‘Fall Song’ and ‘An American Sunrise’, she explores the tension between the dynamics of identity and difference. Considering these two poems by Joy Harjo, we can see through different writing styles how the Native American Identity marked with struggle and ambition and changes throughout time.

Even though the two poems share an author, they have vast differences in narratives. While Harjo adopts different styles of writing in ‘An American Sunrise’ and ‘Fall Song’, both pieces have a similar tone. In ‘Fall Song’ and ‘An American Sunrise’, Joy Harjo pushes audiences to bring recognition of the wrongs of the past, not only for Native American communities but for any oppressed communities, yet she expresses hope for the future. Specifically in ‘An American Sunrise’, Joy is plagued by her ancestor’s past, ‘We / were surfacing the edge of our ancestor’s fights, and ready to strike.’ This quote is very interesting because people believe that the Native American culture died out when in fact it is still thriving today; Harjo makes the connection that ancestors of Native Americans continue to fight their relatives’ battles in modern-day society. Despite the oppression and destruction of their culture, Native Americans assimilated into society. On the other hand, while not outwardly based on the history of Native Americans, the narrator of the poem ‘Fall Song’ is truly struggling with the passage of time, not even just the concept of time itself. ‘If I think behind me, I might break. / If I look forward I lose now’. While the narrator in ‘An American Sunrise’ is looking forward to the future and is hopeful for what it may bring, the narrator in this poem is hesitant. They are stuck in the now, tainted by their past and unsteady with the present and the future. While the two narrators struggle with time in different ways, they both recognize that the passage of it is something that they are unable to control.

Poets use unique writing styles in their work to express feelings, myths, and images to their readers. As each reader is also unique, there are many critical perspectives that allow one poem to have varying effects on different people. Joy’s poems are a window into her life and history and this provides a personal and comforting voice to readers as they indulge in her writings. In ‘Fall Song’, the style of writing internal action, because Harjo is attempting to write the way that we think. As further investigated by Natasha Trethewey, a United States Poet Laureate herself, she provides a crucial insight into the creative style that Joy Harjo uses in this poem. Tretheway says, ‘…What comes before that – short declarative sentences, lines closed with end punctuation and laced with rhyme – is one kind of song. And when that pattern breaks and punctuation falls away, there is a different evocation of song, linked but open, like a long ‘necklace of days’. As Harjo, again, is attempting to write the way we think, each line structure is different; sometimes lines are written as short declarative sentences, marked with strong periods or it is a string of lines with no punctuation at all. This relates to Joy’s belief that writing not only gives her a sense of freedom and but expressing herself is necessary to her survival. Sometimes finding our voice is not writing perfect sentences but expressing how we feel in a short and simple way. The narrator may be struggling to find their way but it is about perseverance at the end of the poem that marks the narrator’s true strength.

In a piece that distinctively talks about Native American culture in the United States, Joy Harjo remembers her ancestors, she revisits what they endured and what they lost. Joy explores a lingering feeling of injustice for her people and attempts to forge a new beginning, one with hope for the future. This poem is rooted in the survival of generations of Native American people. As an homage to poet Gwendolyne Brooks and her poem ‘We Real Cool’, Joy Harjo adapts Brooks’ writing style in her own poem, ‘An American Sunrise’. In using the first person ‘we’ at the end of many lines in the poem, it suggests that whoever the ‘we’ represents in the poem that they too had a feeling of hope for the future and were willing to put the past behind them, to remember the injustices but to carry on anyways. ‘An American Sunrise’ is a story of survival and triumph. Significantly, at the end of the poem, the narrator says, ‘We are still America. We know the rumor of our demist. We spit them out. They die soon.’ Following the writing style with the repetition of ‘we’, the poem is written in simple sentences with ‘we’ ending each line. In contrast to the split style of ‘Fall Song’, ‘An American Sunrise’ is a story, a beautiful story that shares the tale of past and future generations.

In addition, there is true importance of having a Native American as the author of these poems because they are able to use personal experience to reflect their own narrative and morals in their work. For example, in ‘Fall Song’ the narrator says, ‘I have found you in the story again’. To whomever the ‘you’ this narrator is referring, in some way this person has rediscovered a part of themselves or another person they had lost. While this line holds a lot of mystery, it also seems to hold hope for what comes next. While again this poem is not directly about the trials and tribulations of Native Americans, if one looks at the poem with a biographical lens, they understand how Joy Harjo’s experiences influenced this text.

Furthermore, a large part of Native American literature is all about rediscovering themselves in both American history and modern-day society. Similarly, in ‘An American Sunrise’, the narrator seems tired of the stereotype about their people and the cyclical pattern that they feel lost in. This person is outwardly struggling with their identity, Harjo writes, ‘We were running out of breath, as we ran to meet ourselves … We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin / will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing’. These lines call attention to the confusion and the exhaustion that the narrator must be feeling and the desire to break this cycle of violence and discrimination. The narrator wants to form his/her own identity, they want to create their own path, to be able to break free of the chains of their ancestors. It is remarkable that Joy Harjo is able to express her own identity in such a haunting and beautiful way.

History is a narrative, told from the point of view of the winners. Joy Harjo’s poems ask readers to challenge that narrative. In both ‘Fall Song’ and ‘An American Sunrise’, Harjo questions the American identity, she asks audiences to bring recognition of the wrongs of the past, not only for Native American communities but for any oppressed communities, yet she expresses hope for the future. In drawing on more knowledge from the Native American identity, Tommy Orange, the author of ‘There There’ writes an intense novel that grapples with a complex and painful history of the plight of the urban Native American, and the Native American in the city. It is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, woven in history and remembrance. Orange urges readers to recognize the wrongdoings of the Pilgrims and acknowledge the Native American’s quest for survival. He wraps up this story with this quote, ‘Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere’. This is a very powerful quote to end on, it encapsulates the Native American struggle into American Identity. It is about their history and struggles with time, it is about the quest for survival. There is such an importance in authors sharing their story. Joy Harjo will forever be honored for the light that she brought to Native American Literature. Right from the titles ‘An American Sunrise’ and ‘Fall Song’ readers know of the beauty and hope that Joy has for the future because once they finish these poems, they too become a part of the new Native American narrative. 

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The Native American Identity In Joy Harjo’s Poetry. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-native-american-identity-in-joy-harjos-poetry/
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