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How We Became Human

What does it mean to be human? To this day, philosophers and scientists debate what makes humans uniquely human and separate from other species. If you're looking for a solid answer to that question, you probably won't find it in Joy Harjo's (1951-) How We Became Human collection (2002). Instead, Harjo's poems examine the foundations of humanity and the bonds that tie one another together while celebrating the entirety of the natural world. 

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How We Became Human

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What does it mean to be human? To this day, philosophers and scientists debate what makes humans uniquely human and separate from other species. If you're looking for a solid answer to that question, you probably won't find it in Joy Harjo's (1951-) How We Became Human collection (2002). Instead, Harjo's poems examine the foundations of humanity and the bonds that tie one another together while celebrating the entirety of the natural world.

A collection of poems that spans 28 years of Harjo's career, How We Became Human examines themes like the power of connection, the relationship between humanity and nature, and the importance of indigenous life and experience.

Joy Harjo's Poems: How We Became Human

Joy Harjo is a Native American poet and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951. After studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she earned her BA at the University of New Mexico and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Harjo published her first poetry collection, The Last Song, in 1975. In 2019, she became the first Native American to hold the position of Poet Laureate of the United States. She served three terms (only the second poetry consultant to do so) and was succeeded by Ada Limón on July 12, 2022.

How We Became Human Poetry Collection, Photograph of Joy Harjo, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Joy Harjo became the first Native American to serve as the United States Poet Laureate.

Much of Harjo's work is inspired by her identity as a Native American. Her poetry speaks to the beauty and power of indigenous peoples as well as the ever-present oppression indigenous peoples face at the hands of white society. Harjo's poetry is often autobiographical and deeply connected to place, notably the Southeast, the Southwest, Alaska, and Hawaii. Many poems in How We Became Human are inspired by the myths and traditional storytelling of First Nations people.

Throughout her career, Harjo has written nine books of poetry, two children's books, and various other publications. Much of her work ironically centers around the limitations of language. Nonetheless, Harjo's writing speaks to the necessity of having a voice and speaking one's truth. She has said,

I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.”1

How We Became Human Poems Summary

How We Became Human includes poems from seven of Harjo's previous collections and a selection of 13 previously unpublished poems. Spanning 28 years of Harjo's early career, the poems in How We Became Human cover a wide variety of styles and content.

"Remember"

"Remember" was first published in Harjo's 1983 collection She Had Some Horses. The poem utilizes repetition as the speaker implores the reader to remember their connection to the earth, nature, and other living things. The poem primarily focuses on birth as the source of connection, linking people to the sky, the stars, the sun, and the earth.

The speaker personifies animals, plants, and trees to argue that each living entity has a history and a story, making them more similar to humans than humanity often admits. The constant repetition of the word "remember" suggests that people often forget this critical information, which forms the root of humanity's relationship to the world.

"The Flood"

First published in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994), "The Flood" is a coming-of-age prose poem that links the loss of innocence with the watermonster in Muskogee Creek myth. The speaker remembers her first encounter with the watermonster when she was 16. He was dressed as a seductive warrior, and after their fateful interaction, she was ostracized by her community.

The speaker came to be viewed as the wife of the watermonster and a cautionary tale herself. Others came up with their own tales to explain her fall from grace—the most popular story being she drowned in the lake after drinking and driving. Now years in the future, the speaker warns that people no longer see myths and cautionary stories as a reflection of themselves. Because they ignore their history, no one will be prepared when rain floods the world and they must confront their own monsters.

How We Became Human Collection, Sea serpent, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The watermonster that steals innocence is described as a snake.

"3 A.M."

One of Harjo's earliest published poems, "3 A.M." was included in her first poetry collection, The Last Song. Set in an Albuquerque airport at three in the morning, the Native American speaker and her companion are trying to get a flight to Old Oraibi, Third Mesa. The attendant working the desk doesn't know why they would want to go to a rundown city like Third Mesa when Chicago and New York are so much more important.

The speaker feels silly and insignificant at first, but she suddenly has an epiphany—her identity is tied to Third Mesa: going home means going back to herself. Even in the middle of the night, it is never too late to find oneself.

The Third Mesa is home to the Orayvi (Oraibi) Hopi village as well the villages of Kiqotsmovi (Kykotsmovi), Hoatvela (Hotevilla), and Paaqavi (Bacavi). Each village is located on the Hopi Reservation, and each is autonomous.

