Joy Harjo: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know



The poet and musician Joy
Harjo has been named the
oet laureate of the Unite
States. Harjo, a member
f the Muscogee (Creek) Na
ion, was born in Oklahoma
and lives in Tulsa. Her a
pointment as poet laureat
, which was announced on
une 19, makes her the fir
t Native American to serv
in the position. In an interview with NPR,
Harjo said that her appoi
tment was a great honor n
t only for herself, but f
r her ancestors and for a
l Native people in the Un
ted States. “It’s such an
honoring for Native peopl
in this country, when we
ve been so disappeared an
disregarded,” Harjo told
NPR. “And yet we’re the r
ot cultures, over 500-som
thing tribes and I don’t
now how many at first con
act. But it’s quite an ho
or … I bear that honor on
behalf of the people and
y ancestors. So that’s re
lly exciting for me.” You
can also watch Harjo disc
ss her appointment in an
nterview with the America
Academy of Poets, here.
arjo told the Academy tha
as poet laureate she hop
s to represent not only N
tive voices, but all Amer
can voices. In a poem titled “Running
” published by the New Yo
ker in 2018, Harjo melded
history, memory, and spir
tuality to tell her own s
ories. The poem reads, in
part, I thought I could take be
ng a girl with her heart
n her Arms. I carried it for ju
tice. For the rights of a
l Indians.           We all had that
cross to bear. Those Old Ones followed m
, the quiet girl with the
long dark hair, The daughter of a warrior
who wouldn’t give up.” You can read the whole po
m — and listen to audio o
Harjo reading it — here.
Here’s what you need to k
ow about Joy Harjo: 1. She Is a Poet & Musici
n Who Tours with a Band C
lled Arrow Dynamics & Has
Released 4 Albums of Orig
nal Music In addition to being a po
t, Harjo is a saxophonist
and a singer. She perform
d for many years with a b
nd called Poetic Justice
nd now tours with a group
called Arrow Dynamics. Ha
jo has released four albu
s containing original mus
c. You can hear some of h
r music and watch her per
orming here. In 2009, she
won a Native American Mus
c Award for Best Female A
tist of the Year. Harjo also performs in a
ne-woman show, “Wings of
ight Sky, Wings of Mornin
Light,” which debuted in
2009. The Poetry Foundati
n notes that she’s at wor
on a play, “We Were Ther
When Jazz Was Invented.”
Harjo is a founding membe
of the Native Arts and C
ltures Foundation. She has also taught creat
ve writing both at the Un
versity of New Mexico and
at the University of Illi
ois at Urbana-Champaign,
rbana. 2. She Says Her Last Name
Means ‘So Brave You’re Cr
zy’ Harjo’s father was a Musc
gee/Creek Indian and also
an alcoholic, who was mos
ly absent from his daught
r’s life. Her mother, acc
rding to the LA Review of
Books, was “a pretty, mix
d-blood Cherokee mother w
o made wrong choices when
it came to men.” Harjo gr
w up in Tulsa, struggling
with poverty and with her
own multi-racial identity
As an adult, she abandon
d her father’s last name
nd took on her paternal g
andmother’s maiden name,
arjo. Harjo is a Muscogee
Creek name meaning “crazy
brave,” or “reckless.” Joy Harjo is also the aut
or of a memoir which nods
at her surname; the book,
published in 2013, is tit
ed Crazy Brave: a Memoir.
The work describes Harjo’
childhood and her journe
to become a poet. The bo
k describes her relations
ip with her abusive stepf
ther; it also describes h
r spirituality and her ri
h inner life. The Los Ang
les Review of Books calle
the memoir “Insightful…B
ings one of our finest―an
most complicated―poets i
to view…Raw and honest.” Harjo’s first complete bo
k of poems, “She Had Some
Horses,” was first publis
ed in 1983. Her other poe
ry collections include Th
Woman Who Fell from the
ky and “How We Became Hum
n.” Harjo is also the aut
or of several children’s
ooks, including “The Good
Luck Cat.” 3. She Has a Son & a Daug
ter Harjo left home when she
as 16, after her abusive
tepfather kicked her out
f the house. She moved to
Santa Fe, New Mexico and
nrolled in the Institute
f American Indian Arts. W
ile there, she met Phil W
mon, a fellow student at
he Institute. The two mar
ied and had a son, also n
med Phil. That marriage e
ded in divorce. After her son was born, H
rjo supported herself at
string of dead-end jobs.
“I spent three years work
ng in a hospital, cleanin
rooms, working in a heal
h spa, pumping gas in a m
ni-skirt in Santa Fe, all
those kind of jobs. And I
decided I wanted somethin
more,” she told the LA T
mes. Harjo went on to study at
the University of New Mex
co. She entered the unive
sity as a pre-med student
but soon switched her con
entration to art. Harjo a
so met the poet Simon Ort
z, a leading figure in th
so-called Native America
Renaissance. He was a me
tor to her and, eventuall
, a romantic partner. The
have a daughter together
named Rainy Dawn. 4. Harjo Said She Was an
Insecure’ Child Who Was ‘
fraid to Speak’ & Found H
r Voice as a Performer Harjo survived an abusive
childhood living in near-
overty in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Her father was an alcoho
ic who became abusive whe
he was drunk. Her mother
later remarried, but Harj
’s stepfather was also ab
sive and violent. Harjo t
ld the LA Times that she
idn’t like to talk too mu
h about her early childho
d, a time when, she says,
she was “so insecure and
o shy . . . a child who w
s afraid to speak.” At 16, Harjo left home an
enrolled in a competitiv
boarding school, the Ins
itute of American Indian
rts in Santa Fe, New Mexi
o. She told the LA Times
hat going to the school s
ved her life. “I was luck
to end up going to schoo
there. In a way it saved
me. I think if it hadn’t
ntervened, I probably wou
dn’t have lived very long
” she said. “I mean, it’s
hard being an adolescent
nyway, but I had a lot of
wars going on” at home. Harjo said she got over h
r shyness when she starte
performing in school pla
s. She also found a voice
as a visual artist. As an
adult, Harjo performs in
one-woman show and plays
music; you can see some o
her performances here. 5. Harjo Says Poetry Was
er Way of Dealing with He
Fears & Inner ‘Monster’ In an interview with NPR
ack in 2012, Harjo said t
at as a troubled young wo
an, poetry was a salvatio
for her. She said that w
iting poetry gave her a v
ice — the voice that she
eeded in order to live. H
rjo told NPR, “I needed t
find my voice, I think,
n order to live. And this
came at that time when I
urned around, and I was f
rced to turn around and l
ok at the monster and see
the monster. And this poe
came out.” After graduating from the
University of New Mexico,
Harjo earned a Master of
ine Arts degree in poetry
at the Iowa Writers Works
op. But she says that she
was always a little bit w
ry of the written word si
ce, she has pointed out,
he Indian tradition is or
l, rather than written. H
rjo mused about the oral
radition among Native Ame
icans in an interview wit
the LA Times. She said,
The knowledge was kept by
remembering. And that’s o
e of my theories about al
oholism among Indian peop
e, that we’re basically c
ming out of an oral cultu
e, where you’re taught to
remember everything. And
t can be hard to forget.” She added, “There’s an ir
ny in being a human being
There’s an irony in writ
ng. I feel that all the t
me. Maybe that’s why I’ve
been trying to play a lot
more music. I get so frus
rated with words, and the
r limitations.”

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