Joy Harjo

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,240 words

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About this Person
Born: May 09, 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet



  • The Last Song (Las Cruces, N.Mex.: Puerto del Sol, 1975).
  • What Moon Drove Me to This? (New York: Reed Books, 1979).
  • She Had Some Horses, edited by Brenda Peterson (New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1983).
  • Secrets from the Center of the World, by Harjo and Stephen Strom (Tucson: Sun Tracks/University of Arizona Press, 1989).
  • In Mad Love and War (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1990).
  • Fishing (Browerville, Minn.: Ox Head, 1992).
  • The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (New York: Norton, 1994).
  • Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writing of North America (New York: Norton, 1997).


  • Origin of Apache Crown Dance, screenplay by Harjo, Silver Cloud Video, 1985.


  • Furious Light, Watershed, 1986.
  • Harjo and Poetic Justice, Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century, Red Horse Records, 1996.


  • "Ordinary Spirit," in I Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), pp. 263-270.
  • "The Flood" and "Northern Lights," in Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories, edited by Craig Lesley (New York: Dell, 1991), pp. 133-138.
  • "Writing with the Sun," in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, edited by Sharon Bryan (New York: Norton, 1993), pp. 70-74.
  • "Fire," in The Woman That I Am: The Literature and Culture of Contemporary Women of Color, edited by D. Soyini Madison (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), p. 3.


  • "Bio-poetics Sketch for Greenfield Review," Greenfield Review, 9 (Winter 1981-1982): 8-9.
  • "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window," Wicazo Sa Review, 1 (Spring 1985): 38-40.
  • "Three Generations of Native American Women's Birth Experience," Ms., 2 ( July-August 1991): 28-30.
  • "Family Album," Progressive, 56 (March 1992): 22-25.


The poetry of Joy Harjo has consistently evolved toward an increasingly diverse and complex vision of contemporary America. In her poems the land speaks through the voices of people who are intimately connected to it. Seeking a state of balance, Harjo attempts to resolve such polarities as love/hate and male/female.

Joy Foster was born on 9 May 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Allen W. and Wynema Baker Foster; she is of French, Irish, and Cherokee descent on her mother's side and Muskogee (Creek) on her father's. His family included a long line of tribal leaders and orators, including Monahwee, who led the Red Stick War against Andrew Jackson's army. In 1970, with the permission of her family, Joy Foster took the surname of her paternal grandmother, Naomi Harjo. An enrolled member of the Muskogee tribe, Harjo credits her great-aunt, Lois Harjo Ball, who died in 1982 and to whom Harjo dedicated her book She Had Some Horses (1983), with teaching her about her Indian identity.

Harjo attended high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, graduating in 1968. She walked four blocks to the Indian hospital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to give birth to her son, Phil Dayn, when she was seventeen; her daughter, Rainy Dawn, was born four years later in Albuquerque. Between the children's births Harjo worked as a waitress, a service-station attendant, and a nursing assistant; cleaned hospital rooms; and led a health-spa dance class. She completed a B.A. in English at the University of New Mexico in 1976 and an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Iowa in 1978. She taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1978-1979 and at Arizona State University in 1980-1981, studied filmmaking at the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe in 1982, and taught at the University of Montana in 1985, the University of Colorado in 1985-1988, and the University of Arizona in 1988-1990. Since 1991 she has taught at the University of New Mexico. She has served as a contributing editor of Contact II and Tyuony and as poetry editor of High Planes Literary Review; she has also served on the boards of directors of the National Association for Third World Writers and the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium and on the policy panel for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Hearing the poet Simon Ortiz read from his works on the University of New Mexico campus in 1971 inspired Harjo to change her major from painting to poetry. Other influences she has mentioned include Leslie Marmon Silko , Flannery O'Connor , James Wright , Pablo Neruda, Meridel Le Sueur, Galway Kinnell , Leo Romero , Audre Lorde , Louis Oliver, and June Jordan . Harjo told Marilyn Kallet in a 1993 interview, "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."

