Joy Harjo (born on May 9, 1951, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mvskoke) is a poet, musician, and author. She is also the first Native American United States Poet Laureate. She is an important figure in the second wave of the literary Native American Renaissance of the late twentieth century. She studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts, completed her undergraduate degree at University of New Mexico in 1976, and earned an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa in its Creative Writing Program.
In addition to writing books and other publications, Harjo has taught in numerous United States universities, performed at poetry readings and music events, and released five albums of her original music. Her books include An American Sunrise (2019),Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015), Crazy Brave (2012), and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2002 (2004). She was a recipient of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. In 2019, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Harjo was born on May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her father, Allen W. Foster, was Muscogee Creek, and her mother, Wynema Baker Foster, has mixed-race ancestry of Cherokee, French, and Irish. Harjo is the oldest of four children and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
She attended a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for high school. At the age of 16, she attended the Institute of American Indian Arts. Harjo loved painting and found that it gave her a way to express herself.
She enrolled at the University of New Mexico and started in pre-med. Harjo changed her major to art after her first year. During her last year, she switched to creative writing to write poetry, as she was inspired by different Native American writers. She graduated in 1976. Harjo earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1978. The poet also attended the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to take classes on filmmaking.
Harjo taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts from 1978 to 1979 and 1983 to 1984. She taught at Arizona State University from 1980 to 1981, the University of Colorado from 1985 to 1988, the University of Arizona from 1988 to 1990, and the University of New Mexico from 1991 to 1995.
Harjo has played alto saxophone with the band Poetic Justice, edited literary journals, and written screenplays.
In 1995, Harjo received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas.
In 2002, Harjo received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award for A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales. In 2008, she served as a founding member of the Board of Directors for the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, for which she serves as a member of its National Advisory Council.
Harjo joined the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in January 2013.
In 2016, Harjo was appointed to the Chair of Excellence in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
In 2019, she was named the United States Poet Laureate. She is the first Native American to be so appointed.
Literature and performance
Harjo has written numerous works in the genres of poetry, books, and plays. Harjo's works often include themes such as defining self, the arts, and social justice.
Harjo uses the oral tradition as a mechanism for portraying these issues, and believes that "written text is, for [her], fixed orality". Her use of the oral tradition is prevalent through various literature readings and musical performances conducted by Harjo. Her methods of continuing oral tradition include story-telling, singing, and voice inflection in order to captivate the attention of her audiences. While reading poetry, she claims that "[she] starts not even with an image but a sound," which is indicative of her oral traditions expressed in performance.
Harjo published her first volume in 1975, titled The Last Song, which consisted of nine of her poems. Harjo, through many readings and performances, shows great passion and emotion for the subjects she writes about. She often mixes both reading and singing her poems during performances, displaying two elements of her works.
Harjo uses symbolism throughout her poetry to express her beliefs and values. She draws from personal experiences to shape her writing. In her poem titled "She Had Some Horses", she uses many different forms of symbolism. As an important animal in Native American culture, the horse has been often used as a symbol. This poem has four sections; they are each arranged to complement one another. In this poem, Harjo uses sounds and rhythm to energize her poetry. Chris Rohit wrote on her Christoph Young blog, "The many symbols of each repetition of a horse represented the experiences of the Native American woman, by starting each line with "She had horses" helped strengthen the Native's identity." Harjo used this distinct repetition to show a woman as strong as the animals she most depended on in daily life. She also used this distinct imagery to tell a story of a Native woman who had been victimized but showed her survival through an animal. Harjo uses repetition to emphasize her ideas.
She leaves the overall meaning of the poem up to the reader to complete. "This poem is all about the people in Joy's life and she referred to them all as horses, with a specific trait or characteristic following that. They were all the same but at the same time, different." Harjo is using horses in her poem to compare herself to all of the people in her community and to explain how she feels in her community with others around her.
Julia Morse wrote, "Harjo's poems ache with grit, grief and nature. Her lines are curt and heavy but they construct delicate stories." In this poem, Harjo explains her growing years by using an animal very important in Native American culture. Harjo uses symbolism to express her hardships and values.
As a musician, Harjo has released five CDs, all of which won awards. These feature both her original music and that of other Native American artists. Harjo's mother was a singer. Harjo learned to play the alto saxophone and the flute later in life. She also sings and acts, frequently touring with her music group known as the Arrow Dynamics.
In 2009 Harjo won the Native American Music Award for best female artist. She has received several other awards (see below) for her CDs.
She began to play the saxophone at the age of 40. For her it fills the void she felt left by her singing voice. She had also learned that her paternal grandmother, whose surname she took when enrolling in the Creek nation, had loved the instrument from her years in Indian Territory before Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907. Harjo believes that when reading her poems, she can add music by playing the sax and reach the heart of the listener in a different way. When reading her poems, she speaks with a musical tone in her voice, creating a song in every poem.
