Writing is a way to survive: Poet Laureate Joy Harjo gives insight into Native American Relations in the U.S.

By Emily Rosenberg

Arts & Features Editor

By Ryan O’Connell

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

Joy Harjo is the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, and the first Native American to hold that title. She attended a panel sponsored by the Henry Whittemore Library Dec. 8. 

In addition to serving as a three-term poet laureate, she is the chancellor of the Academy of American Books and holds the Tulsa Artists Scholarships. She was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

Harjo is the author of “American Joy,” “Crazy Brave,” and “Poet Warrior: a Memoir.”

Harjo discussed an array of topics during the panel, ranging from the importance of time to the impact of relocation on the Muskogees throughout the 19th century. 

She first spoke about the importance of time as an element in poetry, and how it isn’t often thought about the same way images or metaphors included in poems are. “Where did that come from? Where did that happen in time?”

 “We carry time literally in our DNA. In our bone marrow,” Harjo said. “If you could look at bone marrow, and in a certain way, it would look like tree rings and you could tell what happened at certain events.” 

Harjo shared how memories can be used to hurt as well. “And they would say that in Muskogee Creek, my relatives ‘we shouldn’t go back there.’ Well, why? ‘You know, because it’s too painful.’”

She then pointed to the “dichotomy of the situation,” and how “our people fought to stay,” but many now find themselves returning to Tulsa because of the negative memories in their homeland. 

Harjo explained how she began to think through the lens of “eternal time.” 

“Colonization is a blip in terms of what it means to be a Muskogee person. It’s something that … a terrible fracture that we’ve had to deal with, but as Muskogee people, we’re larger than that,” she said. 

Harjo added that this overlapped with the concept of a collective memory, speaking about shared memories from groups as small as families to larger parties. She gave the example of the Twin Towers collapsing, before comparing the idea of a group memory to “a ring” and connecting it to Muskogee history.

“When people go through things together, we tend to pull together in terms of trauma and traumatic events, like a trail of tears, like being forced by gunpoint out of your home,” she said.  

Harjo spoke about the removal of Native Americans who “were forced to leave behind houses, printing presses, doors, cattle, [and] pianos.”

She added in the collective American memory, she thinks they were thought of as “just savages or primitives hiding in the woods with no culture, no humanity,” she said. “We were called savages, devils.”

Harjo pointed out Native Americans had developed “societies, languages, just like any other society,” and reinforced the fact that there were people living in North America before the colonists arrived. 

She criticized the irrational thinking used to justify the forced removal of Native Americans, verbalizing the thoughts of white settlers. “Well, we’re not human beings. And we can take over this whole country, it’s empty. Manifest destiny. No one lives here.”

Harjo is also a musician and can play several instruments including the saxophone and the flute. She has released several albums and won many accolades for them. She described music as helping to carry a story forward. 

She shared a bit of one of her songs, “I pray for my enemies.” 

“We were running out of bread. As we ran to meet ourselves. We were servicing the edge of our ancestors’ fights and ready to strike. It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight,” she spoke over a beat in the song. 

Harjo touched upon the topic of climate change. She said she heard a Native artist speak whose discipline of basket weaving relied heavily on birch trees. 

“He said, ‘we’re not losing the birch trees, the birch trees are losing us,’ and that really stayed with me,” she said. 

She added even the word climate change is interesting because everything is always changing. However, some changes are a natural evolution. “It’s like what happened with colonization. [These changes] are kind of unnatural and destructive.” 

Harjo also discussed how her role as poet laureate has helped her bring awareness to Native American community. She said it is a myth that Native Americans are “all dead.” 

She said her poet laureate project included digitally mapping 47 living Native poets across the United States, which can be accessed through the Library of Congress. 

Harjo also discussed how poetry can play a part in a larger national conversation. 


She said with the COVID-19 pandemic, divisiveness, and attempts to destroy democracy, people go to poetry in times of transformation. 

“A poem can be a place of hope, discovery, a place to land and to acknowledge the miracles of living and breathing and being,” Harjo said.