The poetry in Harjo's first book, The Last Song (1975), reflects her strong connection to the landscape, history, and native people of the Southwest. In the title poem she says that her breath evolved from "an ancient chant" that her mother knew. She acknowledges that the land she left behind is still part of her: "oklahoma will be the last song / i'll ever sing." (Most of the poems in the book use minimal capitalization and punctuation.) Other poems hearken back to memories, transmitted by her mother, of life in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, areas from which Harjo's Muskogee and Cherokee ancestors were forcibly moved to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the late 1830s on the Trail of Tears. Still other poems indicate Harjo's feeling of relatedness to Native Americans of other tribes. In "3AM" she writes of "trying to find a way back" to "a part of the center / of the world": Old Oraibi, a Hopi village in Arizona that may be the oldest settlement in the United States. In "Conversations Between Here and Home" she expresses concern and respect for women who have suffered abuse from men and are struggling to rebuild their lives:

angry women are building
houses of stones
they are grinding the mortar
between straw-thin teeth
and broken families.

Harjo expresses frustration with communication in contemporary America, which increasingly takes place by telephone rather than face-to-face. In "Are You Still There" the narrator finds it hard to talk to the man she has called; his voice overwhelms her when he says, "'i have missed you'"; the narrator's voice, "caught / shredded on a barbed wire fence," "flutters soundless in the wind." In a similar poem, "Half-Light," from her second book, What Moon Drove Me to This ? (1979), the narrator is awakened by a telephone call from a man with whom she cannot live but whom she still loves: "even in the emptiness we are mad for each other, / but it twists me the fear his voice makes."

Since the publication of What Moon Drove Me to This?, Harjo's poetry has received acclaim from critics, and her work has been included in anthologies of Native American poetry. While Harjo's poetry has evolved from her own experience, her vision has consistently moved outward. In Native American Literature (1985) Andrew Wiget says that "at her best the energy generated by this journeying creates a powerful sense of identity that incorporates everything into the poetic self, so that finally she can speak for all the earth." In The Sacred Hoop (1986) the Native American writer and critic Paula Gunn Allen calls Harjo "a poet whose work is concerned with metaphysical as well as social connections."

In the title poem of She Had Some Horses, kinds of horses represent types of people, from those who willingly serve others to those who are aloof and self-centered. Horses also represent the various elements of nature, from "blue air of sky" to "bodies of sand." In "Bio-poetics Sketch for Greenfield Review" (1981-1982) Harjo says that digging in the "dark rich earth" as a child was a formative experience in her development as a poet, and through the voices in her poems in She Had Some Horses the ground speaks. In "For Alva Benson and for Those Who Have Learned to Speak" Harjo writes,

And the ground spoke when she was born.
Her mother heard it. In Navajo she answered
as she squatted down against the earth
to give birth.
Women like Alva Benson, who know that the land is their source of life, are symbols of strength and continuity in Harjo's poetry.

Harjo does not romanticize the lives of Indians in She Had Some Horses , however. In "Night Out" she considers some of the reasons for Indian alcoholism. As they try "another shot, anything to celebrate this deadly / thing called living," Indians find that

You have paid the cover charge thousands of times over
with your lives
and now you are afraid
you can never get out.
The speaker in "The Friday Before the Long Weekend" expresses frustration in trying to teach a "drunk child."

In "White Sands" a woman driving to Tulsa for her sister's wedding knows that she does not fit her mother's image of what she should be. But the woman's image of herself -- "I will be dressed in / the clear blue sky" -- gives her, as Allen says in The Sacred Hoop, an "unbroken and radiant connection with something larger and more important than a single individual" such as her mother.

