Poet Joy Harjo Says For 'Indigenous Cultures', the Land 'Is the Keeper of Our Bones, Stories, and Songs' – PEOPLE.com

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Joy Harjo reflects on loss and the things she continues to hold dear — memories of her late mother, Navajo horse songs — when describing her journey as a poet and champion of justice in her new memoir Poet Warrior. In 2019, she was the first Native American to be named Poet Laureate and is currently in her third term. Harjo, who is of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, has penned a range of works, including nine books of poetry and her previous memoir Crazy Brave.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, Harjo, who is also chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a musician, shares an excerpt from Poet Warrior, in which she listens to her aunt and other elders as they tell "hard-won stories" and explain the importance of valuing all life on this planet. "What especially makes Indigenous cultures unique is the relationship to the land. Land is a being, an entity, a repository of meaning," Harjo, 70, tells PEOPLE in a statement. "There is an ongoing relationship with the land. It is the keeper of our bones, stories, and songs. In this manner of thinking/being, there is no hierarchy to differentiate value between all living things."
I am writing in an apartment in downtown Tulsa. I was born before cell phones and computers, before the proliferation of devices installed with memory, which prompt the user to forget. I do not want to forget, though sometimes memory appears to be an enemy bringing only pain. There are so many memories. One returned my mother to me. That memory opened up in a dream. There she was sitting on the roof of a house in red shorts, not long after she gave birth to me. She was stunning in her youthful health. She was laughing. She was my sun.
I often wish that I had written down everything my aunt and all the elders told me, so I could have their wisdom, their struggles, their hard-​won stories right here for referral, to provoke and even cultivate new stories. Growing memories and the ability to access memory is a skill that allows access to eternity. It is within all of us. I do not have the best memory, I often tell the circle of Old Ones when I speak with them—​​and I do speak with those whom I love who have moved on from this earthly realm, especially when writing poetry or any kind of story or music. They remind me, here's your opportunity to practice memory. I am not the best listener or speaker, I tell them. Take your opportunity with grace, they tell me. You are here to learn, learn how to listen, how to walk into each challenging story without fear, fearless.
I have asked my aunt, uncles, cousins, and others, all those with whom I sat, listened, and shared throughout this life, to be with me as I write. It is a very different world within which you make stories, share, and participate, they tell me.
"Too many words," I heard one sixth great-​grandfather remark.
"What is it with you and all these English words?"
These times were predicted, a time in which the birds would be confused about which direction to fly to migrate, a time in which the sun would darken with pollution, a time in which there would be confusion and famine. In these kinds of times, we are in great danger of forgetting our original teachings, the nature of the kind of world we share and what it requires of us. In this world of forgetfulness, they told me, you will forget how to nourish the connection between humans, plants, animals, and the elements, a connection needed to make food for your mind, heart, body, and spirit. You were born of a generation that promised to help remember. Each generation makes a person. You came in together to make change.
They tell me that if I had come into their houses with pen and paper or recorder, sat on their porches or at the table drinking iced tea, writing instead of listening, I would have made myself a stranger, separating myself from the story. Too many with pens poised over paper wrote down laws that robbed millions of acres of our lands, that stole children, homes, and legacies. That part of our history is still going on, they said, and now, like then, they use our tribal members and relatives for their work to divide the people and steal. They will not be satisfied until everything is gone. Native peoples will be here when they are done, and when the earth and waters are renewed.
Life never goes in a straight line in our Native communities. Time moves slower. Someone might ask us to sit down and eat, or another cousin could go in the back room to get the medicine we need, their gnarled brown hands carefully folding the top of the paper bag with the roots that have Creek names and songs. Or someone might tell a memory that would bring everyone together in tears and laughter, or the memory of someone passed would rise up in that song.
They all agreed that we are being brought to a place where we will once again remember how to speak with animals, plants, and life forms. We will once again know our humble place as two-​legged humans. Humans are not the only ones with a spirit, they reminded. Nor are we more important than everyone else.
And besides, they laughed, if you had written everything down, you wouldn't have been able to read your handwriting anyway. We sure can't read anything you write longhand.
We always laugh, even about the worst. That's when we laugh hardest.
And, they added, we were telling these stories for each other, not to be put in a book. However, times have changed. We resisted change because so much has been needlessly destroyed. We are fiercely protective of those teachings that were given to us. However, we must adapt.
υ υ υ υ υ
The Old Ones opened the ears of Girl-​Warrior
Tempering the frequency before she left
On her mission.
We are sending you, they said,
To learn how to listen.
There is good in this world.
There is evil.
There is no story without one and the other.
You will be gravity.
You will be feather.
Send each story to the heart,
Each word before you act or speak.
υ υ υ υ υ
Excerpted from Poet Warrior: A Memoir. Copyright (c) 2021 by Joy Harjo. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


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