Joy Harjo, first Native American poet laureate, begins third term


Poet Laureate Joy Harjo inside the Library of Congress building. (Photo by Shawn Miller / Library of Congress)

Joy Harjo of Oklahoma, the first Native American woman to become the nation’s poet laureate, entered her third term – an honor that had only been bestowed once. Robert Pinsky was the first American poet laureate to serve a third term, in 1999.

“Throughout the pandemic, Joy Harjo has shown how poetry can help us stabilize and nourish us,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement. “I am grateful that she is willing to continue this work on behalf of the country. A third term will give Joy the opportunity to develop and expand her flagship project.

This project is “Living Nations, Living Words,” a sample of the work of 47 poets from Indigenous Nations via an interactive ArcGIS Story Map, which visualizes the locations and stories of Indigenous poets in the United States, and a new audio collection of the Library of Congress.

“Joy is our first Indigenous recipient, but I don’t think the historical nature of her recipient played a big role in the decision,” Rob Casper, head of poetry and literature at the Library of Congress, told About Harjo’s third term. “It was really more about unfinished business.”

Harjo, a native of Tulsa and a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, also released her second memoir, “Poet Warrior,” on September 7.

The visibility of indigenous peoples has increased in all disciplines – film initiatives and increased inclusion in the political arena.

Harjo told Gaylord News that Indigenous social justice issues have evolved from her time as a poetry student at the University of New Mexico, where she graduated in 1976, until today as a 23rd poet laureate and author of several books.

(Audio by Nancy Marie Spears / Gaylord News)

Harjo said that she started writing about indigenous social justice issues as a participant and that her work has always been most often inspired by her people and justice.

“Sometimes on a bad day I think nothing has changed at all,” Harjo said. “And then other times because I have kids, grandchildren and great grandchildren and ultimately they’re all our kids. When I look into their eyes I have to know… that things are changing and that our work and our love for our people are important. “

As a symbol of positive change, Harjo highlighted the historic American Rescue Plan Act’s $ 20 million allocation for the preservation of Indigenous languages.

Federal dollars have never been allocated to this specific cause, so for Harjo, this recognition by the federal government means that Indigenous languages ​​and the cultures rooted in them are receiving the attention and support they deserve.

“When I saw this I thought it was amazing,” Harjo said. “None of us have ever seen legislation like this, which in fact recognizes that indigenous peoples are the root cultures and that our languages ​​are needed. “

Kelli Jo Ford, member of the Cherokee Nation and author of “Crooked Hallelujah”. (Photo by Val Ford Hancock)

Cherokee author Kelli Jo Ford, who wrote “Crooked Hallelujah,” who participated in the 10-day National Book Festival, said she hoped the funding from the Biden administration would improve access to Indigenous languages.

She said she takes Cherokee Nation language classes twice a week and calls them “a giveaway.”

“I think there are a lot of people who are hungry for the language and want to wear it in the future, especially since we have lost so many Cherokee speakers during a pandemic,” Ford told Gaylord News.

Ford, from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, said she grew up in a family where art and books were always present, so becoming a writer came naturally to her. She said that language is a powerful means of communication for her, especially in churches.

“Particularly for the Southeastern tribes, Christianity has been a part of our history for a very long time,” said Ford. “And it’s kind of a part of the American colonial project and assimilation and all that, but it’s also something that we’ve adapted and made into cornerstones of our cultures and our languages.”

Harjo said that poetry, like language, is about communicating and creating stories, no matter what kind of work you do. Whether it’s writing poems, songs or memoirs for the rulings and the law, she said, it’s the same thing.

Harjo said all professions have the task of storytelling, even in the work Deb Haaland does as the first Native American to serve as Home Secretary and cabinet member.

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Haaland was a Harjo poetry student when she attended UNM from 1988 to 1994.

“I think her work in creative writing classes really helped prepare her,” Harjo said. “She’s a thinker, she’s a visionary, and it’s important that she be able to communicate that. It all starts with an intense story.

Despite the pandemic that rocked most in-person events, Harjo said poetry still finds a way to connect people’s stories to virtual media.

“During COVID, the importance of poetry surfaced because it’s a way to listen,” Harjo said. “I think this position has given more visibility to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal poets. “

Harjo said if she could give any piece of advice to Indigenous artists and poets, it would be a phrase that sounds so simple in theory but is often so difficult to implement: just be yourself.

“As I get older I understand what a challenge it can be to be yourself, because it leads to, so who are you?” Harjo said. “Hold onto your basics when looking for beauty or accomplishment. Don’t trust what others think is important.

Nancy Marie Spears, a Gaylord News reporter based in Washington, DC, is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories from Gaylord News, visit

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