Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo (1951-present) is a Native American writer and performer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She is the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, the first Native American to hold that role, and is only the second Poet Laureate to ever be appointed for a third term. Harjo performs nationally and internationally, and is the author of nine books of poetry, two memoirs, two children's books, and an array of other work.

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Table of contents

    Joy Harjo Family

    Joy Harjo was born "Joy Foster" in Tulsa, Oklahoma 1951 to parents Allen W. Foster (who was Muscogee) and Wynema Barker Foster (who was Cherokee and European-American). Harjo's father came from a long line of respected warriors in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and Harjo chose to take her paternal grandmother's name. Harjo's great-great grandfather was a famous warrior who fought against Andrew Jackson in the Red Stick War in the 1800s. Harjo's mother was a waitress as well as a musician. Other artists in her family included her aunt and grandmother, who were very influential in Harjo's own creativity. Harjo did not know any poets, but wrote her first poem in 8th grade.

    Joy Harjo, Musician, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Joy Harjo, a musician as well as a poet, performs on stage with a saxophone.

    Despite Joy Harjo's love of creativity and explorations of childhood in her work, her childhood was tumultuous. She recounts tales of her father's violent behavior and alcoholism in her autobiography, leading to a divorce between her parents. Shortly after her parents' divorce, her mother married another abusive man, and Harjo became afraid to speak aloud. She recounts memories of schoolteachers threatening to write home to her parents about her silence in the classroom, but states that she was terrified to speak. She turned to painting at this time to express herself more fully.

    Joy Harjo Biography

    When Joy Harjo was sixteen she began attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This gave her an opportunity to leave home and this is where she began to change how Native American art is presented in the US. After high school, Harjo majored in creative writing at the University of New Mexico. During this time, she was influenced by other Native American poets, including Leslie Marmon Silko and Simon J. Ortiz. At the age of 24, she published her first book of nine poems, The Last Song (1975). After completing her undergraduate degree, she went on to attend the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she got her MFA.

    Joy Harjo, Picture, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Joy Harjo was the first Native American to hold the position of Poet Laureate of the United States.

    In 1979, Harjo published her first full-length poetry collection, What Moon Drove Me to This? Harjo has won many awards from her work, but at this time she began writing in earnest and has since published quite a few books of poetry, along with music albums, memoirs, children's books, and plays. Harjo became Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019, and remains in this position in 2022.

    Joy Harjo has two children whom she parented as a single mother. Her son, Phil Dayn was born in 1969. Harjo met Phil Dayn's father at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the couple only dated for two years. In 1972, she met writer Simon Ortiz of the Acoma Pueblo Tribe, and in 1973 the two had their daughter, Rainy Dawn. Harjo did not marry either of these men, and is now married to Owen Chopoksa Sapulpa, serving as stepmother to his children. Harjo and her husband now live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and she serves as a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets, is the first Artist-in-Residence for Tulsa's Bob Dylan Center, and is the Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

    It is popular amongst poets just beginning their career in poetry to publish short books or "chapbooks" of 15-30 pages. This is a way to debut poetry without having a hard launch or committing oneself to an entire collection (between 65-110 pages). Joy Harjo published The Last Song as her introductory poetry collection, but it was technically a chapbook due to its short nature.

    Joy Harjo Books

    Joy Harjo has written nine collections of poetry, two children's books, two memoirs, music albums, and plays. Below, a list of these works and their various genres are included, beginning with the poetry collections for which she is so famous. This list is organized by genre and acts as a quick guide to her writing and music. The chart below also includes several awards she won for each of her works, but is by no means a comprehensive list.

    GenreTitleYearPublisherSelect Awards by Work
    Poetry CollectionsWhat Moon Drove Me to This?1979Reed Books
    Remember1981Strawberry Press
    She Had Some Horses1983Thunder's Mouth Press
    In Mad Love and War1990Wesleyan University Press
    The Woman Who Fell From the Sky1994W. W. Norton & Company
    A Map to the Next World2000
    How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-20022004
    Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings2015Shortlisted for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize
    An American Sunrise 2019Oklahoma Book Award
    MemoirsCrazy Brave: A Memoir2012W. W. Norton & CompanyPEN USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation
    Poet Warrior2021
    Children's BooksThe Good Luck Cat2000Harcourt Children's Books; 1st edition
    For a Girl Becoming2009Arizona Press
    PlaysWings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light: A Play by Joy Harjo and a Circle of Responses 2019Wesleyan University Press
    Solo Album DiscographyLetter from the End of the Twentieth Century, By Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice2003Mekko Productions, Inc.
    Native Joy For Real2004
    She Had Some Horses, Spoken Word2006
    Winding Through the Milky Way2008
    Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears2010Indian Summer Music Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental, for “Rainbow Gratitude”
    This America2011
    I Pray for My Enemies2021
    OtherSecrets From the Center of the World1989Arizona Press
    When the Song of the World Was Subdued Our Light Came Through, Joy Harjo as Executive Editor2021W. W. Norton & CompanyPEN Oakland 2021 Josephine Miles Award, 31st Annual Reading the West Book Award for Poetry

    Joy Harjo Poems

    Joy Harjo has many famous poems exploring the themes of race in America, family, love, the natural world and Indigenous cultures in the US. Below, five of her most famous poems are listed. Harjo's most famous poem is "An American Sunrise" the eponymous poem of her collection An American Sunrise.

