This spring Joy Harjo completed her three-year term as the 23rd poet laureate of the United States—the first Native American named to the position.

Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is descended from a Native-American leader in the Red Stick War in the early 1800s who fought against Andrew Jackson’s government troops.

She became involved in Native-American activism as a student at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s, where she discovered poetry (which, she says, chose her instead of the other way around). Now, Harjo is also a successful writer, teacher, and musician.

Here, she talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about the healing energy of words—and of poetry in particular.


Katy Koontz: You started college as a premed major before switching to art and then creative writing. What made you want to go into medicine, and how did you then move into the arts?

Joy Harjo: You don’t see poetry as an option on career days growing up. But my grandmother and my aunt were artists, so I knew that was a possibility, and I’ve always been motivated by healing.

When I was a child, my mother wrote music, and I saw how the kind of songs she wrote helped her turn her heartache into something beautiful.

Art always felt like a kind of doorway to me. But I never saw it as a way to make a living. I saw it as a very private kind of experience—it was nothing I ever talked about.

I liked that it was magical.

KK: That sounds very intimate.

JH:Yes, very intimate.

My favorite thing to do was to go outside and just be with the little animals and the roly-polies and also the plants, because they were all very alive, very present.

It was the first time I felt a kind of affirmation for being different, for having a certain kind of vision, and I began to see art in different ways.

I felt myself more present in that kind of place—and in the place of poetry and music and the arts. I went to high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, which was a boarding school for young Native artists from all over the country.

It was the first time I felt a kind of affirmation for being different, for having a certain kind of vision, and I began to see art in different ways.

For example, at that time there were all these movements for social justice and art. Social justice was in a lot of the music—Bob Dylan, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, everybody.

My son was born when I was 17, and I got married when I was 19 and then worked at several jobs, including one pumping gas.

Then I answered an ad to train to become a nursing assistant at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe. I did eight weeks of training.

I discovered I had a little bit of a medical second sense kind of thing going on. I would often get sent to assist where nursing assistants usually didn’t get sent.

I loved that experience, and that’s why I decided to major in premed when I went to the University of New Mexico.

But by the second semester, I was back in the art studio.

I was part of a Native student organization called the Kiva Club that became kind of a political center for Native rights and empowerment.

We were often in meetings with officials from oil and coal companies and people from the community who spoke about what their homes meant to them, those places that were being spoiled or were about to be.

They were so eloquent, very poetic. So I started writing poetry as a way to speak about what was unspeakable and as a kind of healing event. If you think about social justice, it’s really about healing.

KK: Did you think people were more open to understanding this information when it came through poetry?

Joy Harjo: Poetry’s Power to Heal, Unity Magazine September/October 2022 – Q&A, Listening in With

JH: If you’re speaking to an oil company, no, but if you’re speaking to people, it can help them perceive a kind of beauty or a sacred sense of the world for that moment. That’s what poetry is capable of. It’s the most profound level of speaking.

What happens with any artist is that we enter into what I call the story field, but it’s not just stories. It’s also images and sounds and music and so on.

It’s kind of like a field of becoming, of emergence, where things come to you.

It’s like after I went to the funeral for my stepfather, who had been very difficult, and I was talking about him with my stepsister because I wanted to understand him better.

She told me a story about how his mother had spoiled him terribly, and then his father would shoot up the house.

So on Sunday mornings he would be out there as a little boy patching bullet holes on the roof.

That helped me have some compassion for him, and then this line came out: “Even the monster has a story.” Isn’t that cool? It’s in my memoir, Poet Warrior [W.W. Norton, 2021].

I thought, Thank you for that because I wouldn’t have thought about it in quite that way.

All artists have that kind of experience. It’s a kind of give-and-take or what I refer to as a call-and-response with imaginal realms.

KK:You’ve said that words are living things because they resonate, they create a reality. That goes right along with what you just described.

JH:Everything is energy. Everything has resonance of some sort. It’s a scientific fact.

Everything is always messaging too—giving out a kind of story. It makes sense if you come from an origin story like the one in my Muscogee culture that says everything is alive.

This river is living and has a spirit. This mountain here, we know its name, and we have a relationship with it. And these stones, these rocks. All of it.

Even my printer—printers are very temperamental, by the way.

Words have energy too, and they are very powerful. Everyone is involved in creating a story field with their words.

The way I see it, we emerge as a spirit who has a soul, and our souls have a story.

But here we are in this very creative field, and our thoughts are fed certainly by our intent and direction, but they are also fed by the people around us and by this horrible political thought wreck that’s going on in the country right now.

That’s why it’s so important to ground or to have a place to anchor and stop. That’s what writing is good for, I think—a chance to just stop and clear your thought stream.

Words have energy too, and they are very powerful. Everyone is involved in creating a story field with their words.

KK: You have said a luminosity exists that connects everybody. Can you describe that?

JH:Luminosity is the Creator’s love, and I think I’ve seen it at times, from different points of vibrational frequencies. At the higher end of the spectrum, you can see luminosity around everyone. One time I saw it around a roly-poly. I had flown to Kolkata, and I was awake at four in the morning because my time was off. I was sitting in the bathroom, and I saw this little roly-poly going across the floor. I saw light around him … luminosity. I don’t always see that kind of thing, but I saw it carrying light. It was so beautiful, that little roly-poly. They’re one of my favorite little animals!

KK: So even a tiny little insect is still carrying light?

