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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Throughout the documented history of mankind, human beings have handed down creation stories from generation to generation, from the writings of what would become major religions to the lesserknown mythologies and legends passed through small sects of ethnic groups and tribes of native peoples. How much the story of the universe told in “Anniversary” was influenced by Harjo’s Creek Indian heritage is not readily apparent, but it is likely that the Native American connection to nature and to the past, as well as the present and future, play a key role in the poem’s composition.

Creek Indians belong to any of nineteen tribal groups that once occupied what are now Alabama and Georgia. Today, there are around 20,000 Creeks, most of whom live in Oklahoma, where Harjo was born. Like other Indian tribes in the early days of American history, the Creeks wound up in a region different from the one in which they had settled because of force, not choice. Since at least the mid-1500s, they had been successful farmers, dividing their land and members into about fifty settlements in the deep south, called Creek Towns. Eventually, a Creek Confederacy was formed, and it began to grow in power as Indian tribes that had been chased from their homelands by Europeans joined the Creeks. During the early 1800s, the Creeks battled Andrew Jackson’s troops but were outnumbered and worn down over the years. In the 1830s, the government forced the Creeks to move to Indian territory in what is now Oklahoma. There, they faced poverty and starvation as they struggled to develop crops and farming methods that agreed with their new land and climate. It was a struggle that many of their descendants still live with today.

The population of Native Americans in the United States has increased by more than 40 percent in the past twenty years, although this group still comprises less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population. More than half all of Native Americans live in major cities, particularly New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but most reside in the poor sections of those towns. Traditionally, many Native Americans travel back to their reservations each year and some return permanently. All too often, they find the natural environment of the reservation disrupted by industrialization. From oil well drilling and natural gas extraction to coal mines and hydroelectric plants, once sacred grounds now bear the resource burdens of energy-seeking consumers and corporations.

Despite the intrusion of industry onto Indian reservations, recent years have seen an increase in sympathy for Native American causes from both the general population and the government. In the late 1970s, the American Indian Policy Review Commission campaigned for greater Native American sovereignty in the United States and for the past two decades that sovereignty has been growing. The number of federally recognized tribes reached 547 by the mid 1990s and more than 100 other tribes were petitioning for recognition.

Although the increase in self-governance and a greater support for Indian issues have been beneficial to this population in general, Native Americans are still the poorest ethnic group in America. In the early 1990s, 31 percent lived at the poverty level, and, on reservations, the typical yearly income for a household was $13,000, with unemployment sometimes reaching as high as 80 percent. The establishment of gambling casinos on many reservations has helped bring capital to the participating tribes, and there are now more than seventy Indian nations running casinos on their land. Today, the Native American gaming industry is worth some six billion dollars. It is a mistake, however, to think that gambling is the only form of economic enterprise occurring on Indian reservations. Other endeavors include building and selling mobile homes, growing cotton, assembling parts for automobiles, and maintaining resorts, to name just a few.

While many Indian students attend high schools...

(The entire section is 1,631 words.)