Harjo, Joy

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Joy Harjo

Native American Joy Harjo (born 1951) is a multi–faceted writer, artist, and musician, who often performs her poetry live with her band, Poetic Justice. Trained first as a painter, Harjo shifted her attention to poetry during her undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico. Of Muscogee Creek heritage, Harjo often draws on Native American spirituality and culture in her work, as well as spotlighting feminist concerns and musical themes. Harjo has taught at the University of Colorado, the University of Arizona, and the University of New Mexico, and has written several television scripts and screenplays. She has been honored with numerous awards and fellowships for her writing.

Harjo was born on May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the oldest of four children born to Allen and Wynema Foster. Her mother, who was only 19 when Harjo was born, was of Cherokee and French descent, and her father traced his heritage to the Muscogee Creek tribe. Harjo's parents divorced when she was eight years old. She credited her great aunt, Lois Harjo Ball, with fostering her interest in her Creek roots. The Creek leader Menawe, one of Harjo's ancestors, led the battle against the United States Army's forced relocation of American Indian tribes, which came to be known as the Red Stick War. Harjo's great–great grandparents moved to Oklahoma, which was then Indian Territory, in the 1830s when the United States government forced Creek tribes from their lands in what is now Alabama and Georgia.

Discovered Poetry

As a young girl, Harjo expressed an interest in the ministry, but was dissuaded from this profession after a pastor at her church insulted two Mexican girls. Harjo next turned to painting, following in the footsteps of her great aunt. She studied art as a boarding student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she also attended readings by Native American poets such as Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon Ortiz. She had a son, Phil, while a student there. Harjo continued to pursue painting as an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico (UNM), where she also studied the Navajo language. In her senior year, inspired in part by a reading by poet Galway Kinnell, she shifted her focus to creative writing.

In a 1993 interview with the Kenyon Review, Harjo also attributed her interest in language to family influences. "I have a grandfather, my father's grandfather, who is a full–blooded Creek Baptist minister," she recalled. "I often feel him and I know much of what I am comes from him (including my stubbornness!) I know that he has a love for words and he spoke both Muscogee and English. My mother used to compose songs on an old typewriter. I think she loved the music more than the words, she wasn't particularly a wordsmith, but could translate heartache."

Despite the shift from art to language, Harjo told the Kenyon Review that she approaches writing with an artist's eye. "I always said that when I grow up I am going to be a painter, I am going to be an artist," she said. "Then I made the decision to work with words and the power of words, to work with language, yet I approach the art as a visual artist. From childhood my perceptions were through the eye of a painter." Harjo's daughter, Rainy Dawn, was also born while she was at UNM.

Harjo graduated from UNM in 1976 and, two years later, completed a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa. She published her first poetry collection in 1975, a chapbook titled The Last Song, which focused on Harjo's early life in the Southwest and first established her as a writer centering on Native American themes. All the poems from The Last Song, as well as 48 others, were collected in her first full–length work, What Moon Drove Me to This?, published in 1980. In later years, Harjo sought to distance herself from this early work. "It was a very young book. There are probably only two good poems in it—poems that showed promise," she told Poets & Writers in 1993. "It was a painful book, written during a difficult period in my life. You could see the beginnings of something, but it wasn't quite cooked."

Launched Career

Harjo also began to teach poetry, first as a writer–in–residence at Navajo Community College and through the New Mexico Poets in the Schools program and the State Arts Council of Oklahoma, and later as a professor at the University of Colorado, University of Arizona, and her alma mater, the University of New Mexico. In 1983 she published one of her most highly regarded volumes, She Had Some Horses. The title poem, which concludes with the lines "She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. / These were the same horses," expresses the duality of human nature with which Harjo grapples in much of her work. The poem's chant–like quality is also emblematic. Harjo has rarely spoken in detail about the poem, but in The Language of Life she told interviewer Bill Moyers, "That ending probably comes out of dealing with the contradictory elements in myself, as I feel them." The image of horses surfaces often in Harjo's work and, in revealing the reasons for this to Moyers, Harjo also offered insight into the mystic aspect of her writing process. "I was driving my little red truck from Albuquerque to Las Cruces . . . and somewhere halfway between those cities a horse appeared to me," she recalled. "I could smell the horse and I could see it at the edge of my vision, and this horse was a very old friend, someone I hadn't seen in a long time. . . . I notice that for me certain forces seem to take two or three years before they come into being, and it took about that long before the horses began to emerge. Now I attribute this book to that horse."

