Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Cultural and personal survival are recurrent themes in Joy Harjo’s writing. Harjo herself notes that her prose and poetry are imbued with this theme “both on a personal and a larger, communal level.” In “Northern Lights,” the psychological and spiritual survival of Whirling Soldier is accomplished by the healing effect that Native American tribal traditions have on the individual.

Whirling Soldier is aptly named; not only is he a Vietnam veteran, he must overcome an inner conflict as well. The war that rages in his psyche is the result of the cultural battle between Anglo American society and his Native American heritage. For example, in Native American traditions, the warrior is an honored member of the community. However, the war in Vietnam so divided the country that American soldiers felt alienated from their own people back home. Whirling Soldier is doubly alienated; he not only is fighting in an unpopular war, he is fighting at the command of another enemy—the Anglo Americans who have oppressed his people.

White conquest has severed Native Americans from their ties with the land, suppressed their traditions, and forced them to conform to European ways of life. One result of this cultural violation is alcoholism. In “Northern Lights,” three generations have been affected by this disease: Whirling Soldier, his father, and even his teenage daughter. Alcoholism is a visible symptom of the deeper psychological war that is...

(The entire section is 458 words.)