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Native American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo 2019-2022
Photo Credit: Joy Harjo Official Website (Photo by Shawn Miller)

My Poetry Corner April 2023 features the poem “Bless This Land” from the poetry collection An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States 2019-2022. (The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection.)

Born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the first of four siblings, Joy Harjo is a poet, musician, playwright, and author. Her father was Muscogee (Creek) Nation and her mother of mixed ancestry of Cherokee, French, and Irish. Her mother exposed her to poetry at an early age, but painting was her first love.

My mother was a songwriter and singer, Harjo relates in her poem “Washing My Mother’s Body.” My mother’s gifts were trampled by economic necessity and emotional imprisonment. // My father was a dancer, a rhythm keeper. His ancestors were orators, painters, tribal chiefs, stomp dancers, preachers, and speakers… All his relatively short life he looked for a vision or song to counter the heartache of history. Her father’s drinking and abuse ended their marriage.

At sixteen years of age, Harjo’s abusive and violent stepfather kicked her out of their home. She moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she received her high school education at the Institute of American Indian Arts. After graduation, she returned to Oklahoma, gave birth to a son, and returned to New Mexico to pursue a life as an artist. After earning her BA at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in 1976, Harjo moved to Iowa where she completed an MFA in 1978 at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In 1973, then a mother of two children and studying at UNM, she discovered poetry. Through the KIVA Club on campus, she became involved in Native American issues. “We were dispersed Americans, totally disregarded,” Harjo told Olivia Waxman during an interview for the Time magazine in August 2019. “I felt our voices needed to be heard. I started writing poetry out of a sense of needing to speak not only for me but all Native American women.”

In “Exile of Memory,” a narrative poem of 14 verses, the poet returns to their homelands in the Southeast, where they were forced to leave behind, to see what she would find. She ignores the warning by one who knows things never to return for fear of upsetting the dead. Those who had remained on the land welcomed them with stomp dancers and shell shakers, and all night circle after circle made a spiral / to the Milky Way. But what she finds is bleak as we learn in verses four and five:

We are still in mourning.

The children were stolen from these beloved lands by the government.
Their hair was cut, their toys and handmade clothes ripped
From them. They were bathed in pesticides
And now clean, given prayers in a foreign language to recite
As they were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.

Grief is killing us. Anger tormenting us. Sadness eating us with disease.
Our young women are stolen, raped and murdered.
Our young men are killed by the police, or killing themselves and each other.

In the face of such destruction, nothing remained of their ancestors except for their soft presence at the edge of our mind / And we heard their singing. The poet holds on to their memory through her leaving song. I sing it to the guardian trees, this beloved earth, she writes in the final verse. To those who stay here to care for memory. / I will sing it until the day I die.

Harjo’s reverence for the land and all lifeforms is evident in the featured poem “Bless This Land,” the final poem in the collection, expressed as a prayer with two alternate voices: the petitioner and, in italics, the echo of ancestral knowers, poetry maker, and rememberers. The description of the land in terms of the human body calls on us to see ourselves as an integral part of this land we call America. What we do to the land, we do to ourselves.

Bless this land from the top of its head to the bottom of its feet
        From the arctic old white head to the brown feet of tropical

Bless the eyes of this land, for they witness cruelty and kindness in this land
        From sunrise light upright to falling down on your knees

Bless the ears of this land, for they hear cries of heartbreak and shouts of celebration in this land

	Once we heard no gunshot on these lands; the trees and 
        stones can be heard singing

The following verses bless the mouth, lips and speech, arms and hands, heart…on its knees, femaleness and maleness, and two legs and two feet. The knowers remind us that not one is over the other, no human above the bird, no bird above the insect, no wind above the grass. The poetry maker tells us that there is one heart, one body and all poems make one poem and we do not use words to make war on this land.

The six closing verses zoom out, drawing attention to humanity’s complicity in the destruction of the land.

Bless the destruction of this land, for new shoots will rise up from fire, floods, earthquakes and fierce winds to make new this land

        We are land on turtle’s back—when the weight of greed 
        overturns us, who will recall the upright song of this land

Bless the creation of new land, for out of chaos we will be compelled to remember to bless this land
        The smallest one remembered, the most humble one, the one 
        whose voice you’d have to lean in a thousand years to hear—
        we will begin there

Bless us, these lands, said the rememberer. These lands aren’t our lands. These lands aren’t your lands. We are this land.
        And the blessing began a graceful moving through the 
        grasses of time, from the beginning, to the circling around 
        place of time, always moving, always

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Native American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, go to my Poetry Corner April 2023.