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Joy Harjo: Ancestor of a Poem

The acclaimed Native American artist, poet, and musician reflects on tapping into the creative source, bearing the pain of cultural appropriation, and learning to embrace fear.

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Photo Credit: Karen Kuehn

It’s not easy to catch up with Muscogee Creek artist Joy Harjo. First she’s at a poetry festival in Edmonton, Alberta. Then she’s off to New York for a ceremony celebrating her award of a Guggenheim fellowship. Known primarily as a poet, Joy is also a saxophone player, playwright, actor, and painter, and she has toured nationally in her one-woman show Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. In fact, it’s hard to find an art form that she hasn’t worked in. She dances, writes children’s books, and has written screenplays for several movies. Yet she started her career in college as a visual artist and came to words only after seeing a television show about a shaman who used poetry as a powerful tool for healing. Her recent memoir, Crazy Brave, chronicles her tumultuous coming-of-age with the rise of the American Indian Movement, and her own growing awareness of an inner knowing, an “intelligent light” that guided her footsteps away from the brink of danger on several key occasions and rescued her from domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and a life of poverty, setting her feet instead on the road of …

Poem from A Map to the Next World: Poems and Tales by Joy Harjo. Norton, 2000. Reprinted with permission.


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