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'Poet Warrior' Joy Harjo Wants Native Peoples To Be Seen As Human

Joy Harjo is the first American Indian appointed to the position of U.S. poet laureate. She has a new memoir, Poet Warrior, that’s in part about her family’s history.


Other segments from the episode on September 7, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 7, 2021: Interview with Joy Harjo



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Joy Harjo, is the first Native American to be appointed poet laureate of the U.S., and she's only the second poet laureate to be appointed to a third term, the term she's now serving. Her new memoir, "Poet Warrior," is a personal story, including how she learned to find herself in the spiritual world. It's also the story of how her family connects to the history of Native people in America. She writes about her great grandfather, who survived the Trail of Tears, the government-enforced relocation to what was designated as Indian territory. That's how her family wound up in Oklahoma.

Harjo is a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation and lives in Tulsa. In addition to her own collections of poems, she edited the books "When The Light Of The World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology Of Native Nations Poetry" and "Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology Of First Peoples Poetry." At the age of 40, Harjo started playing saxophone. She plays and recites her poems on her new album, "I Pray For My Enemies."

Joy Harjo, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JOY HARJO: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: I just want to start with a language question. I used the expression Native American. In your book, you say that you don't really like that expression, but I asked you about it beforehand and you said you're kind of with it now (laughter). You're changing your mind. So tell us what words you like to use to describe your heritage and why you have that preference or those preferences.

HARJO: Well, I grew up with the term Indians or American Indians, and of course, that's problematic too. And Native American came out of the academic realm somewhere in the '80s. And for me, I've settled on just Native with the capital N or sometimes I use Indigenous or even, you know, First Peoples.

GROSS: But you said it was OK to use Native American. Explain why you're OK with that.

HARJO: It's become ubiquitous, and even the younger people are using that term. Although among ourselves, we call each other by our tribal nations names.

GROSS: It sounds from your memoir like a real turning point for you as a person and as a poet was the Native empowerment movement of the '60s. What were the issues that you were fighting for then?

HARJO: The '60s I equate a lot with, you know, civil rights. You know, it was a humanity alert that this country is huge, there's more of us and not everyone has equal rights. In the late '60s, I was at Indian boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Not your usual boarding school, but it was an arts school. And I remember hearing about Martin Luther King being killed. And all of that was on the news. And we were all young Native artists there from eighth grade to two years post-graduate. We'd stay up late nights talking and making art together and talking about what it meant to be a Native person and about history and about how our art was part - it was part of history making.

GROSS: And did you become an activist?

HARJO: Yes, I think I always was in some way, you know, is that - I think what I've come to realize that what has motivated my art making is really a strong need for justice, for people to be treated for everyone. And when I say people, I also mean animals and insects and the birds and the earth and the earth person that we are all part of, that there's a key element and that's respect. And, you know, when I became more actively involved as a student at the University of New Mexico, I was painting then and just starting to write poetry. And I remember thinking, if my work does nothing else, when I get to the end of my life, I want Native peoples to be seen as human beings.

GROSS: Were there specific issues related to sovereignty or equal rights that you were fighting for then?

HARJO: I remember sitting as a young person, as a student, sitting in on meetings with coal companies, uranium companies in the Southwest with Native peoples attempting to get a voice in or attempting to turn the story towards respect for the earth, respect for the people to take care of, you know, the quality of water, the quality of people's lives. And I remember at one point going out to do a story just after the Church Rock uranium spill. And there were children out playing in the water and the livestock. And the Navajo speakers were saying, what - we need a word. I mean, how do we come up with a word that will tell the people that even though you can't see it, there is something dangerous here that can harm you and you can't use these waters when it was the only source of water for their livestock?

GROSS: I'd like you to read a poem that I think relates to what we're talking about. And it's in your new memoir. And it doesn't really have a title. It's just kind of integrated into the text. And the first line is, Poet Warrior reached for a gun.

HARJO: OK, here goes.

(Reading) Poet Warrior reached for a gun. She was given a paintbrush, a saxophone, a pen. These will be your instruments of power, the old one said. Though the gun gleamed and pranced as a tool of takeover by governments, even as it danced through the imaginations of revolutionaries as the perfect tool for social change. Do not be fooled, they told her. Violence might be louder, tougher and is often good looking. The power of insight and compassion is fiercely humble and helpful. Be ready for what the story of your age demands. You will be tested. There will be jealousy, envy. But the most difficult enemies will be from your closest circle, even your family. You must act in a manner that will cause no harm to anyone, seven generations back or forward.

