Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
June 19, 2019; NPR

Joy Harjo is the first Native American US Poet Laureate. She was appointed this week by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who said that Harjo’s work “powerfully connects us to the earth.”

Harjo claims membership in the Muscogee Creek Nation. She is also the first poet laureate from Oklahoma. Her bibliography includes not only several books of poetry, but also a memoir, children’s books, and five albums of original music; Harjo plays the saxophone.

Her appointment by Hayden is hopeful and calls for the reading public to shift focus. Harjo’s work deftly blends easily grasped physical imagery, often from the natural world, with acknowledgement of forces unseen. Though invisible, her evocations are not abstract, and represent both the real shadows and struggles that are part of American and Native identities, and faith in the strength and eventual triumph of her narrators and subjects.

Fellow Poet D.A. Powell tweeted, “Joy Harjo serving as the new US Poet Laureate might be the first thing to happen in Washington DC this year that actually makes sense.”

Poet laureates are not often known or recognized by the wider public, but they serve an important role to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,” specifically in English. Some, like Natasha Trethewey or Maxine Kumin, hold public conversations; others, like Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins, try to get the public to read more poetry. Both Juan Felipe Herrera and Rita Dove used the opportunity to highlight work from particular cultural backgrounds, Herrera from Spanish speakers and Dove from the African diaspora.

The position we now know as poet laureate was begun in 1937 with an endowment from philanthropist Archer M. Huntington. In 82 years, Harjo is the first laureate of indigenous heritage.

She said, “I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem. I count among these ancestors and teachers my Muscogee Creek people, the librarians who opened so many doors for all of us, and the original poets of the indigenous tribal nations of these lands, who were joined by diverse peoples from nations all over the world to make this country and this country’s poetry.”

Harjo is also a founder of the Native American Arts and Cultures Foundation, which, like much of her poetry, projects a hopeful message: “The arts and cultures of the diverse indigenous people in this country are powerful, beautiful, and growing, and offer perspectives that inspire creative solutions to some of our nation’s most difficult collective challenges.” The foundation promotes indigenous artists through grants, advocacy, and education in collaboration with other Native organizations.

Harjo’s work acknowledges the foundational injustices with whose consequences her tribe still lives; her poem “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” contains the lines,

The lands and waters they gave us did not belong to them to give. Under false pretenses we signed. After drugging by drink, we signed. With a mass of gunpower pointed at us, we signed. With a flotilla of war ships at our shores, we signed. We are still signing. We have found no peace in this act of signing.

But that poem appears in a book of the same name, whose dedication reads,

Bless the poets, the workers for justice, the dancers of ceremony, the singers of heartache, the visionaries, all makers and carriers of fresh meaning—we will all make it through, despite politics and wars, despite failures and misunderstandings. There is only love.

Harjo will serve as poet laureate from September to May.—Erin Rubin