Joy Harjo

By Kerri Lee Alexander, NWHM Fellow | 2018-2020
Joy Harjo

Joy Har­jo, the 23rd Poet Lau­re­ate of the Unit­ed States, is a mem­ber of the Mvskoke Nation and belongs to Oce Vpofv (Hick­o­ry Ground). As a poet, activist, and musician, Joy Harjo’s work has won countless awards. In 2019, Harjo became the first Native American United States Poet Laureate in history and is only the second poet to be appointed for three terms. In addition to her many books of poetry, she has written several books for young audiences and released seven award-winning music albums.

Joy Harjo was born on May 9, 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The first of four children, Harjo’s birth name was Joy Foster; she later changed her name to “Harjo,” her Mvskoke grandmother’s family name. Her father was a Muscogee Creek citizen whose mother came from a line of respected warriors, and speakers who served the Muscogee Nation in the House of Warriors. Joy’s great-great grandfather was a famous leader, Monahwee, in the Red Stick War against President Andrew Jackson in the 1800s. Harjo’s mother was a waitress of mixed Cherokee, Irish, and French descent. Growing up, Harjo was surrounded by artists and musicians, but she did not know any poets. Her mother wrote songs and her grandmother and her aunt were both artists. These influential women inspired Harjo to explore her creative side. Harjo recalls that the very first poem she wrote was in eighth grade.

In addition to art and creativity, Harjo also experienced many challenges as a child. In her autobiography, Harjo discussed her father’s struggle with alcohol and violent behavior that led to her parent’s divorce. After this, Harjo’s mother married another man that also abused the family. Harjo had a hard time speaking out loud because of these experiences. She said, “I remember the teachers at school threatening to write my parents because I was not speaking in class, but I was terrified.”[1] Instead, Harjo started painting as a way to express herself. At the age of sixteen, she left home to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. While she was at this school, Harjo participated in what she calls the “renaissance of contemporary native art.” [2] This was when Harjo and her classmates changed how Native art was represented in the United States. During this time, she joined one of the first all-native drama and dance groups. She also wrote songs for an all-native rock band.

After graduating from high school, Harjo attended the University of New Mexico as a Pre-Med student. However, she was inspired by the art and creativity around her. She switched her major to art, and then again to creative writing after meeting and working with fellow Native American poets, including Simon J. Ortiz and Leslie Marmon Silko. Harjo began writing poetry at the age of twenty-two. She published her first book of nine poems called The Last Song in 1975. Harjo then graduated from college a year later and started the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Iowa (Iowa Writers’ Workshop). When she graduated from this program in 1978, she began taking film classes and teaching at various universities including the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Arizona State University in Tempe, the University of Colorado in Boulder, the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

In 1980, Harjo published her first full-length volume of poetry called What Moon Drove Me to This? This book of poetry includes all of the poems she wrote in her 1975 collection. She has since published nine books of poetry, two memoirs, plays, and several books for young audiences, as well as editing several poetry collections. One of her most famous poetry volumes, She Had Some Horses, was first published in 1982. She has won many awards for her writing including; the Ruth Lilly Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, a PEN USA Literary Award, the Poets & Writers Jackson Poetry Prize, two NEA Fellowships, a Tulsa Artist Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2009, she won a NAMMY (Native American Music Award) for Best Female Artist of the Year.

Harjo is a founding board member and Chair of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and, in 2019, was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She has since been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, National Native American Hall of Fame, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Harjo currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma where she serves as the first Artist-in-Residency of the Bob Dylan Center.