Women in Harjo's poems long for the security of a family and a home, a security that is often lost to people who live in cities. In the powerfully moving poem "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window" in She Had Some Horses Harjo describes a woman "hanging by her own fingers, her / own skin, her own thread of indecision," "crying for / the lost beauty of her own life." Not just one suicidal woman in Chicago, she becomes a metaphor: "all the women of the apartment / building who stand watching her, stand watching themselves." The image of the woman hanging, though imagined, seems so real that women have often told Harjo that they have known or read a newspaper article about the woman in the poem.

Harjo's frequent use of repetition in the poems in She Had Some Horses creates a chantlike impression; in "The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window," for example, Harjo writes:

She thinks of Carlos, of Margaret, of Jimmy.
She thinks of her father, and of her mother.
She thinks of all the women she has been, of all
the men. She thinks of the color of her skin, and
of Chicago streets, and of waterfalls and pines.
She thinks of moonlight nights, and of cool spring storms.
In an article about the poem in the Wicazo Sa Review (1985) Harjo says that in poetry, as in ceremonies, stories, and oratory, the use of repetition can transform a statement into a "litany," giving the reader "a way to enter in to what is being said and a way to emerge whole but changed." The repetition not only of words but also of sounds and rhythms energizes Harjo's poetry. C. B. Clark notes that "A cadence marks her work that is reminiscent of the repetitions of the Indian ceremonial drum."

The character Noni Daylight appears in many of the poems in She Had Some Horses. In "Kansas City" Harjo writes that "Noni Daylight's / a dishrag wrung out over bones." There could be no more precise metaphor for a worn-out woman. Yet Noni accepts her life, choosing

to stay
in Kansas City, raise the children
she had by different men,
all colors. Because she knew
that each star rang with separate
colored hue, as bands of horses
and wild
like the spirit in her.

Harjo's poetry includes many references to the history of colonization and oppression of Native Americans and other people of color in the United States. Through surrealistic imagery her poem "Backwards" in She Had Some Horses alludes to the colonizers' wasteful disregard of nature and women:

The moon came up white, and torn
at the edges. I dreamed I was
four that I was standing on it.
A whiteman with a knife cut pieces
away and threw the meat
to the dogs.
As Allen points out in The Sacred Hoop, Harjo's poetry "finds itself entwining ancient understandings of the moon, of relationship, of womanhood, and of journeying with city streets, rodeo grounds, highways, airports, Indian bars, and powwows. From the meeting of the archaic and the contemporary the facts of her life become articulate." John Scarry refers to the "poetic fluidity of Harjo's simultaneous physicality and spirituality, and her ability to combine the eternal past and the continuing present."

Another poem in She Had Some Horses, "New Orleans," comments more directly on the colonization of Harjo's Creek culture. She describes the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto as "one of the ones who yearned / for something his heart wasn't big enough / to handle. / (And DeSoto thought it was gold)." But the Creeks, she says, "lived in earth towns, / not gold, / spun children, not gold." According to the poem, the Creeks drowned de Soto in the Mississippi. Nevertheless, the narrator says,

I know I have seen DeSoto,
having a drink on Bourbon Street
mad and crazy
dancing with a woman as gold
as the river bottom.
The poem presents an image of reverse assimilation, in which the influence of the land and native culture has been pervasive, though unacknowledged, on the colonizers.

In the chant "I Give You Back" Harjo powerfully confronts oppressors past and present from two perspectives. The first is individual:

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.

The second perspective is cultural:

I give you back to the white soldiers
who burned my home, 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.

Overcoming fear of various forms of oppression is a central theme in She Had Some Horses. Harjo goes even further in her poem "Transformations," included in In Mad Love and War (1990). In a letter addressed to someone who "would like to destroy me," she rejects revenge, calling instead for a willingness to transform hatred to love: "Bone splintered in the eye of one you choose / to name your enemy won't make it better for you to see." Frank Parman, in his review in The Gayly Oklahoman (December 1990), says that In Mad Love and War "demonstrates the range of her poetic development, from the 1979 narratives of Indian bar and powwow flirtations to a visionary mixture of past and present." From the blues lament "Strange Fruit" to "Resurrection," set in Nicaragua, the powerful poems in this collection tell the horrible truth about oppression while at the same time celebrating the beauty of the natural world.

