Authors: Joy Harjo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: American Indian (Muskogee Creek)

Author Works


The Last Song, 1975

What Moon Drove Me to This?, 1980

She Had Some Horses, 1983

Secrets from the Center of the World, 1989

In Mad Love and War, 1990

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1996

How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001, 2002

Short Fiction:

“Boston,” 1991

“The Flood,” 1991

“Northern Lights,” 1991

“The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” 1996

“Warrior Road,” 1997


Origin of Apache Crown Dance, 1985

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Good Luck Cat, 2000


The Spiral of Memories: Interviews, 1996 (Laura Cotelli, editor)

Edited Text:

Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writing of North America, 1997 (with Gloria Bird)


A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales, 2000


The painter, activist, musician, mother, and poet Joy Harjo, born Joy Foster, does not fit into any one category. Her poetry reflects a multitude of concerns, and although she is known primarily as a Native American poet, her work, by incorporating Native American symbology and consciousness, transcends specifics and becomes universal.{$I[AN]9810001829}{$I[A]Harjo, Joy}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Harjo, Joy}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Harjo, Joy}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Harjo, Joy}{$I[tim]1951;Harjo, Joy}

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo left her Oklahoma home at the age of sixteen to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts. After graduation, she enrolled in the University of New Mexico where in 1976 she earned her B.A., and two years later she received a M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. She has taught at several institutions, including Arizona State University and the Institute of American Indian Arts, and she has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Montana and the State University of New York at Stony Brook as well as serving on several advisory panels, including the Native American Broadcasting Consortium, the New Mexico Arts Commission, and a National Endowment for the Arts literature policy panel. She has also served as editor and contributing editor for many journals, among them High Plains Literary Review, Tyuonyi, and Contact III.

Harjo’s volumes of poetry have earned such prestigious awards as the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award. Harjo has also received grants and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1978, and in 1998 she was given an honorary doctorate by St.-Mary-in-the-Woods College.

Written to counteract the stereotype of the “vanished (or vanishing) red man,” many of Harjo’s poems depict Native Americans whose cultural worldview clashes with contemporary urban cities and their dominant Eurocentric culture. Harjo admits that she relies on contemporary stories, but she also uses older stories that stem in part from her Creek (Muskogee) heritage and her pan-tribal experiences.

Harjo’s oeuvre includes many poetic themes and symbols. Cities, a recurrent trope, are viewed as immoral or so technologically advanced that the inhabitants have lost contact with the earth, an important force that Harjo usually depicts as being alive and as being feminine. Landscapes are scattered throughout her works, and they evolve from a mere depiction of physicality to an interior mindscape that effectively combines realism and surrealism to make a statement about survival. Most of her poetic subjects endure and survive within a hostile world that tries to assimilate them by destroying their cultural heritage.

Harjo’s first publication, The Last Song, is a chapbook of nine poems. At this early stage in her career–Harjo began writing at the age of twenty-two after having changed her major while attending the University of New Mexico–she began to voice many of the themes and ideas that continue to be present throughout her works.

“Are You Still There” presents an exterior/interior landscape focused upon the central image of a telephone. Not only does the poet’s voice travel the phone line, but her body does so as well. Within the poem the focus shifts from reality to imagination, a shift that seamlessly reflects Harjo’s concern with feminism, politics, and survival.

What Moon Drove Me to This? introduces the persona of Noni Daylight. Harjo frequently explains that Noni Daylight is based upon a friend whose name she cannot mention and that this persona gives her the ability to speak in a new way. The critic Andrew Wiget has defined Noni Daylight as Harjo’s “otherself.” It is through Noni’s persona that Harjo depicts the turmoil of Native American survivors as they try to come to terms with their existence, heritage, and lack of belonging.

Surpassing Harjo’s previous works in sophistication of coherent theme and organization, She Had Some Horses heralds a new level of writing. Beginning with “Call It Fear,” a poem in which the poet expresses fear, and ending with “I Give You Back,” an aggressive renunciation of that same fear, the collection exhibits a triumphant circularity.

A collaborative effort, Secrets from the Center of the World combines Harjo’s poetry with Stephen Strom’s photographs of Navajo country, the Four Corners area. This work is a compelling expression of Harjo’s belief that the land is important and more powerful than humanity.