    When interpreting poetry, first see what tense the author is writing in. If the poem uses the word "you" or directly speaks to the reader, it is most frequently written in second person, which can create intimacy between the author and the reader. Use of the second person in lyric poetry is becoming more popular as poetry picks up steam in pop culture.

    Title YearPublication InfoDescription
    "Remember" 1983She Had Some Horses, W. W. Norton & CompanyThe poem "Remember" by Joy Harjo is a poem directed towards the reader, written in second person. The poem concentrates on the universal truths that come with living on earth, reminding the reader to stay connected to the earth, their ancestry, and slow down to take stock of the way they live.
    "We Must Call A Meeting"1990In Mad Love and War, Wesleyan University PressThis poem uses references to Harjo's own life and indigenous culture to discuss the state of the world and the ways in which we, as a culture, need to meet to discuss what is going on in the world and how to prevent the violence ocurring.
    "Praise the Rain" 2015Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, W. W. Norton & Company"Praise the Rain" is a gratitude poem about nature and humanity's place within it. This poem concentrates on being grateful for the good as well as the bad, directing the reader to praise both the easy things and the hard things.
    "For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet" 2015Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, W. W. Norton & Company"For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet" is a very famous poem by Joy Harjo. The poem is, more or less, an intensive and beautiful advice column for remaining grounded, yet true to oneself. This poem is another that is directed towards the reader with the use of the second person.
    "Break My Heart"2019An American Sunrise W. W. Norton & Company"Break My Heart" is a lyric poem about love and the ways in which it comes and goes. The poem is not only about romantic love, however, it has a concentration on history, past, present, and future. It comments on political issues such as law enforcement as well as intimate concerns, like relationships.

    Joy Harjo Quotes

    Joy Harjo is famous for many of her quotations surrounding the self and the universal nature of things. She also commonly comments on her Indigenous heritage and is an activist for Indigenous populations living in the United States, both past and present.

    There is no poetry where there are no mistakes.1

    This quotation by Joy Harjo outlines her view on writing. Stating that there is no flawless or perfect poetry can make poetry seem more accessible to the everyday person. Harjo is an advocate for poetry being accessible to all persons, and this quotation illustrates that she believes poetry and poetry writing take place in the liminal space where mistakes and learning take place.

    It's possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.It's also possible to travel the whole globe and learn nothing.2

    This quotation expresses Harjo's beliefs about learning and spirituality. Harjo believes that one can learn all they need to about the world simply by observing and existing in its natural state. Nature gives us what we need to be fully ourselves and the intelligent beings that we are. That being said, if one is not open to such learning or closes their eyes to it, one may travel the earth learning nothing of this intuitive and natural knowledge.

    I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul. 3

    This quotation, from Harjo's memoir Crazy Brave describes the feeling of unfulfillment that comes from leaving dreams unsung. Harjo was able to set out on her own to create art and artistry, and she did not let life circumstances, or any person, hold her back. This quotation is a quintessential look into who Harjo is and what she stands for.

    Joy Harjo - Key Takeaways

    • Joy Harjo is a Native American poet, artist, and musician who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in the United States.
    • Harjo is the Poet Laureate of the United States, and is the first Native American Poet Laureate, and only the second to hold the position as an incumbent for three terms in a row.
    • Harjo has nine major poetry collections, and is an activist in her work for Indigenous peoples in the United States.
    • Joy Harjo writes about ancestry, nature, love, loss, mysticism and Indigenous rights and cultures.

    1 The Sun, Joy Harjo 2004.

    2 The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: Poems, Joy Harjo 1994.

    3 Crazy Brave: A Memoir, Joy Harjo 2015.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Joy Harjo

    Who is Joy Harjo?

    Joy Harjo is Native American poet, artist, and musician who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in the United States.

    What is Joy Harjo's most famous poem?

    Joy Harjo's most famous poem is "An American Sunrise". 

    What does Joy Harjo write about?

    Joy Harjo writes about ancestry, nature, love, loss, mysticism and Indigenous rights and cultures. 

    What does the poem "Remember" by Joy Harjo mean?

    The poem "Remember" by Joy Harjo is a poem directed towards the reader, written in second person. The poem concentrates on the universal truths that come with living on earth, reminding the reader to stay connected to the earth, their ancestry, and slow down and take stock of the way they live.

    How old is Joy Harjo? 

    Joy Harjo is 71 years old as of May 9, 2022.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Harjo shows the dangers of nature as well as the beauty.

    What tribal nation does Harjo belong to?

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


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