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Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, last week kicked off national American Indian Heritage Month at the Carolina Union Auditorium, reading her poetry and discussing stereotypes she has encountered.
Harjo is author of nine poetry books, including An American Sunrise, several plays, children’s books and two memoirs. During her poetry reading, attended by about 200 people, Harjo discussed dealing with stereotypes when she was an undergraduate at the University of Mexico.
“I remember thinking, as we were dealing with those stereotypes as undergrads and going out into the community, … when I get to the end of my life, and I’m closer now than I was before, that … by the time I pass, I want people to see Natives as human beings,” Harjo said.
In writing her poetry, Harjo relies on First Nation storytelling and histories, feminist and social justice poetic traditions, and includes indigenous myths, symbols and values, according to the Poetry Foundation website. Landscapes in the Southwest, Southeast, Alaska and Hawaii inform her poetry, which centers on remembrance and transcendence.
Harjo, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, chair of the board of directors of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and is the first artist-in-residence for Tulsa’s Bob Dylan Center.
She commended the students in the audience for attending. “Young people here, … the work you’re doing will speak of this time we’re in,” she said. “And you all came here at this time because you had something to offer, to help build.”
Harjo said she began writing in the early 1970s. “Some poems take years to write and you work on it,” she said. “Some poems come relatively quickly.”
She said her poem, “Without,” which was written after she lost her brother-in-law to COVID-19 and appeared in The New Yorker last year, encompasses the most pain she’s expressed in her writing.
“There’s heartbreak in this poem. It isn’t specifically about him, but it’s about the kind of pain of losing someone, especially when they’re here and they’re so alive and then they’re gone,” she said.
Harjo read the poem, which starts:
“The world will keep trudging through time without us
When we lift from the story contest to fly home
We will be as falling stars to those watching from the edge
Of grief and heartbreak”
Qua Lynch Adkins, the Native student engagement coordinator at the American Indian Center, Jillian Ransom McNeill, administrative support associate, and others planned Harjo’s visit to UNC.
“The depth and ancestral wisdom in Ms. Harjo’s poems are profound. The messages she shared were just what my spirit needed,” Lynch Adkins said. “Her work calls us to reaffirm our relationship with Mother Earth and all of creation. It was special to have her on campus to inspire our students and the Carolina community at large.”
On behalf of the center, Lynch Adkins presented Harjo with a clay plaque made by artist Senora Lynch of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe in North Carolina. Harjo was also presented with a traditional tobacco prayer bundle by Native undergraduate student Zianne Richardson ’23.
— Laurie D. Willis ’86