Breaking Ground: Joy Harjo is the First-Ever Native American Poet Laureate

Joy Harjo was named the 23rd national Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress this week, making history as the first Native American to be selected for the post.

Joy Harjo (left) is the nation’s first-ever Native American Poet Laureate. (Karen Kuehn)

Harjo, who grew up in Oklahoma and is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, has incorporated Native American imagery and history into her work since she began writing in 1973, and has published seven books of poetry, two children’s books and a memoir.

“She tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement following the announcement. “Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

Harjo is the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poetry collection In Mad Love and War won an American Book Award, her poetry collection The Woman Who Fell From the Sky won an Oklahoma Book Arts Award and her memoir, Crazy Brave, won a PEN USA Literary Award. Before assuming her role as Poet Laureate in September, she will publish a new poetry collection called An American Sunrise.

The titular poem in that book speaks to the persistence of Native American people in an optimistic voice—one she plans to emulate through her tenure as Poet Laureate. “Poetry has been one of my fiercest teachers,” Harjo said in an interview with NPR. “With language and sound, shot through the heart. It becomes a way to community. We are all part of a large poem a long story and if you look with perspective the story all fits together. One way to find those connects is with poetry.”

Harjo also took up the saxophone at age 40, and now also performs her poems with musical accompaniments from other Native artists to much critical acclaim. She was featured in HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and won a Native American Music Award for Best New Artist in 2009 after the release of her album “Winding Through the Milky Way.”

Harjo’s consciousness around and passion about the social and political struggles of Native communities will undoubtedly shape her historic tenure as Poet Laureate. “This is such an honoring for Native people in this country,” she explained to NPR’s Lynn Neary, “when we have been so disappeared and disregarded.”

Now, Harjo will hold the power to make visible all that remains buried—and finally change the conversation.

About

Rachel Kennedy is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and Associate Opinion Editor for The Daily Princetonian. A Bostonian by birth and a feminist by choice, she hopes to empower women by sharing their stories. She is particularly interested in covering maternal healthcare, women activists, pop culture, and politics. Rachel currently studies History, Journalism, and African American studies at Princeton University.