JH: Yes, a little roly-poly was walking across the bathroom floor in a hotel in Kolkata, carrying its light.

KK: Then I guess there’s hope for me.

JH:On the other hand, I once had an experience coming out of a grocery store in Albuquerque where I passed somebody who was going in and I felt they had just killed somebody.

It was weird. But what really stayed with me was the density. There was such density. This was one of the first people I’d seen whose light was almost gone.

It felt like something had broken that person very early on.

Hatred and things like that can dim your light; they can change you. Or maybe some people come into the world broken and try to find their way where there’s no love.

Love is that luminosity. Love is potent. It’s powerful. A lot of people idealize and romanticize love—and I’m one of them—but love is really rugged.

It knows how to fight. It knows how to make it through hell.

KK: You’ve said that fear is one of your biggest teachers because it marks a turning point toward realizing a different path or direction. That makes fear sound like a powerful ally.

JH:When I was raising my two young children, I was a single mother. I had been banished from my home by my stepfather for speaking the truth.

I still saw my mom, but I’d have to see her at work. I was going to school with a full-time load and working, and it all started to fall apart.

I managed to keep going to school and taking care of my kids, but there would be times when I had to count each step and I couldn’t swallow. I was overcome with images of suicide.

I got help, and I also started writing poetry. “I Give You Back,” my poem about releasing fear, became my most well-known poem.

Through the years, I’ve had so many people write to me and tell me how that poem saved their life.

KK: You play the alto sax, although you didn’t start until you were 40. That’s gutsy, picking up that instrument in midlife.

JH:People thought I was crazy—especially because I was playing in a band. But I always loved music.

I came to poetry through music. I played clarinet for a couple of years in elementary school, but then in junior high, the band teacher wouldn’t let girls play sax, so I walked away from it all.

I think a lot of women who have raised families are now going into the work or the art they always wanted to do.

KK: Your grandmother played the saxophone too, didn’t she?

JH:Yes. I didn’t know that until I was playing sax for my uncle and he told me. She was full-blood Creek Indian and played saxophone in Indian territory before Oklahoma was a state. 

KK: Did you start playing the Native-American flute at the same time? 

JH:No, I didn’t start that until about 10 years ago. I am always learning. I’ve been playing bass lately.

KK: You’ve written award-winning screenplays and scripts and children’s books in addition to prose and poetry and music. What enables you to do so many different things so well? 

JH:Even though they’re very different disciplines, I do see them all as similar. There’s resonance, a kind of similar feel and shape. In that way, I can see how they are all connected. 

KK: One of your poems is on a plaque designed as a time capsule attached to a NASA space craft currently traveling toward Jupiter. What does it feel like to know your words are way out in the further parts of our solar system?

Then the thought came to me that if I do nothing else in my life, when my life is over and I’m moving on into the next part of the story, I want people to know that Native people are human beings.

JH:It’s cool.

Actually, that poem is going to be a children’s book coming out in February 2023 from Random House called Remember with beautiful illustrations by Michaela Goade, who just won a Caldecott Medal.

It’s about the relationship humans have to each other and to the natural world.

You know, I went to the launch. I had kind of a front-row seat. I had never seen anything with that kind of power, just gut-deep power that shook at the deepest level.

To watch the rocket light up and launch, and to feel that lift, it was tremendous.

It made me think a lot about power, what we do with our power, how much innate power there is in this earth, and the innate power of the Creator, which is beyond our tiny little frustrating human imagination.

KK: You had three terms as poet laureate, something only one other person has ever had. What did that honor mean for you?

JH:My term was extended because of the pandemic, not because I was special, but it has still been a tremendous honor.

I’m basically hoping the door will open for other Native poets and for people to find our poetry. Having a Native person in this position has brought great awareness to Native people as human beings and as poets.

I remember being a young woman starting to write poetry and thinking, Where is this going? How am I going to make a living? But I trusted.

There was this sense of a path that I could not see but that I could feel, and I followed it.

Then the thought came to me that if I do nothing else in my life, when my life is over and I’m moving on into the next part of the story, I want people to know that Native people are human beings.

KK: Your poet laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” is an interactive map with multimedia content featuring Native poets. How did you choose that particular project?

JH:I’ve always liked maps, and I wanted people to know I wasn’t the only Native poet. There are a lot of us.

So I got this idea to create a map of North America with no political boundaries—no line drawn between Mexico and the U.S. or between Canada and the U.S., because the U.S. is a relatively new entity anyway.

It was a map of just earth and sky, and then I placed 47 Native poets on it who each submitted a poem that talked about place.

So now there’s a collection of Native poets in the Library of Congress—both in an audio collection and a companion anthology.

And there’s also a teacher’s tool for the map, which can be used for a lot of different classes, not just poetry but also social studies, history, and other subjects.

KK: They must be very different, all these voices.

JH:They are. I wanted the map to counter all the deeply embedded, damaging, false assumptions many people have about indigenous people—that we’re invisible or not seen as human beings.

So I designed the project to cut across people’s stereotypes of being Native in this country.


Joy Harjo is a Native-American (Muscogee) activist, writer, and musician who is the author of nine books of poetry, two children’s books, two memoirs, several screenplays, and three plays. She has also edited a number of anthologies and has produced seven award-winning albums. Of her numerous honors, one of the most recent is being named the first artist-in-residence for the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she lives. Visit joyharjo.com.

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

About the Author

Katy Koontz is the editor in chief of Unity Magazine.

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