On the evening of Nov. 16, the University community welcomed internationally renowned musician, playwright, poet and performer Joy Harjo of the Muscogee Creek Nation for a night of poetry and gratitude. The poetry reading was held virtually via a Zoom webinar and was one of three events organized by Native American and Indigenous Studies at U.Va. The two-day visit was centered around Harjo’s experiences as a Native American poet and, in addition to the reading, included two separate, student-led discussions hosted by students in the Introduction to Native American Studies and Indigenous North American Arts classes, respectively.
Kasey Jernigan, citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and assistant professor of Anthropology and American Studies, began the poetry reading by thanking the event’s sponsors and introducing Teresa Pollak, an enrolled citizen of the Monacan Indian Nation. Pollak, on whose native land Charlottesville resides, led the group in a land acknowledgement before turning the program over to University President Jim Ryan.
In reference to Harjo’s work and her status as the first Native American to serve in the role of Poet Laureate, Ryan said the writer has “made it her mission to represent and give voice to Indigenous stories, histories and ways of knowing and being.” Ryan also cited one of Harjo’s many awards, in which she is described as helping “transform bitterness into beauty, fragmentation into wholeness and trauma into healing.”
The webinar was then enlightened by the writer herself, and Harjo sang a welcoming song as a means of emphasizing the beauty in camaraderie and in being one with the earth. She then paid tribute to U.Va. alum and fellow Indigenous poet Karenne Wood, who passed away in 2019. With a copy of the new “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry” — an anthology of the work of over 160 poets which Harjo edited — in hand, Harjo recited Wood’s poem, “Hard Times” before performing one of her own pieces, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet.”
Throughout the rest of the night, Harjo’s deep, husky voice filled the virtual space as she read “Rabbit is up to Tricks,” “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,” “Break My Heart,” “Running,” “Honoring” and “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” Harjo also mentioned her upcoming album and the audience heard a snippet of the work as she played a recording of “Why is Beauty,” a percussion-filled song dedicated to honoring young Native women.
Between each piece, Harjo gave insights into her experiences as a Native American. With an image of her daughter’s traditional beadwork as her background, Harjo commented on spirituality, womanhood, the difficulties faced by Indigenous peoples and the importance of the arts in this time of increasing division and separation.
Recounting her time teaching in Tennessee — which is part of her original homelands — Harjo told the audience a story about a house that once belonged to a wealthy uncle. The poet said, “Most people think [of Natives] as heathens, as savages living at the edge of the woods in rags … and that’s just … a false narrative.”
Harjo then described the paradox she faced as she returned to Oklahoma from Tennessee.
“People fought so hard against leaving — against the injustice of leaving,” she said. “And here I … was excited to go back home, even though I was home. So what do you do with that? I write poetry and music.”
Harjo’s closing poem of the night “Perhaps the World Ends Here” is another example of the writer’s spiritual bond with the land and its blessings. It starts and finishes with an image of the kitchen table and depicts the stories of humankind that take place around it. It states, “At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.”
The poet uses the table as a means for highlighting the need for gratitude and connecting oneself with the earth. It ties the earth with its inhabitants, and thus serves as a reminder to be grateful for everything.
During a Q&A session following the poetry reading, an audience member inquired about how to support Indigenous poets and amplify their voices. Inviting poets to events and supporting young Indigenous creatives were ideas Harjo responded with. The writer also encouraged the audience to purchase works by Native artists, including an upcoming anthology of contemporary Native voices.
On the topic of poetry — and the arts more broadly — and how it can bridge the increasing division, separation and polarization of America, Harjo shared her belief in the necessity of art for human survival. “We need spiritual food — mental food — and that’s part of [our human needs], or we won’t flourish,” she said.
As Thanksgiving approaches — and as Native American Heritage Month ends — Harjo acknowledged the discrepancies in the origins of the holiday. “Ultimately … it’s always important to be grateful,” she said. “When you pair gratitude and compassion together … it creates more gratitude, more to be grateful for.”