GROSS: That's my guest Joy Harjo reading a poem from her new memoir, "Poet Warrior." So you've been a tribal member of the Muskogee Tribe since birth. What does it mean to, like, officially be a tribal member?

HARJO: Well, yeah, that becomes a very hot political subject because there are federally recognized tribal groups and tribal nations in this country. There are tribal nations that are legitimate that are not federally recognized. There are many fake tribal entities that are trying to claim tribal status for a number of reasons. So there's something certainly about belonging. And, you know, I guess, like any family - I think for me, let me just put it here. You know, I belong to a family. And this is my family.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your great grandfather, Monahwee (ph). Am I pronouncing his name correctly?

HARJO: Yeah, Monahwee. He's six generations great grandfather.

GROSS: Oh, so he's like great, great, great, great.

HARJO: Yeah, I have a great grandfather, Henry Marcy Harjo, and then my sixth-generation grandfather, Monahwee, who fought against Andrew Jackson.

GROSS: And you describe him as one of the beloved leaders of our people. You say he and his warriors stood up against Andrew Jackson and the U.S. government against the illegal move from our homelands. So would you describe the removal and the law that made it mandatory?

HARJO: What I can say is that, you know, he went against the law. Andrew Jackson - President Andrew Jackson went against Congress to remove southeastern Native peoples from the lands there into Indian territory, or what became known as Oklahoma. Of course, we did not go willingly. There were several scuffles and fights and even massacres against this illegal removal. But we were force-marched from our homelands. And I think a lot of America thinks - well, they think it's only - there was only the Cherokee or the so-called Five Civilized Tribes that included the Muscogee Creek. But these kind of removals or forced migration or marches happened all over the country.

And we were moved because people wanted those lands. They were very rich - the southeast - very rich in resources and water and animals and plants and so on. But we lost probably at least half of our peoples on that march due to hardship, freezing, violence, rape, all kinds of things that happened on those different removal marches.

I think a lot of America, when they think back in history and see Natives, we were, you know, we were hiding out in the woods, wearing rags and so on. And - but, you know, we had huge societies. I have a great-great-great-uncle who had the largest horse-racing establishment on the Eastern Seaboard, Muscogee Creek man and half Irish. And they wanted that. You know, they wanted what we had.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joy Harjo, America's poet laureate. Her new memoir is called "Poet Warrior." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Joy Harjo, the first Native American to serve as poet laureate. She's now serving her third term. Her new memoir is called "Poet Warrior."

We talked a little bit about one of your great-great-great-great-grandfathers. Your great-grandfather, Henry Marcy Harjo, was somebody who's been very important in your life even though I don't think you ever met him. I think he died before you were born. He ended up having oil money. And this is a really interesting story that also has to do with Native history. So do you want to explain in the simplest terms (laughter) how he ended up living on oil-rich land and getting a lot of money as a result?

HARJO: Yeah, it's a story that happened to a lot of Indigenous peoples who were force-moved from their homelands, as they would put people in lands they figured no one else wanted or didn't consider that maybe even other people lived there. But they would put us on lands that no one else wanted. And then, lo and behold, somebody would discover uranium or oil or coal or gas.

And so what happened after we were removed to Oklahoma and had settled in communities - 'cause we had communal - it wasn't really ownership - communal use of lands. Then the Allotment Act, or the Dawes Act, was put into place. And so the U.S. government started dividing up the land, which meant enrolling people and dividing up the land and giving people parcels of land. Well, one of those parcels that belonged to my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother in the family was near Glenpool. I think it was in Kiefer, a little community called Kiefer, Okla., and that was one of the largest oil fields that had - in the country. I think it was the largest oil field. It was so huge that there were - Glenpool - the town is still there, Glenpool - was basically a lake of oil.

GROSS: So did your great-grandfather keep the oil rights or sell it to an oil company? How did he make the money?