In addition to her creative writing, Harjo has written and spoken about US political and Native American affairs. Her website contains several blogs expressing her views on current political issues and her strong support for women's rights and equality. She is also an active member of the Muscogee Nation and writes poetry as "a voice of the indigenous people".
Harjo's poetry explores imperialism and colonization, and their effects on violence against women. She sometimes places her poem in a common setting, such as drinking in a bar in "An American Sunrise", and connects it to deep issues within the indigenous culture. Scholar Mishuana Goeman writes, "The rich intertextuality of Harjo's poems and her intense connections with other and awareness of Native issues- such as sovereignty, racial formation, and social conditions- provide the foundation for unpacking and linking the function of settler colonial structures within newly arranged global spaces".
In her poems, Harjo often explores her Muskogee/Creek background and spirituality in opposition to popular mainstream culture. In the United States, residents are influenced by the proliferation of images from television, film, and other media. In a thesis at Iowa University, Eloisa Valenzuela-Mendoza writes about Harjo, "Native American continuation in the face of colonization is the undercurrent of Harjo’s poetics through poetry, music, and performance." Harjo's work touches upon land rights for Native Americans and the gravity of the disappearance of "her people", while rejecting former narratives that erased Native American histories.
While Harjo's work is often set in the Southwest, she writes about individual struggle. She reflects Creek values, myths, and beliefs. Harjo reaches readers and audiences to bring realization of the wrongs of the past, not only for Native American communities but for oppressed communities in general. Her activism for Native American rights and feminism stem from her belief in unity and the lack of separation among human, animal, plant, sky, and earth. Harjo believes that we become most human when we understand the connection among all living things. She believes that colonialism led to Native American women being oppressed within their own communities, and she works to encourage more political equality between the sexes.
Of contemporary American poetry, Harjo said, "I see and hear the presence of generations making poetry through the many cultures that express America. They range from ceremonial orality which might occur from spoken word to European fixed forms; to the many classic traditions that occur in all cultures, including theoretical abstract forms that find resonance on the page or in image. Poetry always directly or inadvertently mirrors the state of the state either directly or sideways. Terrance Hayes’s American sonnets make a stand as post-election love poems. Layli Long Soldier’s poems emerge from fields of Lakota history where centuries stack and bleed through making new songs. The sacred and profane tangle and are threaded into the lands guarded by the four sacred mountains in the poetry of Sherwin Bitsui. America has always been multicultural, before the term became ubiquitous, before colonization, and it will be after."
Harjo is a mother of two, her son Phil Dayn and daughter Rainy Dawn. Dawn is the daughter of poet Simon Ortiz.
- 1st and 2nd Place Awards in Drawing, University of New Mexico Kiva Club Nizhoni Days Art Show (1976)
- Writers Forum at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Colorado (1977)
- Outstanding Young Women of America (1978)
- National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships (1978)
- 1st Place in Poetry in the Santa Fe Festival of the Arts (1980)
- Outstanding Young Women of America (1984)
- New Mexico Music Awards (1987)
- NEH Summer Stipend in American Indian Literature and Verbal Arts, University of Arizona (1987)
- Arizona Commission on the Arts Poetry Fellowship (1989)
- The American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award (1990)
- Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, New York University: In Mad Love and War (1991)
- Oakland PEN, Josephine Miles Poetry Award (1991)
- William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America (1991)
- American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation: In Mad Love and War (1991)
- Honorary Doctorate from Benedictine College (1992)
- Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont (1993)
- Witter Bynner Poetry Fellowship (1994)
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of The Americas (1995)
- Oklahoma Book Award: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1995)
- Bravo Award from the Albuquerque Arts Alliance (1996)
- Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Musical Artist of the Year: Poetic Justice (1997)
- New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts (1997)
- Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Writer's Award for work with nonprofit group Atlatl in bringing literary resources to Native American communities (1998)
- Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award: Reinventing the Enemy's Language (1998)
- National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships (1998)
- Writer of the Year/children's books by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for The Good Luck Cat (2001)
- Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2001 (2003)
- Arrell Gibson Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Oklahoma Center How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2001 (2003)
- Storyteller of the Year Native Joy for Real by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. (2004)
- Writer of the Year – Poetry How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2001 (2004)
- Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers "Writer of the Year" for the script A Thousand Roads (2005)
- United States Artists Rasmuson Fellows Award (2008)
- Eagle Spirit Achievement Award (2009)
- Nammy Native American Music Award (2009)
- Mvskoke Women's Leadership Award (2011)
- John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2014)
- Wallace Stevens Award in Poetry by the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors (2015)
- Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2017)
- United States Poet Laureate (2019)
- University of New Mexico Academy of American Poets Award
- Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award
- Featured in Pushcart Prize Poetry Anthologies XV & XIII