Joy Harjo

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Joy Harjo
Harjo smiling, wearing traditional earrings
BornJoy Foster
(1951-05-09) May 9, 1951 (age 69)
Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.
Pen nameJoy Harjo-Sapulpa
OccupationAuthor, poet, performer, educator, United States Poet Laureate
NationalityMuscogee, American
EducationUniversity of New Mexico (BA)
University of Iowa (MFA)
GenrePoetry, non-fiction, fiction
Literary movementNative American Renaissance
United States Poet Laureate
Assumed office
Preceded byTracy K. Smith

Joy Harjo (/ˈhɑːr/ HAR-joh; born May 9, 1951) is an American poet, musician, playwright, and author. She is the incumbent United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that honor. She is also only the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to serve three terms. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke) and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground).[1] She is an important figure in the second wave of the literary Native American Renaissance of the late 20th century. She studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts, completed her undergraduate degree at University of New Mexico in 1976, and earned an MFA at the University of Iowa in its creative writing program.

In addition to writing books and other publications, Harjo has taught in numerous United States universities, performed at poetry readings and music events, and released five albums of her original music. Harjo is the author of nine books of poetry, and two award-winning children's books, The Good Luck Cat and For a Girl Becoming. Her books include An American Sunrise (2019), Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015), Crazy Brave (2012), and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2002 (2004). She was a recipient of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. In 2019, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Harjo is the Director of For Girls Becoming, an art mentorship program for young Mvskoke women.

Early life and education[edit]

Harjo in 1986.

Harjo was born on May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[1] The first of four children, Harjo’s birth name was Joy Foster.[2] Her father, Allen W. Foster, was Muscogee Creek, and her mother, Wynema Baker Foster, has mixed-race ancestry of Cherokee, French, and Irish. Harjo adopted her name, in honor of her grandmother, upon becoming a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.[3][4][5]

At age 16, Harjo attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, which at the time was a BIA boarding school, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for high school.[6][7] Harjo loved painting and found that it gave her a way to express herself.[5]

Harjo enrolled as a pre-med student the University of New Mexico. She changed her major to art after her first year. During her last year, she switched to creative writing, as she was inspired by different Native American writers. She graduated in 1976.[8][9] Harjo earned her master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1978.[10] She also took filmmaking classes at the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.[11]


Harjo taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts from 1978 to 1979 and 1983 to 1984. She taught at Arizona State University from 1980 to 1981, the University of Colorado from 1985 to 1988, the University of Arizona from 1988 to 1990, and the University of New Mexico from 1991 to 1995.[11]

Harjo has played alto saxophone with the band Poetic Justice, edited literary journals, and written screenplays.[12]

In 1995, Harjo received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas.[13]

In 2002, Harjo received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award for A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales[14]. In 2008, she served as a founding member of the Board of Directors for the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation,[15] for which she serves as a member of its National Advisory Council.[16]

Harjo joined the faculty of the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in January 2013.[17]

In 2016, Harjo was appointed to the Chair of Excellence in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.[18]

In 2019, Harjo was named the United States Poet Laureate. She is the first Native American to be so appointed.[19] She is also the second United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to serve three terms. [20]

Literature and performance[edit]

Harjo standing
Harjo photographed by the Library of Congress in 2019, upon her nomination as Poet Laureate

Harjo has written numerous works in the genres of poetry, books, and plays. Harjo's works often include themes such as defining self, the arts, and social justice.[21]

Harjo uses Native American oral history as a mechanism for portraying these issues, and believes that "written text is, for [her], fixed orality".[22] Her use of the oral tradition is prevalent through various literature readings and musical performances conducted by Harjo. Her methods of continuing oral tradition include story-telling, singing, and voice inflection in order to captivate the attention of her audiences. While reading poetry, she claims that "[she] starts not even with an image but a sound," which is indicative of her oral traditions expressed in performance.[23]

Harjo published her first volume in 1975, titled The Last Song, which consisted of nine of her poems.[24] Harjo, through many readings and performances, shows great passion and emotion for the subjects she writes about. She often mixes both reading and singing her poems during performances, displaying two elements of her works.