In Harjo’s next work, In Mad Love and War, the poet fragments her array of subjects. This collection of wide-ranging poems spans themes ranging from political/feminist issues to jazz music. “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash . . .” is based upon the inhumane treatment and murder of Anna Mae, an active member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). The prose poem “Deer Dancer” echoes William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Harjo also explores the idea that human beings have inherited a ruined world; unlike Yeats, however, Harjo’s poem ends positively with the possibility that mythic consciousness will sustain people in their world.

The title poem of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky continues Harjo’s use of the prose poem form. In it, she relates an Iroquois myth about the descent of a female creator deity from the sky to create the world–a specific example of a very widespread Native American creation myth type. Harjo uses this myth as a vehicle to comment on many contemporary issues revolving around themes of creation and destruction.

How We Became Human collects many of Harjo’s earlier, more difficult to find poems, especially from her first chapbooks, as well as thirteen new poems. Harjo includes extensive explanatory notes to the poems, adding an interpretive element to the book.

BibliographyAndrews, Jennifer. “In the Belly of a Laughing God: Reading Humor and Irony in the Poetry of Joy Harjo.” American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 2 (2000): 200-218. Analyzes humor in Harjo’s poetry, an important characteristic that the author claims is seriously ignored in studies of Native American literature.Clark, C. B. “Joy Harjo (Creek).” In The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Clark’s brief introduction to selections of Harjo’s poetry (including the prose poem “Deer Dancer”) in this anthology delineates several of the most important qualities of her writing.Coltelli, Laura, ed. The Spiral of Memory: Interviews, Joy Harjo. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. These interviews with the poet offer insights into her method of working as well as the continuing concerns of her writing.Donovan, Kathleen. Feminist Readings of Native American Literature. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998. Donovan’s last chapter, “Dark Continent/Dark Woman,” is a consideration of Joy Harjo in company with the French literary critic Helene Cixous. Both writers “struggle to reconcile their sense of multiple identities that arise from the displacements of history and family background,” Donovan argues, and “by embracing their multiple identities and places of origin, they transform and create, thereby gaining a measured healing that permits them to ‘more than survive.’”Lang, Nancy. “‘Twin Gods Bending Over’: Joy Harjo and Poetic Memory.” Melus 18, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 41-49. This article examines poetic memory in Harjo’s poetry. Lang states that Harjo’s poetry shows complex layers and voices of memory. These memories can be personal, ancestral, tribal, or mythical. Lang further studies the use of memory in conjunction with Harjo’s use of urban landscapes and briefly discusses the Noni Daylight poems.Pettit, Rhonda. Joy Harjo. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Western Writer Series, 1998. Pettit’s work takes an insightful look at the way Harjo uses technique, style, and symbolism. She analyzes the use of edges in all of Harjo’s major poetry except A Map to the Next World. Pettit includes biographical information on Harjo as well as analysis of her first four major books. Also included is a bibliography of secondary sources.Scarry, John. “Joy Harjo.” In Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion, edited by Janet Witalec. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1995. Scarry’s brief entry on Harjo recognizes her “need for remembrance and transcendence” and includes several poems demonstrating this duality (including the prose poems “Grace” and “Autobiography,” both from In Mad Love and War.)Wilson, Norma C. “The Ground Speaks: The Poetry of Joy Harjo.” In The Nature of Native American Poetry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001. Wilson’s book covers a variety of Native American poets including Wendy Rose, Linda Hogan, Simon J. Ortiz, and others. In chapter 9 Wilson gives an overview of Harjo’s life and poetry, discussing such themes as landscape, fear, and communication.Witalec, Janet, ed. Native North American Literature: Biographical and Critical Information on Native Writers and Orators from the United States and Canada from Historical Times to the Present. New York: Gale Research, 1994. The essay on Harjo in this encyclopedia is a very useful survey of the writer’s career and includes long excerpts from three essay-reviews of Harjo’s work.Womack, Craig S. “Joy Harjo: Creek Writer from the End of the Twentieth Century.” In Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Womack provides a different perspective on Harjo and other Native American writers, being himself a Creek-Cherokee. His book looks at Native American literature with tribally specific concerns. In his chapter on Harjo, he recognizes the strength of Harjo’s voice. He also shows the Creek content and use of Creek history in Harjo’s work.
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