Joy Harjo

Feminist, Indigenous, Poetic Voice

Cast of 'A Thousand Roads' Portrait Session - Joy Harjo
Cast of 'A Thousand Roads' Portrait Session - Joy Harjo. Carlo Allegri / Getty Images

Born: May 9, 1951, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Occupation: Poet, Musician, Performer, Activist
Known for: Feminism and American Indian activism, particularly through artistic expression

Joy Harjo has been a significant voice in the rejuvenation of indigenous culture. As a poet and musician, she was influenced by the activism of the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the 1970s. Joy Harjo's poetry and music often speak of individual women's experiences while examining larger cultural concerns and Native American traditions.

Heritage

Joy Harjo was born in Oklahoma in 1951 and is a member of the Mvskoke, or Creek, Nation. She is of part Creek and part Cherokee descent, and her ancestors include a long line of tribal leaders. She took the last name "Harjo" from her maternal grandmother.

Artistic Beginnings

Joy Harjo attended the Institute of American Indian Arts high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She performed in an indigenous drama troupe and studied painting. Although one of her early band teachers did not allow her to play the saxophone because she was a girl, she picked it up later in life and now performs music solo and with a band.

Joy Harjo had her first child at age 17 and worked odd jobs as a single mother to support her children. She then enrolled in the University of New Mexico and received her bachelor's degree in 1976. She received her MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Joy Harjo began writing poetry in New Mexico, inspired by the American Indian activist movement.

She is recognized for her poetic subject matter that includes feminism and Indian justice.

Books of Poetry

Joy Harjo has called poetry "the most distilled language." Like many other feminist poets writing in the 1970s, she experimented with language, ​form and structure. She uses her poetry and voice as part of her responsibility to her tribe, to women, and to all people.

Joy Harjo's poetic works include:

  • The Last Song (1975), her first chapbook, a small collection of poems in which she began questioning oppression, including the colonization of Native land.
  • What Moon Drove Me To This? (1979), Joy Harjo's first full-length collection of poetry.
  • She Had Some Horses (1983), considered one of her classics -- it explores the oppression of women, but also their spiritual lives and triumphant awakenings.
  • In Mad Love and War (1990), an examination of both personal relationships and societal struggles of Native Americans.
  • The Woman Who Fell From the Sky(1994), which won the Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry.
  • How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001, a collection that looks back over her three-decade career as a poet.

The poetry of Joy Harjo is rich with ​imagery, symbols, and landscapes. "What do the horses mean?" is one of her readers' most frequently asked questions. In reference to meaning, she writes, "Like most poets I don't really know what my poems or the stuff of my poetry means exactly."

Other Work

Joy Harjo was an editor of the anthology Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native American Women's Writings of North America. It contains poetry, memoir, and prayer by Native women from more than fifty nations.

Joy Harjo is also a musician; she sings and plays the saxophone and other instruments, including flute, ukulele, and percussion. She has released music and spoken word CDs. She has performed as a solo artist and with bands such as Poetic Justice.

Joy Harjo sees music and poetry as growing together, although she was a published poet before she publicly performed music. She has questioned why the academic community would want to confine poetry to the page when most poetry in the world is sung.

Joy Harjo continues to write and perform in festivals and theaters. She has won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and the William Carlos Williams award from the Poetry Society of America, among other prizes and fellowships. She has taught as a lecturer and professor at multiple universities throughout the Southwest United States.