Harjo published her next collection, Secrets from the Center of the World, in 1989. The volume featured prose poems focusing on the nature of the Southwest accompanied by photographs by Stephen Storm. Another critically acclaimed collection, In Mad Love and War, followed in 1990. The book represented a departure for Harjo. While still evoking themes related to Native American culture and female strength, she also explored the personal, social, and political dynamics of love and human relationships, and included tributes to several of her musical influences, including Nat King Cole and Charlie Parker. Harjo earned the Josephine Miles Award from PEN Oakland, the William Carlos Williams award from the Poetry Society of America, and the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for this book.

Harjo published The Woman Who Fell from the Sky in 1994. The book revisited many of Harjo's earlier themes, including storytelling, connection to the land, spirituality, and female individuality, and received many favorable reviews. "If it is possible to be dreaming while one is awake and reading a book that is the experience of reading the textured, sensuous word–world of Joy Harjo's fourth book of poetry," wrote Pamela May in Whole Earth Review. "Influenced by her Native–American roots and coming of age in the turbulent sixties, her voice radiates spirituality, relativity, and feminine strength." Writing in Booklist, Pat Monaghan noted that through The Woman Who Fell from the Sky "Harjo fulfills her earlier promise in a stunning, mature, wholehearted, musical series of poems."

Worked as Scriptwriter, Started Band

At the same time as she was publishing these critically lauded volumes, Harjo worked as a scriptwriter, contributing to numerous television documentaries on Native American history and culture. From 1979 to 1984, she served as co–writer on The Gaan Story for Silvercloud Video Productions, and from 1983 to 1984 she served as assistant screenwriter on The Beginning, a production of the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium. She also produced several scripts for the Nebraska Educational Television program We Are One, Umonho, in 1984 and the following year wrote a dramatic screenplay, Maiden of Deception Pass for the consortium. She wrote another screenplay for Nebraska Educational Television in 1986 called The Runaway, and that same year rewrote several scripts for the consortium's program I Am Different from My Brother. She also contributed poetry to the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) program American Indian Artist Series II, on which she worked as a production assistant. Harjo found herself on the other side of the camera in 1989, when she performed and was interviewed on the Bill Moyers' PBS series The Power of the Word. Harjo enrolled in the filmmaking program at the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, from which she graduated in 1992.

In the 1990s, Harjo formed a band, Poetic Justice, with whom she performs her poetry and plays tenor and soprano saxophone. Harjo recalled in her 1993 Kenyon Review interview that she began playing saxophone to gain balance when she began teaching in universities. "[I] was afraid that in that atmosphere of that place, I was going to lose my poetry. That was around the time I started playing tenor sax. I play tenor and soprano now, but I realize that in a way it was a way to keep that poetry and keep that place," she said. Poetic Justice released its first CD, Letter from the End of the Twenty–First Century, in 1996.

In a 1987 autobiographical essay published in the collection I Tell You Now, Harjo explained that traversing many genres and experiences came naturally to her. "I walk in and out of many worlds," she wrote. "I used to see being born of this mixed–blood/mixed–vision a curse, and hated myself for it. It was too confusing and destructive when I saw the world through that focus. The only message I got was not belonging anywhere, not to any side. I have since decided that being familiar with more than one world, more than one vision, is a blessing, and I know that I make my own choices. I also know that it is only an illusion that any of the worlds are separate."

Continued to Publish

In 1998, Harjo co–edited the anthology Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America. She released both a new collection of poems and a children's book in 2000. A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales was regarded as an emotionally direct, fearless work. "This is in many ways the best collection yet from one of our strongest poets," observed William Pitt Root in Whole Earth Review. The Good Luck Cat tells the tale of a disappearing cat who brings good fortune and is narrated by a young Native American girl. Norton published Harjo's selected works in 2002, under the title How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2001. The volume contained a detailed introduction and extensive notes on the poems by Harjo. A review in Publishers Weekly observed that the poems "show the remarkable progression of a writer determined to reconnect with her past and make sense of her present."

In her interview with Moyers published in The Language of Life, Harjo explained how her experience of past and present is filtered through the lens of culture. "There is no question that we have had an incredible history, but I think to understand Indian people and the native mind you have to understand that we experience the world very differently," she explained. "For us, there is not just this world, there's also a layering of others. Time is not divided by minutes and hours, and everything has presence and meaning within this landscape of timelessness."


Moyers, Bill, The Language of Life, Doubleday, 1995.

Notable Native Americans, Gale Research, 1995.

Sonneberg, Liz, A to Z of Native American Women, Facts on File, 1998.

Swann, Brian and Arnold Krupat, eds., I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Wiget, Andrew, ed., Dictionary of Native American Literature, Garland Publishing, 1994.


Booklist, November 15, 1994.

Kenyon Review, Summer, 1993.

Publishers Weekly, May 22, 2000; June 17, 2002.

Whole Earth Review, Summer, 1995; Fall, 2000.