Joy Harjo’s Trail of Tears

As the most well-known Native (Mvskoke-Creek) woman poet of her generation, and the 2009 Nammy winner for best female artist, Joy Harjo has been offering us her words and music for three decades now. In her late 50s, she is still at the height of her creative powers, still one of only a handful of Native musicians and poets who have been able to get their own stories out to a wide audience– thus insuring that those stories will not be ignored, twisted, distorted or maligned by others.

Harjo has recently premiered a one-woman play, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. The performance is an intricate weaving of spoken word and song, telling the sometimes brutal, sometimes poignant, often funny story of a little girl who must go back and look for lost pieces of her soul in order to emerge whole as an adult.

Interlacing verses from some of her most beloved poems with the variously bellowing, weeping, happy sounds of her saxophone, Harjo’s tale is a personal one: She grew up with her waitress mother, her father dying young, and then had to share her home with the man she called her “mother’s keeper,” whose violence resonates with that told by Dorothy Allison in Bastard Out of Carolina, or Alice Walker in The Color Purple. It’s a story that all too many Native girls need to tell about assaults to their minds, bodies, and spirits.

Harjo takes to her saxophone when there are no words, to a place deeper than language, making gorgeous melodies along with African American guitarist Larry Mitchell. Artful in his ability to follow but not upstage Harjo, Mitchell accompanies her with his alternately bluesy, country, jazz, and folk rhythms. Seeing the two of them on stage together reminds us of the relationship that Native Americans have had with Black people in the U.S., sharing a status as colonized people. Native people have long protected and nurtured Black people, even as Native people have been defiled and run off their land. We hear this history in the music Harjo and Mitchell play together, and see it in their body language on the stage.

The pared-down simplicity of the set design—a small kitchen table, a shawl, a blanket, a whiskey bottle—harkens back to the Trail of Tears when Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw could only take what they could carry, if that. Harjo brings us back to a point when we all weren’t for sale, back to a point when our humanity was not lost in an overly produced, overly commodified, plastic and hard world.

At the beginning of her performance, Harjo invites the audience to sit with her at the kitchen table and ends by giving gifts—oranges, chocolates, dream notebooks, shells–that we can take back to our communities. If you need an evening of truth-telling, healing and joy, don’t miss it when Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light comes your way.

This post was co-authored Crystal Rizzo, and cross-posted on

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Diane Harriford Ph.D. and Becky Thompson Ph.D. are co-authors of the When the Center is on Fire: Passionate Social for our Times. See