Seeing Joy Harjo perform live is a transformational experience. The internationally acclaimed performer and poet of the Muscogee (Mvskoke)/Creek nation transports you by word and by sound into a womb-like environment, echoing a traditional healing ritual. The golden notes of Harjo’s alto saxophone fill the dark corners of a drab university auditorium as the audience breathes in her music.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo grew up in a home dominated by her violent white stepfather. She first expressed herself through painting before burying herself in books, art and theater as a means of survival; she was kicked out of the home at age 16. Although she never lived on a reservation nor learned her tribal language, at age 19 she officially enrolled in the Muscogee tribe and remains active today. Though she has mixed ancestry, including Muscogee, Cherokee, Irish and French nationalities, Harjo most closely identifies with her Native American ancestry. On June 19, the Library of Congress named her the United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that position; she’ll officially take on the role next month.
Although English is the only language Harjo spoke growing up, she has a deeply fraught relationship with it, seeing her own mastery of the language as a remnant of American settler efforts to destroy Native identity. Nevertheless, she has spent her career using English in poetic and musical expression, transforming collective indigenous trauma into healing.
“Poetry uses language despite the confines of language, be it the oppressor’s language or any language,” Harjo says. “It is beyond language in essence.”
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