Joy Harjo; photo Karen Kuehn

“There are certain moral and ethical implications when you interact with people — that’s where the crisis is. And we are in a crisis. There was a break, and it wasn’t just for Native people. If there’s a massacre, it’s a massacre in the imaginations and hearts of those who kill and those who are killed. It’s a relationship,” said Joy Harjo, the Muskogee poet, essayist, and musician who has been making waves with her writing since the mid-1970s. She was talking about the political situation in the United States, colonization, and even ecology.

“If you look at history, European colonization is the blink of an eye. This whole country is in a crisis of puberty — this small, young country. America is like an adolescent with no sense of history, time, or consequence. It thinks it will live forever.”

Born and raised in Tulsa, Harjo has been an unofficial Santa Fe resident since she attended high school at the Institute for American Indian Arts in the late 1960s and early ’70s, back when it was located on Cerrillos Road at the Santa Fe Indian School. “Santa Fe had one traffic light, and the Plaza was all old Spanish and Native people. It was rare that you saw any other people — except for hippies,” she said. She currently lives in Knoxville, where she is a professor in creative writing at the University of Tennessee, but she plans to move back to Oklahoma soon — and get a house in New Mexico. “I’ve lived here more than anyplace else.”

She was not a writer when she went to IAIA — she studied drawing and theater. “We learned Greek theater, Theater of the Absurd, stagecraft. We pulled in modern dance, chanting, performance. We made what we called Native theater.” After IAIA she went to the University of New Mexico, where she studied art and then creative writing when they began offering classes. From there she went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a world-renowned graduate program that turned out to be less than open to her sense of aesthetics. “Santa Fe is a community that knows Native arts and artists. There’s a place for us; we are recognizable as distinct cultures. I’d heard Iowa was the best place,” she said. “I went with my two small kids in my truck. It was different there. I was friends with [Chicana writer] Sandra Cisneros, and our poems — there was a definite exclusion about where we were coming from.”

Undeterred by criticism, Harjo went on to publish her first full-length volume of poetry in 1979, What Moon Drove Me to This? She has written more than a dozen books of poetry, as well as some nonfiction and children’s literature. As a musician, she has released four albums, including Winding Through the Milky Way (2008) and Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears (2010). Her graduate school experience is not separate from the larger colonization process, she said. “Colonization deeply involves every person in society. We’re looking at a culmination of that right now in our political system. We’re seeing a huge divide. I keep wondering about the source of that. And I keep going back to the origins of this country.”

If every non-Native American is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants, then, she said, a tremendous number of them came to this country in exile. “Their hearts were broken. You leave your home because there’s tragedy. People love their home and want to be in their homelands. That wound was never healed.” The road to healing is through the arts and education, she said, although she sees the fearsome reach of a reactionary culture that mistrusts these institutions. “They want to do away with university money and money for education in so many states. The people who are moving into power don’t want the people to imagine anymore, or think. It’s a larger closing-down that’s at work because the wounding is so huge.”

Though she sees a divide in the United States between north and south in ways that indicate to her that the Civil War never really ended, she stressed that prejudice and hate are not limited to disaffected white men wielding torches and screaming in the streets. When she was teaching at a university in Colorado, a professor came into her classroom, sat on her desk, and told her that there were two kinds of poets in the world, Jacob and Esau — a reference to an Old Testament story about the sons of Isaac. In this professor’s view, Jacob was refined and Esau was primitive. “ ‘You’re an Esau poet,’ he said, and then he walked out of my room. I knew he didn’t want me there.”

Harjo, who has taught at several colleges and universities, is associated with the master of fine arts program at the Institute for American Indian Arts, which recently distanced itself from another luminary of Native literature, Sherman Alexie, when it was revealed that he had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with young writers. Harjo declined to talk with much specificity about Alexie, whom she has known for decades, but was willing to speak in broad terms about power and its ramifications.

“There’s a way to do things, and everything has a cost,” she said. “We can all get blindsided by our needs and wants — and what we crave.”

Again, she emphasized, this situation isn’t separate from the bigger picture. “What happens when power is running without safeguards? Safeguards have been compromised; the power has gone astray. It’s better to safeguard it. It’s our life source. But people start thinking it belongs to them. We have someone sitting there who thinks he’s the only person in the world, and he is very representative of Western civilization. Common sense says there’s something wrong. If you put somebody in a leadership position and they’re acting like that — in any kind of organization — you would think there is something wrong and that he needs help. What do we do to help this person? He’s part of all of us, and he’s out of control.” ◀

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