Harjo uses symbolism throughout her poetry to express her beliefs and values. She draws from personal experiences to shape her writing. In her poem titled "She Had Some Horses", she uses many different forms of symbolism. As an important animal in Native American culture, the horse has been often used as a symbol. This poem has four sections; they are each arranged to complement one another. In this poem, Harjo uses sounds and rhythm to energize her poetry. [25] Chris Rohit wrote on her Christoph Young blog, "The many symbols of each repetition of a horse represented the experiences of the Native American woman, by starting each line with "She had horses" helped strengthen the Native's identity." Harjo used this distinct repetition to show a woman as strong as the animals she most depended on in daily life. She also used this distinct imagery to tell a story of a Native woman who had been victimized but showed her survival through an animal. Harjo uses repetition to emphasize her ideas.[26]

Harjo leaves the overall meaning of the poem up to the reader to complete. "This poem is all about the people in her life and she referred to them all as horses, with a specific trait or characteristic following that. They were all the same but at the same time, different."[27] Harjo is using horses in her poem to compare herself to all of the people in her community and to explain how she feels in her community with others around her.[27]

Julia Morse wrote, "Harjo's poems ache with grit, grief and nature. Her lines are curt and heavy but they construct delicate stories." In this poem, Harjo explains her growing years by using an animal very important in Native American culture. Harjo uses symbolism to express her hardships and values.


Harjo plays the saxophone at the Library of Congress in 2019

As a musician, Harjo has released five CDs, all of which won awards. These feature both her original music and that of other Native American artists.[28] Harjo's mother was a singer. Harjo learned to play the alto saxophone and the flute later in life.[28] She also sings and acts, frequently touring with her music group known as the Arrow Dynamics.[28]

In 2009 Harjo won the Native American Music Award for best female artist. She has received several other awards (see below) for her music.[28]

She began to play the saxophone at the age of 40. For her it fills the void she felt left by her singing voice. She had also learned that her paternal grandmother, whose surname she took when enrolling in the Creek nation, had loved the instrument from her years in Indian Territory before Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907.[29] Harjo believes that when reading her poems, she can add music by playing the sax and reach the heart of the listener in a different way. When reading her poems, she speaks with a musical tone in her voice, creating a song in every poem.[30]


In addition to her creative writing, Harjo has written and spoken about US political and Native American affairs. Her website contains several blogs expressing her views on current political issues and her strong support for women's rights and equality.[28] She is also an active member of the Muscogee Nation and writes poetry as "a voice of the Indigenous people".[31]

Harjo's poetry explores imperialism and colonization, and their effects on violence against women. She sometimes places her poem in a common setting, such as drinking in a bar in "An American Sunrise", and connects it to deep issues within the indigenous culture. Scholar Mishuana Goeman writes, "The rich intertextuality of Harjo's poems and her intense connections with other and awareness of Native issues- such as sovereignty, racial formation, and social conditions- provide the foundation for unpacking and linking the function of settler colonial structures within newly arranged global spaces".[32]

In her poems, Harjo often explores her Muskogee/Creek background and spirituality in opposition to popular mainstream culture. In the United States, residents are influenced by the proliferation of images from television, film, and other media. In a thesis at Iowa University, Eloisa Valenzuela-Mendoza writes about Harjo, "Native American continuation in the face of colonization is the undercurrent of Harjo’s poetics through poetry, music, and performance."[33] Harjo's work touches upon land rights for Native Americans and the gravity of the disappearance of "her people", while rejecting former narratives that erased Native American histories.[33]

While Harjo's work is often set in the Southwest, she writes about individual struggle. She reflects Creek values, myths, and beliefs.[33][34] Harjo reaches readers and audiences to bring realization of the wrongs of the past, not only for Native American communities but for oppressed communities in general. Her activism for Native American rights and feminism stem from her belief in unity and the lack of separation among human, animal, plant, sky, and earth.[35] Harjo believes that we become most human when we understand the connection among all living things. She believes that colonialism led to Native American women being oppressed within their own communities, and she works to encourage more political equality between the sexes.[36]

Of contemporary American poetry, Harjo said, "I see and hear the presence of generations making poetry through the many cultures that express America. They range from ceremonial orality which might occur from spoken word to European fixed forms; to the many classic traditions that occur in all cultures, including theoretical abstract forms that find resonance on the page or in image. Poetry always directly or inadvertently mirrors the state of the state either directly or sideways. Terrance Hayes’s American sonnets make a stand as post-election love poems. Layli Long Soldier’s poems emerge from fields of Lakota history where centuries stack and bleed through making new songs. The sacred and profane tangle and are threaded into the lands guarded by the four sacred mountains in the poetry of Sherwin Bitsui. America has always been multicultural, before the term became ubiquitous, before colonization, and it will be after."[37]

Personal life[edit]