"When the World as We Knew It Ended"

"When the World as We Knew It Ended" was published for the first time in How We Became Human. The poem responds to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States using an indigenous lens.

Without detracting from the grief of the present moment, "When the World as We Knew It Ended" contends that the world has been "ending" for Native Americans since missionaries and colonizers first arrived in the Americas. For centuries, indigenous peoples have sat back and watched as colonizers pillage the land and fight for one another for control. The speaker argues her people have been watching the end of the world approach for a very long time. The day has finally come where American society is so shaken it can never go back to how it was before. But amidst the pain and devastation, art and nature offer hope that can help society rebuild.

How We Became Human Collection, September 11 2001 terrorist attack, StudySmarterFig. 3 - "When the World as We Knew It Ended" responds to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

How We Became Human Analysis

One of the first things readers often notice about Harjo's writing is her unique poetic form. The majority of Harjo's poetry differs from the strict conventions of the Western world. While European poets often adhere to set forms like sonnets, odes, and ballads, Harjo's poetry is free-flowing. It can sometimes be difficult to know where one line breaks and the next begins as the lines build and grow off one another.

Harjo's writing is a rejection of strict Western society and a reflection of her indigenous roots. Instead of conforming to a status quo set by others, Harjo makes her own rules to align with her values and cultural background. Instead of seeing things as individuals that need to be pigeonholed into a box, Harjo sees life as interconnected and dynamic, free to change and become. This is reflected in her poetry.

How We Became Human Book: Themes

The themes inherent in Harjo's poetry also reflect the values of indigenous culture. The main themes in How We Became Human are the power of connection, the relationship between humanity and nature, and the importance of indigenous life and experience.

The Power of Connection

Many of Harjo's poems speak to the connection that tethers all humans to one another and the world at large. Connection is a powerful force because it makes people think of themselves not as individuals who exist as isolated entities but as an essential part of a larger, co-dependent system. This is explicitly expressed in "Remember," as the speaker says,

Remember you are all people and all people

are you.

Remember you are this universe and this

universe is you" (19-22)

By emphasizing connection, Harjo argues that people are not as different and divided as they perceive. Each human being experiences life, happiness, pain, and death. These experiences create the foundation of what it means to be human.

How We Became Human Collection, Four hands grasping one another, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Harjo's poetry emphasizes the power of connection.

At one point or another, everyone undergoes a coming of age and a subsequent change in identity. Despite individual differences, humans are connected through the bonds of life. Harjo expresses this in "The Flood," saying,

When the proverbial sixteen-year-old woman walked down to the lake within her were all sixteen-year-women who had questioned their power from time immemorial"

Connection empowers people by reminding them they're not alone and calls them to rethink their position in the world around them.

The Relationship Between Humanity and Nature

Harjo honors the natural world's value by celebrating its beauty and importance. Generally, Native Americans hold a deeper reverence for nature than their European counterparts. This is due partly to the fact that indigenous prosperity and spirituality are tied closely with the health of the land. In Western culture, on the other hand, the earth is not regarded as a living being but rather as a source of profit. Harjo speaks to the relationship between humanity and nature in many poems throughout the collection.

In "Remember," she directly conflates the diversity and beauty of human existence with the diversity and beauty of the earth:

Remember the earth whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth." (11-13)

Harjo subtly reminds readers that the essence of humanity is tied up in the earth. Without the earth, none would survive.

The power of the earth is taken further in "The Flood," where nature imagery is interposed with life-altering change. When the speaker first meets the watermonster, her young sister: "...laughed at a woodpecker flitting like a small sun above us and before I could deter the symbol we were in it." Regardless of the conflict happening in the human world, the natural world prevails. This is echoed again in "When the World As We Knew It Ended," when the natural world signals the devastation of the terrorist attacks but remains beautiful and resilient despite the threat to human life:

We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea

and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe

floating in the skies of infinite

being." (35-39)

The Importance of Indigenous Life and Experience

As a member of the indigenous community herself, Harjo's writing often speaks to the importance of indigenous life and experiences. In doing so, she does not shy away from the harsh truth of her people's existence—White society has oppressed Native Americans for centuries. Harjo's poetry speaks to the whitewashing of indigenous history, the attempt to eradicate indigenous voices, and the social obstacles Native Americans face regarding housing, education, job opportunities, and even food supplies.

