The first Indigenous poet laureate in US history reflects on her mission for equity for Native American people

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Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said her appointment as poet laureate is an important recognition of Native American culture.Shawn Miller, Library of Congress
  • Monday is World's Indigenous Peoples Day.

  • It's a time to celebrate Native American culture and to recognize the injustice they have endured.

  • Insider spoke with Joy Harjo, the country's poet laureate and the first Indigenous person to hold the title.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Joy Harjo has perhaps one of the most interesting leadership positions in the world: to serve as the US's ambassador for poetry and art. She is the nation's poet laureate and the first Indigenous person in the country's history to hold the title.

Monday marks the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. It's an important time to reflect on Harjo's vision for representation and equity for Native Americans in the US.

Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was reappointed in November for a third term to serve as poet laureate for 2021. Selected by The Library of Congress, the poet laureate serves as the official poet of the United States.

In the past year, Harjo published a visually mesmerizing online interactive "poetry map" showcasing the poetry of 47 Native Americans' work, as well as a book of her own poetry, "An American Sunrise," which highlights the suffering Indigenous peoples endured because of forced relocation in the US.

"We are really one person," Harjo said of Americans. "My poetry helps remind me, poetry of others, helps remind me of this.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It was originally published in November 2020.

The role poetry plays in national healing

We're in difficult times. Has the coronavirus pandemic inspired any new poetry for you?

I actually haven't written any poetry recently. I've been busy compiling a poetry anthology for the Library of Congress, working on a music album, "I Pray For My Enemies, "coming out in March, and have been working on a memoir, "Poet Warrior, A Call for Love and Justice," to be published in September.

So I haven't had time to write poetry. But the interest in poetry and the need for poetry as solace and direction has really emerged during this time.

Poetry can be found during times of grief, times of transformation. I've been in touch with experts who tell me that readership of poetry has gone up.

People go to poetry for solace. A poem can hold things that ordinary language cannot. And that's one reason I wound up in poetry because four lines, 10 lines, even an epic poem can carry history, can carry a moment of social unrest and perhaps point in a certain direction or shift meaning in a way with metaphor and language in a way that political rhetoric cannot.

Have you seen an uptick in the number of people reaching out to you recently?

I've seen a lot of people come to poetry, write poetry because of what it offers especially during times like these, amid multiple storms. It's all coming together and we need these places that carry wisdom and insight.

I've been getting a lot of letters and emails and requests. A lot. I don't know if it's because I'm the poet laureate or because of the times we're in — perhaps it's both of those things combined — but I've gotten a lot of requests and emails recently. The nature of the requests are more attuned toward wanting something to help get them through this time, or writing about how important my work or the work of others to help them move through these turbulent times, almost like a rudder, almost to say, 'Here's where we're going. Here's how to get there.'

Raising awareness of Native American culture

Joy Harjo
For Harjo, her role is to serve not only an ambassador of poetry, but as an ambassador of Native American heritage and culture.Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

What does it mean to be the nation's first Indigenous poet laureate?

It's opened a tremendous doorway for Native People. I heard it was widely celebrated, and it still is, that there's a Native person in this position. It brought a much larger awareness to indigenous peoples in this country, and that we're human beings.

What do you hope to accomplish in your third year as poet laureate?

We just launched the poet laureate project, "Living Nations, Living Words," a story map of 47 contemporary Native Nations poets reading and discussing their work. There is an educators' toolkit in the works. I will be promoting this project as well as continue my ambassadorship on behalf of poetry in this country.

How did you first come to poetry as a form of self-expression?

I came to poetry as an undergraduate studio art major at the University of New Mexico. I was impressed by the preciseness of language required in word constructions you could carry with you anywhere. Poems could hold almost anything. I heard and met my first living Native poets there, including Simon Ortiz, Leslie Silko and many others. They reminded me that the art of poetry is a crucial ingredient to questioning and growth, that the roots of poetry are oral. They were tools of transformation as we fought for Native rights.

How old were you? Do you remember what some of your first poems were about?

I was around 22 or 23 years old. My first poems were centered in the southwestern landscape and in what was going on in our Native community.

The need for poetry and the importance of diversity

One of your poems, "Remember" really stands out to me. It reads, in part:

"Remember the earth whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth."

Tell me about it, it seems especially relevant today.

We are really one person. Even as we are individually incredibly diverse peoples and languages and poetry, we're still, at the same time, one. That diversity of experience goes into making one solid whole. My poetry helps remind me, poetry of others, helps remind me of this. I think that poem speaks to a universal need or urge to remind people that it's the diversity of experience that makes this life so rich.

Why does the world need poetry right now? Why should people take time out of their day to read or write it?

Poetry demands that we listen, that we open the door to a deeper awareness that is always present in every moment, even in the ordinary. To read and write sharpens the skill of listening, which is crucial to any art or endeavor, including any aspect of business. It is in listening you gain knowledge, go all the way around a task, a question, or a problem instead of running past a moment or quandary towards an easy or unsatisfying fix.

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