Harjo is a mother of two, her son Phil Dayn and daughter Rainy Dawn. Rainy Dawn is the daughter of poet Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo). [38]




  • 1st Place in Poetry in the Santa Fe Festival of the Arts (1980)
  • Outstanding Young Women of America (1984)
  • New Mexico Music Awards (1987)
  • NEH Summer Stipend in American Indian Literature and Verbal Arts, University of Arizona (1987)
  • Arizona Commission on the Arts Poetry Fellowship (1989)


  • The American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award (1990)
  • Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, New York University: In Mad Love and War (1991)
  • Oakland PEN, Josephine Miles Poetry Award (1991)
  • William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America (1991)
  • American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation: In Mad Love and War (1991)
  • Honorary Doctorate from Benedictine College (1992)
  • Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont (1993)
  • Witter Bynner Poetry Fellowship (1994)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of The Americas (1995)[13]
  • Oklahoma Book Award: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1995)
  • Bravo Award from the Albuquerque Arts Alliance (1996)
  • Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Musical Artist of the Year: Poetic Justice (1997)
  • New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts (1997)
  • Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Writer's Award for work with nonprofit group Atlatl in bringing literary resources to Native American communities (1998)
  • Finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award: Reinventing the Enemy's Language (1998)
  • National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships (1998)


  • Writer of the Year/children's books by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for The Good Luck Cat (2001)
  • Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2001 (2003)
  • Arrell Gibson Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Oklahoma Center How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2001 (2003)
  • Storyteller of the Year Native Joy for Real by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. (2004)
  • Writer of the Year – Poetry How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975–2001 (2004)
  • Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers "Writer of the Year" for the script A Thousand Roads (2005)
  • United States Artists Rasmuson Fellows Award (2008)
  • Eagle Spirit Achievement Award (2009)
  • Nammy Native American Music Award (2009)



  • University of New Mexico Academy of American Poets Award
  • Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award
  • Featured in Pushcart Prize Poetry Anthologies XV & XIII




  • I Give You Back.
  • When the World As We Knew It Ended.
  • The Last Song, Puerto Del Sol, 1975.
  • What Moon Drove Me to This?, I. Reed Books, 1979, ISBN 978-0-918408-16-7.
  • Remember, Strawberry Press, 1981.
  • She Had Some Horses, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1983, ISBN 978-1-56025-119-4; W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, ISBN 978-0-393-33421-0.
  • New Orleans, 1983.
  • The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window, 1983.
  • Secrets from the Center of the World, University of Arizona Press, 1989, ISBN 978-0-8165-1113-6.
  • In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-8195-1182-9.
  • Fishing, Ox Head Press, 1992.
  • The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, ISBN 978-0-393-03715-9.
  • A Map to the Next World, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN 978-0-393-04790-5.
  • How We Became Human New and Selected Poems: 1975–2001, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, ISBN 978-0-393-32534-8.
  • Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, ISBN 978-0-393-24850-0. (shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize)
  • An American Sunrise: Poems, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, ISBN 978-1-324-00386-1.

As editor[edit]

  • Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998, ISBN 978-0-393-31828-9.

In anthology[edit]

  • Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, University of Georgia Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0820353159.


Children's literature[edit]


Solo albums[edit]

  • Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century (2003) [44]
  • Native Joy for Real (2004) [45]
  • She Had Some Horses (2006) [46]
  • Winding Through the Milky Way (2008) [47]
  • Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears (2010) [48]

Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice[edit]

  • Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century (1997)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "About Joy Harjo". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 2020-03-02.
  2. ^ "Joy Harjo". National Women's History Museum. Retrieved 2020-03-02.
  3. ^ "Harjo, Joy 1951–". Oklahoma Historical Society.
  4. ^ "Harjo, Joy 1951–".
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ a b King, Noel. "Meet Joy Harjo, The 1st Native American U.S. Poet Laureate". NPR.
  7. ^ Napikoski, Linda. "Joy Harjo: Feminist, Indigenous, Poetic Voice". ThoughtCo.
  8. ^ Shepland, Jenn. "Interview with Poet Joy Harjo". Southwest Contemporary.
  9. ^ Moffett, Penelope. "A Poet's Words From the Heart of Her Heritage". Los Angeles Times.
  10. ^ "Librarian of Congress Names Joy Harjo the Nation's 23rd Poet Laureate". University of Iowa Writers Workshop.
  11. ^ a b "Harjo, Joy 1951–". Oklahoma Historical Society. 1951.
  12. ^ "Joy Harjo". June 19, 2014. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
  13. ^ a b "Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Native Writers Circle of America". Storytellers: Native American Authors Online. Karen M. Strom. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  14. ^ "PEN Open Book Award Winners". PEN America. 2016-04-29. Retrieved 2020-03-02.
  15. ^ Pogrebin, Robin (April 21, 2009). "New Group Is Formed to Sponsor Native Arts". The New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
  16. ^ "NACF National Leadership Council Members". Archived from the original on April 24, 2009. Retrieved May 14, 2014.
  17. ^ "Current News, American Indian Studies Program, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign". University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved September 29, 2012.
  18. ^ "The Creative Writing Program Welcomes Joy Harjo to the Faculty as a Professor & Chair of Excellence | Department of English". Retrieved 2020-03-02.
  19. ^ Lynn Neary; Patrick Jarenwattananon (June 19, 2019). "Joy Harjo Becomes The First Native American U.S. Poet Laureate". NPR.
  20. ^ "Joy Harjo will serve a rare third term as U.S. poet laureate". PBS NewsHour. 2020-11-19. Retrieved 2020-11-19.
  21. ^ Kingsbury, Pam (June 15, 2002). "Review: Harjo, Joy. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems". Library Journal.
  22. ^ Acosta, Belinda (2014). "Review: Joy Harjo. Crazy Brave: A Memoir". Prairie Schooner: 160+. doi:10.1353/psg.2014.0140. S2CID 53935940.
  23. ^ Scarry, John (1994). "Joy Harjo: Overview". Reference Guide to American Literature.
  24. ^ "Joy Harjo". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  25. ^ Young, Christoph. "Poetry in Motion".
  26. ^ Drogosz, Emma (March 13, 2014). "She Had Some Horses". Hyphenated Americans.
  27. ^ a b Morse, Julia. "The Last Poem I Loved". The Rumpus. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  28. ^ a b c d e "About Joy Harjo". Joy Harjo.
  29. ^ Vitali, Gena Timberman. "The Knowing". Native Daughters. University of Nebraska Lincoln. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
  30. ^ Root, William Pitt (2005). "About Joy Harjo". Ploughshares. 30 (4): 184. JSTOR 40355019.
  31. ^ Scarry, John (1994). "Joy Harjo: Overview". Reference Guide to American Literature.
  32. ^ Goeman, Mishuana (2013). Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. U of Minnesota P. p. 119.
  33. ^ a b c Valenzuela-Mendoza, Eloisa (2014). ""Tending to the past": The Historical Poetics of Joy Harjo and Natasha Trethewey". Iowa Research Online. 1 (7).
  34. ^ "Joy Harjo". Poetry Foundation. April 18, 2017. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  35. ^ Romero, Channette (August 29, 2012). Activism and the American Novel: Religion and Resistance in Fiction by Women of Color. University of Virginia Press.
  36. ^ Suzack, Cheryl; Huhndorf, Shari; Perreault, Jeanne; Barman, Jean (2013). "Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture". Diffractions. Graduate Journal for the Study of Culture (1): 3.
  37. ^ "An Interview with Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate". June 19, 2019. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
  38. ^ Dunaway, David King (1995). Writing the Southwest (revised ed.). University of New Mexico: Plume Books. pp. 50–51. ISBN 9780826323378.
  39. ^ "Joy Harjo – 2014 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow". Archived from the original on May 17, 2014.
  40. ^ "Wallace Stevens Award". Retrieved April 9, 2016.
  41. ^ Schilling, Vincent (May 9, 2017). "Joy Harjo Awarded 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and $100,000". Indian Country Today. Retrieved October 30, 2018.
  42. ^ de León, Concepción. "Joy Harjo Is Named U.S. Poet Laureate". New York Times.
  43. ^ "Michelle Obama, Mia Hamm chosen for Women's Hall of Fame". March 8, 2021.
  44. ^ "Letter From The End of the Twentieth Century - album by Joy Harjo". Joy Harjo. Retrieved 2019-11-06.
  45. ^ "Native Joy For Real an album by Joy Harjo". Joy Harjo. Retrieved 2019-11-06.
  46. ^ "She Had Some Horses". Joy Harjo. Retrieved 2019-11-06.
  47. ^ "Winding Through The Milky Way an album by Joy Harjo". Joy Harjo. Retrieved 2019-11-06.
  48. ^ "Red Dreams, Trail Beyond Tears an album by Joy Harjo". Joy Harjo. Retrieved 2019-11-06.


External links[edit]