HARJO: Well, they were - you know, he had rights. So, you know, he was getting - they were getting pretty big checks, I take it, you know? It was - they went on trips. He had the first car in Okmulgee, Okla. And so they did fairly well. But it's a story I've always wanted to research because it made me wonder how much Natives were getting per barrel of oil versus non-Native people. And just like the story that was told in "Killers Of The Flower Moon," a lot of tribal citizens were killed or people would marry them, marry different citizens for the oil. And there were all kinds of shenanigans going on to steal, including killing off parents, becoming guardians of the surviving children and getting into the riches that way. So there's a lot of stories.

Well, he wound up - I don't know exactly what happened. I know my father would get oil royalties. And then when he passed, we got oil royalties. But by the time it came to - his share came down to four children, the oil boom - and, you know, a lot of it was gone. So we would get really small checks. And then one day I got a letter from the oil company saying that our rights had been sold. And they produced a document that appeared - it appeared that my father had sold off his mineral rights, but I'm not sure that that really happened. You know, I don't know. I - you know, it's a story - so now we don't have them. And it's a story I've always wanted to investigate because I, you know, I'm not sure that's my father's signature. There's a lot - I have a lot of questions about what happened and what happened to the other shares.

GROSS: By the time it happened, you could no longer ask your father.

HARJO: Right.

GROSS: Native tradition is an oral tradition, not a written tradition. How did you become absorbed in books and poems and language? And did you have people to share that love with?

HARJO: I've been trying to think of the first time I encountered reading or books because we didn't - the only book we had in our house, I think, was the Bible. And I liked the pictures. You know, often there were pictures in those books - or at least the one we had.

And when I went to first grade, when we started to learn how to read, I was so thrilled about what happened with symbols and that, suddenly, it opened up a world to me. I could read. I read all of the books in the first-grade classroom and was sent into the second grade, and it became like a hunger for me. But I liked the sounds. Of course, I like the sound that words make. I like the percussion, the percussive elements and the images and so on. Just like, you know, I - the same kind of thing I heard in my mother's song-making. But the more I read and the more the ability grew, the deeper I could read, the more stories, and I could be transported in much the same way that I could be in that kind of visionary dream world when I was younger. And when we get to about 7, and I think this happens to a lot of us, we forsake those realms of knowing and understanding, and reading helped give that back.

GROSS: Your mother wrote some songs, words and music?

HARJO: Yes, she did. She wrote - when I was really young, she was - and she was still with my father, she was writing songs. And she was so in love with him. And they were ballads, and a lot of them were very sad, but they were so beautiful. And she was going in and recording demos. And the bandleader - a very famous bandleader here, Ernie Fields, took one of her songs and arranged it into a orchestral piece. But she - yeah, she loved music, and she had an old Underwood typewriter that was the most intriguing thing in the house that we were supposed to stay away from. But it was - you know, it could make words. And that all stopped when they divorced. But there was a moment when we were immersed in music in our home.

GROSS: You write that you were hungry for ritual, I guess when you were growing up and became a young woman, and you kind of created an imaginary ritual for yourself. I think one of the problems that you had when you were going from that transition between adolescence and adulthood was that, you know, in going through puberty, you felt like there was no one to protect you from being preyed on by men and young men. Your father and your stepfather were abusive men, so you weren't going to rely on them to protect you. They were part of the problem. Is that part of the reason why you tried to draw on the presence, the, I guess, spiritual presence of, like, your great-grandfathers?

HARJO: Yes, I think that there is always - we don't come in - I don't believe that we come into this world alone. We have assistance. And we have assistance from, I guess, what people call the other side. But they - you know, there's interaction that goes on. And I've learned this, especially being an artist, a writer, a musician, that, you know, there's resonances. You can call it resonances. But, yes, I have always felt this - my great-grandfather, Henry Marcy Harjo, around me exactly when I needed him or his wisdom.

And I think it's true for everyone. I have been at the births of several of my grandchildren, and someone always walks them in. So that - when I was writing this memoir - and I had a dream towards the end of writing it, and in the dream, I was carrying my seventh-generation granddaughter into the world. And it's a ritual. It's a ritual we all do, you know, where you open the blanket and you look at them and you admire them and you look at who's coming in, and you welcome them. And you can - sometimes you can see their gifts and what they're bringing in, and you give them a blessing. And so in the dream, I was holding my seventh-generation granddaughter, and I said, whoa, you look like your grandmother Rainy, and you look Japanese. And in my mind, I'm thinking, I wonder what happened in the story.


