Last Updated on October 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1766
The North, Harjo writes, is a place of “difficult teachers,” “cold winds,” and “prophecy”—a desolate place, but one where the way forward is shown by the light of the moon.
After Harjo’s father left, her mother married an older man who initially seemed kind and charming. The family moved away from their old neighborhood and into a house on the ironically-named Independence Street, where Harjo began to experience horrific nightmares. Her stepfather became physically abusive, once beating her five-year-old sister in front of Harjo and her brother. Yet her mother confessed that she could not leave him, as he had threatened to kill her and the children, making it look like they had died in a house fire. Harjo and her mother both knew he was capable of this.
During her adolescence, Harjo’s stepfather began to take a sexual interest in her, and she took pains to avoid him. In junior high, she read voraciously, drew in her sketchbook, and wrote in her diary, which her stepfather cruelly read aloud to the whole family. She also discovered music—everything from Bizet to the Monkees. When she began to experience sexual desire and passion, which the church preached was evil, she struggled to understand why God had created desire in human beings if it was sinful. One day, her stepfather discovered her singing in the house while she completed her chores and beat her with his belt. This caused Harjo to stop singing for many years, just as his reading of her diary caused her to stop writing.
When Harjo was a freshman in high school, her stepfather beat her for trying out for the school play, and she began to give in to despair. A short while later, she went to a party and drank herself into a numb stupor. Terrified that her stepfather would kill her if she arrived home after curfew, she secured a ride home with sex, leaving “a part of [herself] behind” in doing so. Afterward, she began to drink regularly.
Harjo’s stepfather soon began pressuring her mother to make Harjo leave, with plans to send her to a fundamentalist Christian school. As Harjo had recently relinquished Christianity, he knew that this would be “the worst punishment.” She had previously attended a local church and stayed on due to her love of Bible stories and music, as well as some kindly parishioners. Although Harjo was curious about religion and fascinated by the Bible, she became frustrated by how scripture was used to sanction racism and sexism and by the church’s condemnation of dancing, mysticism, and imagination. After she saw the preacher expel a group of “Indian-looking” girls from the Sunday service for whispering, Harjo never returned to church.
Desperate to escape her stepfather and his threats, Harjo considered running away to San Francisco, but the inward “knowing” that had always guided her warned her from this path. Instead, she learned about opportunities for Native students to attend Indian boarding schools, and her mother took her to the Okmulgee Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to apply. While there, Harjo discovered that she could go to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She submitted her drawings and was accepted. Upon arriving in New Mexico, she felt a renewed sense of hope and inspiration and was certain she had made the right choice.
Harjo began her studies at the Institute in 1967 and was assigned the composer Louis Ballard as her adviser. Music became a central part of her and her classmates’ lives there, and surrounded by a diverse group of young Native artists, Harjo felt herself beginning to heal from both personal and collective trauma. When she struggled with the tedium of English class, she was sent to study with a young Jesuit priest named John Staudenmeier, who encouraged her to “pay attention to the poetry of...
(The entire section contains 1766 words.)
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