While portraying the oppression and dehumanization her people have faced, Harjo simultaneously celebrates indigenous experiences. Her poetry often includes traditional myths that act as a guide for contemporary Native Americans while honoring their history. In "The Flood," the speaker warns that forgetting these important myths is dangerous:

The watersnake was a story no one told anymore. They’d entered a drought that no one recognized as drought, the convenience store a signal of temporary amnesia."

The speaker implies that myths are the only things that have the power to save everyone from their amnesia and ignorance. Without honoring their ancestor's pasts, people are doomed to failure.

In "When the World as We Knew It Ended," indigenous values allow the speaker and her community to rebuild quickly after the devastating terrorist attacks. While the rest of America is shattered, Native Americans can pick themselves up and keep pushing on. Instead of prioritizing power and glory, indigenous people find the most value in life and community, which gives them hope:

But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies

who needed milk and comforting, and someone

picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble

and began to sing about the light flutter

the kick beneath the skin of the earth

we felt there, beneath us

a warm animal.

a song being born between the legs of her,

a poem." (44-52)

Harjo elevates indigenous voices, values, and customs throughout the entire collection.

How We Became Human Poetic Devices

Harjo's poems are full of poetic devices that give the collection its vivid, beautiful quality. Utilizing enjambment to alliteration, Harjo's poetry has a free-flowing, musical quality. Although many literary devices contribute to Harjo's style, the two that dominate her work are personification and imagery.

Personification

Harjo uses personification to give nature agency and prominence. For Harjo, the natural world is just as important and expressive as the human world, as she attempts to show how the two are inextricably connected. In "Remember," human birth is connected to the sky, stars, moon, and sun:

Remember the sky you were born under,

know each of the star’s stories.

Remember the moon, know who she is.

Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the

strongest point of time. Remember sundown

And the giving away to night." (1-6)

The speaker elevates the cycle of nature and gives the natural world purpose and history. It isn't just a separate entity, but "she," a mother figure directly tied to human life.

Personification also plays a decisive role in "When the World as We Knew It Ended," when the "conference of birds" (23) and the "winds who gathered intelligence" (35) warn the indigenous community about the devastation. The natural world is depicted as wiser and more potent than humans give it credit.

Imagery

The imagery used throughout the collection is also deeply tied to the natural world. The vivid descriptions present nature as beautiful yet dangerous. While most of the natural imagery is lilting—with its "sweet grasses" and "many-colored horses" (40-41, "When the World as We Knew It Ended"), Harjo does not flinch from acknowledging the dark, dangerous power that exists in the natural world. This is especially apparent in "The Flood," as the speaker sees pain and loss in the form of the sea snake:

My imagination swallowed me like a mica sky, but I had seen the watermonster in the fight of lightning storms, breaking trees, stirring up killing winds, and had lost my favorite brother to a spear of the sacred flame."

While Harjo celebrates natural beauty, she does not only love nature for how it benefits humankind. She accepts the world for both its beauty and its dangers, rejoicing in everything it is.

How We Became Human Collection - Key takeaways

  • How We Became Human was written by Native American poet Joy Harjo and published in 2002.
  • This collection includes poems that span nearly three decades of Harjo's writing career.
  • How We Became Human was deeply influenced by Harjo's identity as an indigenous writer.
  • Some of the most well-known poems in the collection are "3 A.M.," "The Flood," "Remember," and "When the World as We Knew It Ended."
  • The main themes in How We Became Human are the power of connection, the relationship between humanity and nature, and the importance of indigenous life and experience.

References

  1. Maya Phillips. "Joy Harjo, the Poet of American Memory." The New Yorker. 29 Aug. 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/joy-harjo-the-poet-laureate-of-american-memory.

Frequently Asked Questions about How We Became Human

The poetry collection How We Became Human examines the foundations of humanity and the bonds that tie one another together while celebrating the natural world.

Joy Harjo wrote How We Became Human

The main themes in How We Became Human are the power of connection, the relationship between humanity and nature, and the importance of indigenous life and experience.  

How We Became Human is deeply informed by Harjo's identity and experience as an indigenous writer. As a result, some of the poems in the collection are inspired by indigenous myths and stories and many also speak to the importance of the Native American experience in dominant white society. 

How We Became Human is a collection of poems spanning 28 years of Harjo's writing career, gathering some of her most influential poetry and celebrating the voice of an important indigenous poet.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What tribal nation does Harjo belong to?

True or false: How We Became Human is partly a collection of Harjo's previously-published poems? 

How many years of Harjo's career does How We Became Human span?

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