HARJO: And then - then I - yeah. So seven generations, and I walked her, I carried her into her story as she was being born. And I believe that it really - in the - I believe - it was one of those dreams that I know that it happened, it is happening or it will happen.

GROSS: Your dreams are very important to you. And from what I've read, it sounds like you keep several journals, and one of them is strictly devoted to dreams. Do dreams have a special significance among Muscogee?

HARJO: I think so. I mean, dreams are - I know for myself - I'll just speak for myself, is that they have been - I could even say companions. It's almost like writing or what you grow into, the kind of space you go into when you create, you know, whether it's poetry or music or even writing memoirs. You go into this space. Some dreams are, well, I ate too much pizza or, you know, I got to work something out here, and it's going to work out through, you know, this, that or the other in the dream. But other dreams are like - like the dream of carrying my granddaughter. I will always remember that because I was just as present and alive there as I am speaking to you right now. And I've had several dreams that have marked major turning points or perceptual events that have helped me along the way.

GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joy Harjo, America's poet laureate, and her new memoir is called "Poet Warrior." We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Joy Harjo, the first Native American to serve as poet laureate of the U.S. She's currently serving her third term. She's a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Tulsa. Her new memoir is called "Poet Warrior." She also has a new CD called "I Pray For My Enemies," in which she reads her poems with music accompaniment and plays saxophone, an instrument she first picked up when she was 40.

You grew up in violent homes. Your father was abusive to you and your mother. He was also very attractive and charismatic and seemed to know it and cheated on your mother. Then you had a white stepfather who was maybe even more abusive. He forced your mother to play Russian roulette while your younger siblings watched. You weren't there at the time. You know, after growing up in a violent home, you wrote, (reading) I made the decision that I would be different. I would make my own life free of marriage, of violence and the dominance of the belief system that demands that women must have a husband and children to be happy. I hadn't seen that happiness at home or in many of the homes around me.

So you had this will to break away and to be different, to be independent, to not depend on a man or children to be happy. But you had a child when you were 17. So what did you do when you were 17 and pregnant? And then were you still 17 when you gave birth or 18? I'm not sure if there's a big difference one way or the other. Yeah. So were you still in school?

HARJO: No, I graduated from high school a year early because I had enough credits from the Institute of American Indian Arts. And I had just been in one of the first all-Native drama and dance troupes. And we performed in some big theaters in the Pacific Northwest and different Native communities, and I came back pregnant - no one knew - and then got on a bus and showed up to the - where the baby's father lived. And he miraculously met the bus. And I lived with his - some friends of his on a couch and then lived with him and his mother and his grandmother. And I didn't know - I didn't know how I was going to get through that or get out of it because I had no means. I had no escape route, really, and I was just trying to make the best of it.

GROSS: How did you get out of that?

HARJO: We moved out of Oklahoma, moved back to New Mexico.

GROSS: We being who? You...

HARJO: My son's father, my then-husband and my son and his daughter, my stepdaughter, we moved back to New Mexico. And there I was again in that circle of other Native artists, and that lifted my spirits because I had community there.

GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people were telling you, that's all very nice, but you have to make some money, and you're not going to be able to support your children by making beautiful things or writing poetry.

HARJO: Yeah, definitely. It's like - well, the art, people could understand. You know, there's artist. I come from a family, my aunt, my grandmother - Naomi Harjo, Aunt Lois Harjo - they were artists. They made paintings - you know, oil paintings. They made real art. And in Oklahoma, growing up, a lot of Native artists all around. But when I went to poetry as - undergrad at the University of New Mexico, when I went to poetry as my major, no one - I got no encouragement - except from the poetry teachers (laughter) - you know, that I was a good poet. But nobody would support - nobody wanted to support poetry, and people were concerned because, you know, how are you going to make a living? And there was a push - at that time, we had a tremendous push for Native peoples to gain degrees in law, in medicine, in the medical fields, in education, in economics because there was a great need. There's, you know, a great need of people to fulfill those roles. But what role does a poet have?

GROSS: You considered becoming a doctor. You went to med school and dropped out pretty quickly because you didn't feel prepared for all the heavy-duty science.

