Joy Harjo’s Crusade to Put Native American Poets Back on the Map

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From mythology and symbolism to the vindication of the feminist struggle, Joy Harjo’s poetry has proven to be a successful strategy in keeping several traditions alive, simultaneously.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951, Harjo is today one of the most important representatives not only of literature and poetry, but also of activism for the rights of Native American communities and their influence on American culture.

After being the first Native American to be named U.S. Poet Laureate, the Library of Congress announced Thursday that Harjo will continue in the position for a second term, allowing her to continue her work in promoting and exposing new ways of making poetry.

A member of the Mvskoke Nation and a member of Oce Vpofv, Harjo has built a career as one of the country’s leading poets, musicians, and writers, with nine books published and two children’s literature awards.

After training at the Institute of American Indian Arts, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Iowa, Harjo has participated in many events and has developed a career as an educator.

However, we can confidently say that one of her most important achievements has been to put Native American literature back on the map, after having been part of the second wave of Native American Renaissance literature during the last decades of the 20th century.

Her literary work involves the transformation of the oral tradition into a symbolic interweaving within poetry, while highlighting the identity debate and social justice.

As she explained in an interview in 1994, her poetry and social activism come together to be “a voice of the indigenous people.”

After her first recognition by the Library of Congress, Harjo dedicated her work to expanding “her digital presence” and creating a network of native poets that would highlight the intersection between music and poetry, according to the New York Times.

“That synergy was something that we wanted her to continue and add to,” Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, said. “It broadens your concept of poetry. When you hear lyrics of a song, that’s poetry.”

Now in her second term, her work will focus from September 1 on a project called Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry, which will take the form of an interactive map and position all contemporary native poets.

In a statement accompanying the Library of Congress’s announcement, Harjo said the position was an honor, “especially during these times of earth transformation and cultural change.”

“Poetry reminds us that we are connected beyond words, and to communicate through poetry has the potential to expand the conversation into wordless depths, to help us move collectively into fresh cultural vision,” she added. “To get there in understanding, we begin with the roots. In this country, the roots are found in the poetry of the more than 500 living Indigenous nations.”