Scarry compares one of the poems in In Mad Love and War to the visionary poetry of William Butler Yeats : "'Deer Dancer' may be seen as something of a Native American 'Second Coming'"; the "sterility of the landscape and the objective yet involved tone of Harjo's speaker" are similar to the landscape and tone of Yeats's poem. Yet, Scarry says, "'Deer Dancer' more directly invites the reader to share in the humanity of the 'Indian ruins' sitting so desolately in our native landscape." Unlike Yeats, who questions and fears the coming of the new age, Harjo's "Deer Dancer" interprets the woman in a dingy bar as a symbol of promise and her dance as a blessing.

The title of another poem in the volume, "Strange Fruit," is taken from a song by Lewis Allan that Billie Holiday recorded in 1939; the song is a graphic and metaphoric description of lynching and a lamentation for the "strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees." Harjo's poem emphasizes that too much remains unchanged since those days. Harjo dedicated the poem to Jacqueline Peters, who was hanged from an olive tree in Lafayette, California, in 1986. Peters had been working to organize a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in response to the 1985 lynching of a twenty-three-year-old black man. Written from the point of view of a woman being lynched, the poem ends with an extremely long line followed by a short one: "I only want heaven in my baby's arms, my baby's arms. Down the road through the trees I see the kitchen light on my lover fixing supper, the baby fussing for her milk, waiting for me to come home. The moon hangs from the sky like a swollen fruit. / My feet betray me dance anyway, from this killing tree."

"For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars (for we remember the story and must tell it again so we may all live)" memorializes a Micmac woman whose body was found in February 1976 on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. When her body was buried, Aquash had not been identified, and the coroner attributed her death to exposure. When it was discovered that the body was that of Aquash, a member of the American Indian Movement, the body was exhumed, and a second autopsy was performed. The autopsy revealed that Aquash had been killed by a bullet fired at close range into the back of her head, and many were outraged to learn that the first coroner had cut off the woman's hands and turned them over to an FBI agent. Harjo speaks to Aquash's ghost:

Anna Mae,
everything and nothing changes.
You are the shimmering young woman
who found her voice,
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed.
You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.
In Mad Love and War won the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize from New York University, and the Josephine Miles Award from the Oakland, California, branch of PEN.

In "The Place the Musician Became a Bear," included in The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994), Harjo links her interest in jazz to her Indian heritage: "I've always believed us Creeks ... had something to do with the origins of jazz. After all, when the African peoples were forced here for slavery they were brought to the traditional lands of the Muscogee peoples." When she was in her thirties Harjo taught herself to play the saxophone with the help of the Muskogee and Kaw jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper, and she plays soprano and alto saxophone with Poetic Justice, an all-Native American band. The music of Poetic Justice accompanies Harjo's reading of ten of the poems from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky on an audiocassette that is sold with the book. In reading the poems Harjo makes alterations that clarify the poems' meanings.

Many of the poems in the collection are myths created by Harjo, and they are followed by prose accounts of the people, ideas, or events that inspired them. Believing that "the word poet is synonymous with truth-teller," Harjo tells the poetic and mythical truth, followed by the literal truth. The title poem is the story of Lila and Johnny, who meet as children at an Indian boarding school. After graduation Johnny joins the army and goes to Vietnam; Lila works days cleaning houses and nights at the Dairy Queen. While the two are apart Johnny names himself "Saint Coincidence," and Lila has three children. Having leaped into the "forbidden place," Lila has fallen; but she is caught "in front of the Safeway" by Saint Coincidence. Love, then, places the two in a spiritual state of grace. In the comment that follows the prose poem, Harjo says that she understands "love to be the very gravity holding each leaf, each cell, this earthy star together."

