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U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo on opening a ‘doorway of hope’ for indigenous artists

Joy Harjo, the new poet laureate of the United States, is the first Native American to achieve that honor. Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with Harjo, a member of Oklahoma's Muscogee Creek Nation, in Tulsa to discuss how arts shaped her upbringing, her perspective on contemporary "forces of hatred" and why her accomplishment represents a “doorway of hope” for other indigenous people.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is a fresh voice these days leading the poetry world.

    Joy Harjo is the first Native American to serve as poet laureate of the United States.

    Tonight, she will give her inaugural public reading at the Library of Congress. She is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, who grew up in Oklahoma.

    Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with Harjo in Tulsa to talk about her life and career.

    It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A recent night at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in Tulsa. The leader of the band blowing her saxophone is a poet.

  • Joy Harjo:

    His feet are made of his mother's spiritual concern.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And not just any poet. Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the new poet laureate of the United States, appointed by the Library of Congress, to begin her term this month.

  • Joy Harjo:

    It's quite an honor.

    And what is especially exciting to me is that I'm carrying this for — it's for America, but for indigenous peoples in particular.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You feel that?

  • Joy Harjo:

    Yes. And it becomes a doorway.

    Yes, we're human beings, and yes, some of us are poets. Some of us are astronauts. Some of us are really good at fixing cars. But we're human beings. And some of us write poetry. And so it makes a doorway of hope.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So people were surprised you moved home, huh?

  • Joy Harjo:

    Yes, they were.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Harjo, now 68, grew up here in Tulsa in a mixed Native and white working-class neighborhood, child of a beautiful mother of mixed Cherokee and European ancestry who loved to sing, and a handsome Creek father Harjo adored, but whose drinking would lead to the end of the marriage.

    Does it make sense, when you look back to that girl then, to now?

  • Joy Harjo:

    Well, she still has the same loves that I do. You know, there's still music. I love poetry. I never thought I would be a poet.

    I mean, that — certainly, if you look in this neighborhood, that wasn't a career.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Joy Harjo:

    There are no poets here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In her memoir, "Crazy Brave," Harjo writes of a childhood of joy and discovery, but also great pain, including a stepfather who abused her mother, and eventually pushed Harjo to leave home for the Institute of American Indian Arts, then an all-Native school in Santa Fe.

    A teenaged mother, she later attended the University of New Mexico, where she was involved in the '60s and early '70s Native rights movement. Art was her first love. She continues to draw and paint to this day. Poetry didn't come until her 20s.

  • Joy Harjo:

    Poetry came along at that time. I basically put a pen in my hand, and that's how I came through it. And it had a lot to do with investigating history and finding a voice when I felt that I had no voice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    She would go on to write nine volumes of poetry, including the brand-new "American Sunrise," often examining personal, Native and national histories bound together.

    She traces her ancestors to the once-thriving indigenous civilization that populated the Southeastern U.S. before being forcibly removed. Harjo recently taught at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she wrote the poems for her new book, including the line: "I returned to see what I would find in these lands we were forced to leave behind."

  • Joy Harjo:

    I had come there, and we were living up on a block that my great-great-great-great grandfather Monahwee, I knew he had stood there when he used to go to Knoxville to steal horses.

    Well, he wasn't really — they weren't really stealing them, because the horses were on stolen property. And I looked down into those beautiful trees, toward those beautiful mountains, and said — asked — well, I heard my spirit ask: What did you learn here?

    And that's how it started.

    I know I came here with my dad.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In Oklahoma, Harjo took us to the historic Creek Council House in Okmulgee, what became the capital of the displaced nation in 1867.

    A plaque outside commemorates another distant relative, Samuel Checote, who was born in Alabama and served as principal chief of the Creek Nation here.

    This is a history that most people probably don't know.

  • Joy Harjo:

    No, there's…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The whole removal, the Trail of Tears.

  • Joy Harjo:

    No, usually I think most Americans think the Trail of Tears is one trail, and it's Cherokee.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Joy Harjo:

    But there were many trails of tears. Even the Navajo people had a trail of tears. And now there's another trail of tears coming up from the South.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you connect those — what's going on now at the border to…

  • Joy Harjo:

    Definitely, because there was no border before. It wasn't that long ago, just a few generations.

    And this was the House of Warriors, which is more like the — more like Congress.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's the continuity of history, which we explored inside the council house, now a cultural center.

  • Joy Harjo:

    He is probably one of the more well-known Native poets of his time. He's often published in some of the anthologies of…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is he going to be in yours?

  • Joy Harjo:

    Yes, of course.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there's the world we live in today, where Harjo has a residency in a Tulsa arts program and, among many other things, is editing a new anthology of Native poets.

    You came of age at this moment of a very strong Native political movement, right, of civil rights.

  • Joy Harjo:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And I wonder where are we now.

  • Joy Harjo:

    Back to the beginning.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Backwards?

  • Joy Harjo:

    Yes.

    These times are very similar to the times of Andrew Jackson, the times of Indian removal, with — where, you know, hatred, the utter hatred of not everyone, not — it's not everyone. In fact, I think those forces of hatred are really a relatively small part of the population.

    But whatever this force is, it's the same force that said Natives weren't human. It's the same force that came in and said, well, you are more powerful if you have more money than anyone else, or that you're more powerful if you have light skin, or you're more powerful if you're male.

    There's something about that that's destructive to everyone, because we were all created by a creator who loved us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Native rights, women's rights, poetry, music, which she didn't take up seriously until her 40s, and a sense of history.

  • Joy Harjo:

    History is people. History is stories. It's poetry. And that's what I love about poetry, and that's how poetry teaches me. Poetry has taught me that you can time-travel in a poem. You can get to know people in a poem.

    And poetry is the place you can come to when you have no words.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And when the performance is over, the sax-playing, history-seeking poet laureate relaxes by shaking it all out on the dance floor.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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