I follow poet Joy Haro who speaks from and for indigenous wisdom. The following are pieces that have spoken to me:
“As a poet, I was present at the beginning of the multicultural literary movement in the mid-’70s. There was great resistance in the academy. There still is. I was told that a voice against my hire in a major university believed that multicultural literature was a sham. This was in 2000. A colleague in my first university hired in the mid-’80s sauntered into my office and called me a primitive poet. And anything of indigenous/aboriginal origin often falls away into the “disappeared” or “exotic other” category. Some of us emerge despite the difficulties. Poetry is always diversifying. That is the nature of art. There will always be stalwarts of Euro or even other classical traditions, who dismiss any version or branch. This is true in Muscogean dance traditions, jazz, or any other form. . . . There’s an investment in this country and perhaps all of the Western hemisphere to disappear indigenous peoples. It’s not necessarily a calculated plan. The disappearance happened when physical, mental, and spiritual violence was used to take over lands, when indigenous peoples and cultures were pronounced inferior or even demonic. To accept that there are still indigenous peoples with major cultural and social accomplishments means that the story, or the wound, will have to be reopened and examined. I just have to keep moving and honor the indigenous presence within myself. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do in this American social structure.
Most Americans are in exile from where their spiritual core is,
and they don’t know it.”
I Give You Back
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
You are not my blood anymore.
I give you back to the soldiers
who burned down my house, beheaded my children,
raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.
I give you back to those who stole the
food from our plates when we were starving.
I release you, fear, because you hold
these scenes in front of me and I was born
with eyes that can never close.
I release you
I release you
I release you
I release you
I am not afraid to be angry.
I am not afraid to rejoice.
I am not afraid to be black.
I am not afraid to be white.
I am not afraid to be hungry.
I am not afraid to be full.
I am not afraid to be hated.
I am not afraid to be loved.
to be loved, to be loved, fear.
Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
—by Joy Harjo
from How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975–2001 (W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 2002)
Joy Harjo delivers her poem I Give You Back:
Joy Harjo, a Myskoke* poet, musician, and author, was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951. She is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, with partial Cherokee descent. Her mother is Cherokee and her father is a Creek Indian father—not a very popular union. She is often cited as playing a formidable role in the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln termed the Native American Renaissance of the late 20th century. Ms. Harjo is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Known primarily as a poet, Harjo has also taught at the college level, edited literary journals, and written screenplays. In addition, she plays alto sax.
Harjo has won numerous awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 1995.
MYSKOKE LANGUAGE NOTE
The Muscogee language (Mvskoke in Muscogee), also known as Creek, Seminole, Creek-Seminole, Maskókî or Muskogee, is a Muskogean language spoken by Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole people, primarily in the U.S. states of Oklahoma and Florida.
From Joy Harjo’s memoir, Crazy Brave:
There are people in my family who knew how to stop time or know how to do it. My aunt told me these stories about how Monahwee, my grandfather from seven generations back, could do that. When he’d go out on horseback with his warrior friends he’d always end up somewhere long before it was possible because he knew how to ride the currents of time. It’s sort of like the concept of poetic, or dream time, but it can happen physically. . . . It happened to me once. On a trip I was taking, I get out to the highway and the sign says ‘Atlanta 90 miles.’ The next thing I know I hear the galloping of Monahwee’s horse, and I feel his force and smell the horse and human sweat. Within five minutes I see a sign: ‘Atlanta 60 miles.’ I thought, “Ok. That’s how it happened.” Poetry and music are a lot like that. The rhythm is in everything.
There are three things that the saxophone has taught me about writing: You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in the spirit of the music and your love of it, and you have to practice. The other thing would be patience. Some people don’t publish till their 70s. Follow the spirit of your art and listen. You can’t compare yourself to somebody else. You have to do it because you love it.
Sometimes, I think, in order to get to something that we really want or we really love or something that needs to be realized, that we’re tested. I mean, I think if you look at any stories all over the world, they are usually set up as, OK, here’s where I start, here is where I want to go, and here are the tests. And they were pretty intense tests … I failed a lot of them, or you find a way around. And maybe there is no such thing as failure … at least I’ve had to come to that in my life, to realize that this stuff called failure, this stuff, this debris of historical trauma, family trauma, you know, stuff that can kill your spirit,