Today, on the second of March, I’m featuring Joy Harjo as part of my tribute to Women’s History Month.
Here is where poetry showed up, at this intersection of a glimmer of self-knowledge and the need to make art of whatever materials are at hand.
Joy Harjo is an American poet, musician and playwright. She is a member of the Mvskoke Nation, and is a lauded American Indian activist. She is credited for playing a vital role in the second wave of the American Indian Renaissance of the late 20th century.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951, Harjo has also taught at a litany of schools in the US including the Institute of American Indian Arts, Arizona State, the University of Colorado, University of New Mexico and UCLA. She has published 7 books of poetry, and has released 5 albums of original music. In 1995 she received the lifetime achievement award from the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americans, in 2016 she was the recipient of the Griffin Poetry Prize, and she has also received the New Mexico governor’s award for excellence. In 2009 she received a Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for best female artist of the year.
Harjo is widely praised for her writing, her music and her activism. Her poetry engages with themes of nature and justice. Her work gives voice to voices that have been silenced, and tells stories that otherwise would not be told. Her poetry also speaks of atrocities that have been committed against the American Indian people and then hushed, for instance her poem For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit is Present Here And In the Dappled Stars (For we Remember the Story and Must Tell it Again so We May All Live.) Many people don’t know who Anna Mae Pictou Aquash is, and they do not know the story of her murder. Aquash was an organizer in the American Indian Movement during the 1970s, who was murdered in 1976, and no one was ever indicted for her murder. Her frozen remains were found by the side of state road 73, an autopsy was performed and it erroneously concluded that she died from exposure. She was buried 8 days later with a grave labeled Jane Doe but her remains were exhumed at the behest of the American Indiam Movement, and another autopsy was performed. This time a bullet wound was found at the base of her skull. It is a horror that has been largely silenced, and it is through Harjo’s work that the story reaches wider audiences. The battle for the rights of American Indians is still one that has not been won, and this is a justice that Harjo has been fighting for through her arts for decades.
You are the shimmering young woman
who found her voice,
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed.
To call her a bad ass would be an understatement. I admire her for her courage and the strength she displays by writing about her world. Speaking the truth can be hard, particularly when you are speaking truths that many do not want to hear. Being loud, when the world just wants you to be silent is even harder. Joy Harjo is a hero for doing both of those things, her poetry makes that world a better place. For more information about her life or works, here is a link to her official site. Do yourself a favor and read some of her work.
In the Mvskoke world women are accepted as painters, artists. To make art (whether it be painting, drawing, songs, stories-any art) is to replicate the purpose of original creation.
*quotations are from How we became Human, by Harjo*