HARJO: Right. I was pre-med when I entered the University of New Mexico with a minor in dance. But...


HARJO: So there you go.

GROSS: You are serving your third term now as poet laureate of the United States. Were there any clues (laughter) along the way that something like that would happen to you?

HARJO: I didn't know exactly where it was going to lead, but I knew it was the direction in which I needed to go. And along the way, there were years that there was no recognition, that what I published or did didn't seem to make a difference. But I followed because it - for me, it made - the path kept opening and opening and opening. And so to become the U.S. poet laureate is quite an honor. But I had no idea. I had no idea that it would come to that.

GROSS: I want to turn the subject to music and poetry. You started playing saxophone when you were 40, which, you know, is considered, like, really late to start to learn an instrument. So did you make your peace when you started playing saxophone, knowing that things wouldn't be as kind of automatic for you as for people who learned as children where, like, you know, like, the chords and the keys - it just becomes second nature because you're learning it when your brain is being formed?

HARJO: Yes, it was - you know, I played clarinet a couple of years when I was younger.

GROSS: Oh, so you had some of the basics.

HARJO: I had some basics, and we were lucky that we had music. We had music and art in elementary school here in Tulsa, at least, you know, in those years. So I had some - I had had some music background. I walked away from music because - around the same time, I stopped singing because, one, the band teacher wouldn't let girls play saxophone, so I left band. And around the same time, my stepfather would not allow me to sing in the house. And...


HARJO: He didn't want - you know, because I think it represented happiness. And I did it in my room - closed-door, listening to Columbia House records that I subscribed to. But you know, it was - it represented - my mother didn't sing. You know, my mother was a singer and songwriter, and she wasn't allowed to sing either - nor did she feel like singing. It was almost as if he had locked up all the - you know, a bird family in a house and forbid us to sing.

GROSS: That is so sad.

HARJO: So I left it all behind. And it wasn't until I was almost 40 that I got a band together. And, oh, I started playing - I started fooling around on a saxophone. I learned the G Blues scale and slowly started playing and got an all-Native band together, mostly Native musicians who were also attorneys. And we started...


HARJO: ...The Poetic Justice. That's the name. We started a band called Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice. And that was the beginning of it.

GROSS: Well, I want to close with a track from the album. And I want to play you reading your poem "Fear" with music accompaniment. I'd like you to introduce it for us and tell us about writing the poem and what inspired it.

HARJO: Yeah. The "Fear" song came about when I was first learning to write poetry as a student at the University of New Mexico. I had discovered poetry readings and Native poets. And that's what opened the door to, actually, me taking up a pen - or getting a typewriter then - and writing my own poetry. And what I've learned about poetry is that, yes, I bring skills to it. But it's all about listening. And so I would listen and write and then, of course, rewrite and rewrite, and rewrite. But this poem came - I feel like this poem was larger than me. And it came to me to be helpful. And it's gone out into the world and been helpful to many people. And I wasn't going to - I have recorded it before. And I wasn't going to record it again. But it seemed like, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of such politically divisive times in this country and on the edge of, you know, ecological disaster that we needed - that this poem song might be useful again. So that's why I decided to add it to this album.

GROSS: So the poem is "Fear." And we're going to hear it from Joy Harjo's album "I Pray For My Enemies." Joy Harjo, thank you so much for talking with us. And stay well.

HARJO: Yeah. Well, thank you so much.


HARJO: I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear. I release you. You are my beloved and hated twin. But now I don't know you as myself. I release you with all the pain I would know at the death of my children. You are not my blood anymore. I give you back to the soldiers who burned down my home, beheaded my children. I give you back to those who stole the food from our plates when we were starving. I release you, fear, because you hold these scenes in front of me and I was born with eyes that can never close. I release you. I release you. I release you. I release you. I am not afraid to be angry. I am not afraid to rejoice. I am not afraid to be Black. I am not afraid to be white. I am not afraid to be hungry. I am not afraid to be full. I am not afraid to be hated. I am not afraid to be loved, to be loved, to be loved, to be loved. Fear.

GROSS: Joy Harjo's new memoir is called Poet Warrior. After we take a short break, the story of one cotton bag that survived being handed down from an enslaved woman to her young daughter, who was about to be sold. We'll hear from historian Tiya Miles, author of "All That She Carried." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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