I first encountered Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, at the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the late 1990s.
At an offsite event she read some poems, then sang and played her saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice. I was transfixed. I picked up a book of her poetry, “In Mad Love and War” (Wesleyan University Press, 1990), which she signed and inscribed, “For Chris, For Justice, For Love.”
I have carried that book with me through every move, every bookshelf culling, every physical and emotional transformation since. At a time when I was just beginning to appreciate poetry, Harjo’s work became a touchstone against which pretty much everything else would be measured. The poetry of other writers has come and gone, but Harjo’s work has remained lodged deep in my heart.
Joy Harjo was named U.S. poet laureate in June 2019. She is the first American Indian to hold that position, and she embodies everything a poet should. She is a fierce writer. She is a fierce advocate and defender of social justice. She is a fierce member of a proud Indigenous people. She is everything a people could want in an elder, wise and generous, but also a little frightening. That we have had to wait so long to have one of us as poet laureate (I am Chippewa-Cree Métis, enrolled with the Little Shell Tribe) is beside the point.
“An American Sunrise” (W.W. Norton, 2019) is her latest book, published a month ahead of schedule after the news of her award was announced. It is her first since 2015, and is magnificent. It reads as a scrapbook of a kind that chronicles Harjo’s return to, and exploration of, her Muscogee homelands in eastern Mississippi. Harjo’s people were forcibly removed in the 1830s as a result of Andrew Jackson’s inhuman Indian Removal Act. From there they were force-marched to Indian Territory — Oklahoma — on what history calls the Trail of Tears, and the lands of their birth taken from them.
It is a story familiar to many tribes, in many parts of the world. Through poems, songs, and excerpts from the writing of others, Harjo uses that dark history, with her own story juxtaposed over it, to explore themes of survival and renewal. There is much love in these pages, but there is also a deep, burning anger.
Two poems — “Seven Generations” and “For Earth’s Grandsons” — do well to sum up much of the message “American Sunrise” delivers: hope for our future in the form of oncoming generations, both those born and yet to be. Nor is “our future” specific to Native people, but the global “our,” as in all of us on this earth. Harjo’s is a voice to lead us to that future, through justice and through love, both now and after she leaves us.
Children play with full bellies
At the edge of the mating dance.
Beneath a sky thrown open
To the need of stars
To know themselves against the dark.
All night we dance the weave of joy and tears
All night we’re lit with the sunrise of forever
Just ahead of us, through the trees
One generation after the other.
FOR EARTH’S GRANDSONS
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Stand tall, no matter your height, how dark your skin
You spirit is all colors within
You are made of the finest woven light
From the iridescent love that formed your mothers, fathers
Your grandparents all the way back on the spiral road —
There is no end to this love
It has formed your bodies
Feeds your bright spirits
And no matter what happens in these times of breaking —
No matter the dictators, the heartless, and liars
No matter — you are born of those
Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands
All through the miles of relentless exile
Those who sang the path through massacre
All the way to sunrise
You will make it through —