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A Poet's Words From the Heart of Her Heritage

February 10, 1989|PENELOPE MOFFET

TUCSON — \o7 Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can't see, can't hear

Can't know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren't always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

--Joy Harjo

Born in Tulsa, the first child of a Creek father and a Cherokee-French mother, Joy Harjo spent her earliest years in a troubled and impoverished household. She doesn't want to talk very much about that time, when she was "so insecure and so shy . . . a child who was afraid to speak."

Harjo's writing is often dark. Her poetry draws on American Indian history and contemporary problems as well as on Indian mythology and her own life and imagination.

Harjo's heritage is extremely important to her, and she's sensitive about discussing problems that can arise from her ethnic background. She also knows that, being light-skinned, "I can pass (for white) easily, and sometimes I think, you know, this is too hard. It would be easier to not be Indian at all. It's hard enough to be one or the other, and it's harder to be both" white and Indian.

Being Indian is "very tiring and painful and frustrating and sad and angering, given the history," she says. Yet "I'm not trying to bitch and whine and groan, because the other side of that is a lot of incredible beauty and insight."

The positive side of being Indian, Harjo says, is the knowledge of a rich cultural heritage, a sense of community and connection to the land. "This is our land, it's the homeland," she says. "The homeland affects you directly, it affects your body, it affects the collective mind, and the collective heart and the collective spirit. And so we (Indians) feel it, because there's no separation."

Yet, she adds, "I don't like this romanticization of Indian people in which Indian people are looked at as spiritual saviors, as people who have always taken care of the land. We're human beings. But I think different cultures have developed different aspects of humanness."

Harjo lives in a pink building on the outskirts of Tucson, in a unit also inhabited by a wistful yellow cat named Custer, two gerbils, a black rabbit, three fish and her 20-year-old son, Phil. Her 15-year-old daughter, Rainy Dawn, goes to boarding school in New Mexico.

The author of three books of poetry, Harjo, 37, moved here last fall from Colorado, where she'd taught for three years at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She's now a tenured associate professor of English at the University of Arizona.

"I've always loved the desert," she says. "I've spent most of my life in the Southwest. It's certainly influenced my work. I used to dream about it when I was young," growing up in Oklahoma.

"I don't see the desert as barren at all, I see it as full and ripe. It doesn't need to be flattered with rain. It certainly needs rain, but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty," she says.

The same could be said for Harjo, who has taken the material of a difficult life and created poetry of great power. (She will read some of that work on Feb. 18 in the Laguna Poets Winter Poetry Festival, at 2:30 p.m. at the Forum Theater in Laguna Beach.)

Harjo lost her shyness on stage in school plays, and early in life she demonstrated talent in drawing. At 16, she began attending a New Mexico boarding school, the competitive-admission Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. "I was lucky to end up going to school there. In a way it saved me. I think if it hadn't intervened, I probably wouldn't have lived very long," she says. "I mean, it's hard being an adolescent anyway, but I had a lot of wars going on" at home.

She graduated at 17 after participating in one of the first all-Indian drama and dance troupes in the U.S. Briefly married, she had her son Phil soon after graduation. "Then I spent three years working in a hospital, cleaning rooms, working in a health spa, pumping gas in a mini-skirt in Santa Fe, all those kind of jobs. And I decided I wanted something more," she says.

With a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and student loans, she attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, starting out as a pre-med student and quickly switching to art "because I couldn't keep away from that." At 22, she began writing poetry, and in her last year of school she changed her major to creative writing.

During this time she also married the well-known American Indian poet Simon Ortiz, with whom she had her daughter, Rainy Dawn. The marriage lasted only about two years, but Harjo and Ortiz are still close friends.

She raised her two children while supporting herself, attending school (she later earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop) and learning to be a writer.

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