Poet Laureate Joy Harjo: Native American History Is US History

Feb 17, 2020

Joy Harjo says it’s not just that the South sometimes glosses over its Native history; it also misses its place in the Native American present.


That’s a major theme of the U.S. Poet Laureate’s new book, from which she will read this month in both Macon and Columbus. 


Joy Harjo remembers reading her poetry in Macon before. It was 20 or so years ago, and back then, something about the audience struck her.


“I noticed that everything was black and white,” she said. “There was no brown. I mean, of course, black is brown. All colors, black and white are all colors of brown.”


What she meant was that as far as she could tell, she was the only Native person in the room. 


“So it was interesting, because I felt when I read, and what I spoke of, was like somebody coming from outer space,” she said.


Of course, Joy Harjo is hardly from outer space. Go back far enough on the Hitchiti side of her family and she is from what we now call Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, on the east side of Macon. She says this just goes to show that Native history is Southern history, even if people are unaware that there are still Southerners who are also indigenous people. 

“And there's still Muskogee people,” Harjo said.

Harjo is Muskogee. And reminding people of that simple fact, and that she is vibrantly alive, have been major themes in her work over the decades. And they are front and center in her first recently published book, her first in her time as poet Laureate, called An American Sunrise.

The seed for it was planted when she took a temporary position at the University of Tennessee a while back in part to live closer to the historic Muskogee homelands. She and her husband made a lot of trips. 

“And I even found a house near Columbus, Georgia, that had belonged to one of our family members on the Chattahoochee River,” she said.


And so at the end of the position, and touring the Muscogee homelands, she took stock. 


“And I stood out and looked at the trees and my spirit asked me, what did you learn here?” 


The answers to that are the poems in An American Sunrise.


“These poems, these poems are about Removal. They're about the love of her place and how we don't forget those places,” Harjo said. 


You may know Removal as the Trail of Tears where President Andrew Jackson, flouting a ruling of the Supreme Court, began the forced migration of 80,000 Native people, and thousands of enslaved African Americans, from the South to what would become Oklahoma. 


Many thousands would die over the next decade. In An American Sunrise, Harjo moves back and forth between Oklahoma where she was born and the South from which her ancestors were forced to leave.


“Those trees and those lands and even the Ocmulgee mounds.... all of that is built into the whole structure of our Muskogee language....is part of our mythological structure or historical structure,” Harjo explained.

“And so that book is my way of consolidating all of that, you know? To try to make sense of it or to speak about it in the way that I know how.”

In her new poems, Harjo suggests that the Trail of Tears isn’t yet over.  

She says today it winds now from Central and South America to the Southern U.S. Border where President Donald Trump is building the border wall. Which is why when President Trump hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson on the oval office wall, there was to her an unmistakable resonance. That manifests in the call and response of the poem Advice To Countries Advanced, Developing and Falling. It begins....

“A country is a person.”

Then the response. 

“A country is a noun to be bought and sold. I have a deed.”

It’s the back and forth tension that led to Indian Removal. 

“It's like going back and forth between two different opposing ways of seeing and understanding land and power,” Harjo said. “It just shows that a lot of the political atmosphere is very similar now to then.”

Because, like Joy Harjo says, Indian History is American History. 


Joy Harjo reads her poetry at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon on Wednesday, Feb. 19 and at the Carson McCullers festival in Columbus on Friday, Feb. 21 and Saturday, Feb. 22.