"The Naming" links Harjo's granddaughter Haleigh Sara Bush to Harjo's maternal grandmother, Leona May Baker. Haleigh was born out of "wind bringing rain," and "My grandmother is the color of night as she tells me to move away from the window when it is storming. The lightning will take you." But when the poem ends, "The earth is wet with happiness." In the italicized prose passage following the poem Harjo says that as a child she did not like her grandmother; but she was "prompted to find out more" about the woman before her granddaughter's birth. After hearing her mother's story about her grandmother, Harjo "began to have compassion for this woman who was weighted down with seven children and no opportunities." When Haleigh was born, Harjo "felt the spirit of this grandmother in the hospital room" and "welcomed her." Leona May Baker's story, like many others in the book, is violent. Returning home from working on the railroad for nine months, Harjo's grandfather found her grandmother pregnant with another man's child. He beat her so severely that she "went into labor and gave birth to the murdered child." After that, the two "attempted double suicide. They stood on the tracks while a train bore down on them as all the children watched in horror." At the last second Harjo's grandfather pushed her grandmother off the tracks and leaped to safety.

In "Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century" Harjo records another story of violence, this one told to her by "Rammi, an Igbo man from northern Nigeria," as he drove her "in his taxi to the airport." Rammi's friend was shot in the back of the head early one morning as he was "filling his taxi with gas." In the commentary following the prose poem Harjo says that she finds that she has "much in common with many of the immigrants from other colonized lands who come here to make a living, often as taxi drivers." The final poem in the book, "Perhaps the World Ends Here," however, is a peaceful one. The speaker is seated at the kitchen table: "The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on." Here, in the mundane center of the house, the cosmic meaning of life is revealed.

Harjo narrated the six-part series The Native Americans, broadcast on Turner Network Television in October 1994. In late 1996 she was working on "A Love Supreme," a poetry collection to be published by W. W. Norton; "The Goodluck Cat," a book for children, to be published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; and "Reinventing the Enemy's Language," an anthology of Native American women's writing. She was also writing a screenplay, "When We Used to Be Humans," for a motion picture to be produced by the American Film Foundation.




  • Joseph Bruchac, ed., Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987), pp. 87-103.
  • Laura Coltelli, "Joy Harjo," in her Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), pp. 54-68.
  • Marilyn Kallet, "In Love and War," Kenyon Review, 15 (Summer 1993): 57-66.
  • Stephanie Izarek Smith, "Joy Harjo," Poets and Writers Magazine, 21 ( July-August 1993): 22-27.
  • Coltelli, ed., The Spiral of Memory: Interviews. Joy Harjo (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).


  • Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon, 1986), pp. 124, 160-166.
  • Allen, ed., Studies in American Indian Literature (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983), p. 123.
  • Allen and Patricia Clark Smith, "Earthly Relations, Carnal Knowledge: Southwestern American Indian Woman Writers and Landscape," in The Desert Is No Lady, edited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 174-196.
  • Dan Bellm, "Ode to Joy," Village Voice, 2 April 1991, p. 78.
  • C. B. Clark, "Joy Harjo (Creek) b. 1951," in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, volume 2, edited by Paul Lauter and others (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1994), p. 3049.
  • Laura Coltelli, "Harjo, Joy," in Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 105-106.
  • Maura McDermott, "Joy Harjo: Poetic Justice," Oklahoma Today, 43 (September-October 1993): 46-47.
  • John Scarry, "Representing Real Worlds: The Evolving Poetry of Joy Harjo," World Literature Today, 66 (Spring 1992): 286-291.
  • Andrew Wiget, Native American Literature (Boston: Twayne, 1985), pp. 116-117.
  • Wiget, "Nightriding with Noni Daylight: The Many Horse Songs of Joy Harjo," in Native American Literature, edited by Coltelli (Pisa: SEU, 1989), pp. 185-196.
  • Norma C. Wilson, "Joy Harjo," in Dictionary of Native American Literature, edited by Wiget (New York: Garland, 1994), pp. 437-443.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200007407