Joy Harjo is the nation’s 23rd Poet Laureate, named by the Library of Congress, she is on her third term, which she attributes to the pandemic more than anything else. She is the first Native American poet to be so named, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Her project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” introduces Americans to 47 Native American poets using an interactive ArcGIS story map. She selected a map that has no US borders, instead only land and ocean surrounding it, with pinpoint spots you can click on to reveal another poet’s story. They pop up before you and you can read about their lives and hear their work. It is quite something to view and I encourage you to do so online.
She was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma 70 years ago and has led a tumultuous life, accompanied by her ancestors all along the way. She writes about this in her new memoir Poet Warrior, that came out this fall; about the stories and how they have shaped her journey. I am making my way through it as I look for meaning for us in her work. Harjo is a prolific writer having penned nine books of poetry and two books written for children and youth. She took up the saxophone at the age of forty and recently released another album, her seventh! She is tireless in her quest to ensure that all indigenous people, all people, are seen as human beings. We are all earth I heard her say in one interview I listened to.
Harjo grew up in a violent home, her father and grandfather, as well as her stepfather all abusive men. Her mother was a singer and poet but was silenced by the men who married her – no singing allowed in the home after her second marriage, under the threat and often the actuality of physical assault. This went for Joy also, who would sneak opportunities to sing along with popular music when it was safe. As she matured, she felt sexually unsafe in the home – a combination of leering eyes and shaming for the simple fact of one’s womanhood. She says this wasn’t uncommon in Native homes where white men marry indigenous women without regard for their personhood or that of their children, somehow ‘less than’ and unworthy of respect solely because of their heritage.
Harjo left home and attended high school at the innovative Institute of American Indian Arts run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her poetic endeavors began while she was a member of the University of New Mexico’s Native student organization in response to Native empowerment movements, but the words have always been a part of her; a part of her lineage; something passed on to her by those she refers to as “the Old Ones.” She holds a Master of Fine Arts and has taught English, Creative Writing and American Indian Studies at numerous universities.
If you go to her website, you will see the usual accolades – there are many – but in a section marked “Resources and Updates” you will find seven sections that open up to a myriad of connections which offer a window into the soul of this woman. Native wellness, arts, and culture; support for artists and native communities during the pandemic; supporting Indian country; educational resources and more. Each one is replete with projects and organizations and tools that speak to what is most important to her. If I could sum that up, I might say it is about empowering indigenous people while educating the rest of us to their humanity.
The 2020 Supreme court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma ruled essentially that the eastern Oklahoma lands on which the “five civilized tribes” reside were ultimately not disestablished by the 1906 Oklahoma Enabling Act and therefore remain Native American lands and, for the purposes of major crimes are federal lands, making jurisdiction in criminal cases a federal matter. Setting aside the issue of prosecution, Harjo points to the fact that the ruling tells us something that Native peoples had always known; gave them something that they always had and couldn’t be taken from them. The difference for the rest of us is that we rely on the statements of powerful, mostly white, men to make it so. For indigenous people a collective understanding of land and earth and human rights supersedes any colonialist claims. We don’t need to say it is so, in order to make it so! Can we let go of our need to be the leading light in matters great and small?
This question of indigenous people’s humanity has certainly been in the forefront of the news this year as we learn the horrific stories of mass graves of native children at boarding schools in Canada and the US; schools designed specifically to take away their true humanity and force them into ways of being aligned with the white man’s dream. Harjo makes an analogy in an interview I listened to and asks what we would do if aliens came here and told us that they were going to remove all traces of our way of life, our values, our language; take our children, kill those who are noncompliant. What would we do and as generations passed how might that affect who we become; who we are? And still today, she says, indigenous people represent a truth that no one wants to deal with. A reminder of our colonialist ways; of conquest and erasure.
I heard last month that Canada had marked September 30, 2021 as a National Day For Truth and Reconciliation, a day to honor the lost children and survivors of those residential schools; to honor the families and communities. It is a means toward reconciliation; a first step by making a public commemoration that acknowledges both the history and the ongoing impact. It is a day of apology and action – a piece of what reparations can look like – something we looked at earlier this year when thinking about our nation’s enslavement of African Americans and, more broadly, all Black, Indigenous and People of Color. I wonder what we could be doing here in Chatham to explore our history, to learn, to take responsibility, to make apology and to ask what we can do to repair what happened here 400 years ago on these lands? We sit atop this hill, “own” this land, but how aware are we of what was here back then, from whom it was taken, and at what cost?
In response to a question about where her poetry arises from, asked in an either/or form about whether it was from within or outside of herself, Harjo responded true to form with a both/and answer! Perhaps she will have gone for a walk somewhere outdoors and then later maybe she notices an ache within her. Poetry begins with an ache, she says, and then connects to place perhaps and flows out in a dance between the two, I can imagine, the one embraced by the other in fluid form. “The door to the mind should open through the heart,” she says in the title song from her newest album, I Pray For My Enemies.
Harjo shares her life journey, the coming of age of a Native American woman poet. She recalls going for rides with her aunt who would tell her the stories of family and people and place. She carries these within her. Although she never met her great-grandfather, Henry Marcey Harjo, he has been by her side all along. She talks to him, asks him questions, seeks guidance from him, from his story. At one point she asks him why she has been given this burden of bringing words in a meaningful way when she feels herself ill equipped, not the strongest or the best voice, and a woman on top of that in a time when women’s voices are not highly regarded. While he can’t speak to her womanhood, he is clear that we all have gifts, all are worthy of respect and free to make our offering to the world. Through the tumult we have encountered even most recently, it is the voice of her ancestors that she hears. They said there would come a time when we let go of what is truly of value and that the earth and its people would suffer for it; through it. We are in that struggle now, she says. It is not over, and we have our work cut out for us, she seems to imply.
As Unitarian Universalists, how do we respond to that call? Our second Principle appeals to us to act with justice, equity and compassion in human relations; to bring those concepts to fruition in our living and being and doing. Where are we, here in Chatham, needed in this labor of love? What gifts do we bring? What is our offering?
And what of the stories of our ancestors here at the UU Meeting House? What do they contain that we need to name, put words to, work through? The longer I am with you the more I learn about the path you have been on – it’s trials and its joys, both. When truths are hidden, they live just beneath the surface of things, inserting themselves into relationships and processes in ways we don’t even realize until we take a step back; widen the view. Like with Harjo, an honest and nonjudgmental look back brings healing and sets aside shame. Are we willing to do some of this work together in order that we move forward more ready to face next steps?
And finally, I want to ask what our soul material is and where is that placed for people to see? What do we value collectively? What do we support? What tools have we discovered that we can share? As we work on remaking our website, I can envision a place for all of these things! A place that when encountered gives one the impression that they know us deeply and well. A place that lives in service to this faith and its people, to our Principles and the hope of Beloved Community.
I knew I was intrigued by Joy Harjo and now I know why! It is not that she answers the questions for me. It is that so many questions arise for me as I listen to her story – personal inquiries and questions for us and our world. Her prose and her poetry are evocative of a deep yearning for humanity that I share and thus am inspired to move toward. Because, as she said in our reading this morning, “Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.” May it be so for you, too!
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, October 10, 2021