By Jessica Liu
For hundreds of years, minorities have borne the brunt of America’s legacy of systemic oppression. From undergoing a forcible uprooting from their homeland to resisting the death of their culture and languages, Native Americans have long endured this burden. Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate, unpacks themes–of resiliency, destruction, memory, and the power of storytelling–shaped by her heritage as a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation in the poetry collection "An American Sunrise." In doing so, she pays homage to her rich tribal culture.
In her poem “Break My Heart” lingers the reminder that no matter how distant, “history will always find you, and wrap you / In its thousand arms”: Harjo’s poetry stems from her return to Okfuskee, Oklahoma, where her ancestors, the Mvskoke people, were violently uprooted and forced west under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Another poem, “Exile of Memory,” explores the legacy of this removal, documenting the forced assimilation of Native Americans as well as other hardships, such as addiction and crime, that plague reservations to this day. “If we pay enough, maybe we can buy ourselves back,” Harjo writes, a reminder of the injustices tribes have faced for centuries on their own land. Her use of enjambment in the poem reflects this pain by disjointing each sentence as if the speaker were struggling for breath.
The same legacy of pain surfaces in “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” where splintered sentences scattered across the page underscore the depiction of white settlers ripping tribal society apart. Harjo calls it “memory shredded because it is impossible to hold with words,” and yet the stream of specific imagery she evokes through her language (“Rumors fall like rain. / Like bombs. / Like mother and father tears / swallowed for restless peace”) brings seemingly intangible memories to life.
Anger is a constant, simmering presence in Harjo’s words as she reflects on the history that still ensnares the present. In one of the various prose pieces scattered throughout the collection, she describes the U.S. government’s restraint of Native American culture. This included the illegalization of storytelling and writing essential to tribal cultural sovereignty, which remained prohibited until the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. “I wander this sad world / We’ve made with the enemy’s words,” Harjo reflects later in “Running.” Her use of writing to illustrate tribal traditions and suffering would have been illegal just decades earlier. In creating this collection, Harjo effectively subverts the restraints placed upon Native American creation.
Though the collection expresses sorrow and rage, there also remains resiliency and hope. Harjo reflects on generational strength in “For Earth’s Grandsons,” reminding her audience that “no matter dictators, the heartless, and liars / No matter – you are born of those / Who kept ceremonial embers burning in their hands / All through the miles of relentless exile.” Above all, she promises to rise above the memories and legacy of violence that affect her community, asserting that “I was anything but history. / I was the wind” in “Running.”
Despite her focus on history, those who read Harjo’s poetry can’t help but draw connections between the historical atrocities she describes and the present. As she recounts the Native American children “lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages” after being driven off of their land by the government, one inevitably envisions the cages in which immigrants have been detained at the Mexico-United States border. In “Advice for Countries, Advanced, Developing and Falling,” she speaks from the perspective of America and other countries: “We are right. We build walls to keep anyone who is not like us out of here. God gave us these lands.” Not only does this act as a criticism of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall, but it also denounces the concept of Manifest Destiny, a belief in the U.S.’s god-given right to expansion that drove westward movement in the 19th century.
The adaptability of Harjo’s words to both the past and present forces her readers to confront a harsh reality: the atrocities barely touched on in history textbooks still ripple through Native American society today, imprinted upon the memories of all those who have suffered their effects: “Forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America,” Harjo proclaims in “An American Sunrise.” And yet she celebrates love and hope, underlining that Native Americans are more than their history. Most of all, she reminds us that we have all inherited legacies of dehumanization and injustice, and it is our job to learn from history while uplifting oppressed voices.