Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1767
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.
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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 living.” The school was also a place of intense emotion, and some students resorted to self-mutilation. After once cutting herself with a knife, Harjo resolved to express herself through art and story instead.
In a partially fictionalized memory from her time at the school, Harjo and her fellow students sat in a ditch behind the dormitories one night, drinking vodka in the moonlight. Harjo remembered her “guardian,” an old man who lived on the moon and whom she had visited in her dreams. She also tried not to stare at Lupita, a beautiful and alluring new pupil who claimed she came from Venus and offered opinions on the school’s boys. At the sound of the approaching dorm patrol, the students ran through the night back to their dorms, but Harjo’s roommate was caught drunk and consequently had to return home to the reservation. That night, another student, Georgette Romero, awakened her whole dorm screaming. Lupita had witnessed Georgette being chased by a ghost. Georgette’s roommates, afraid Georgette would bring the ghostly presence with her, did not allow her back in the dorm, so Georgette moved in with Harjo.
Georgette, Harjo knew, was in love with Clarence, the handsome cousin of Harjo’s friend Herbie. A Navajo boy, Herbie was secretly in love with his best friend, Lewis, who would have beaten Herbie if he had known the truth. Clarence, meanwhile, was known for his love of rodeo and girls, and Harjo learned that he had made a bet that he could sleep with Lupita within the space of a week.
One day, Harjo was summoned to the office of the head dorm matron, Mrs. Wilhelm, and feared the worst. When she arrived, she discovered that her stepfather had written a letter to the school accusing Harjo—whom he referred to as his “daughter”—of stealing. Much to Harjo’s surprise, Mrs. Wilhelm tore the letter to pieces. This marked the first time Harjo had seen the word of a white man discredited and disbelieved. At that moment, she vowed to herself to never drink again.
After the meeting with Mrs. Wilhelm, Harjo found Lupita and Georgette in her room. She and Lupita discussed their deepest hopes and spiritual experiences before Lupita slyly mentioned that Clarence was a “good kisser,” angering Georgette.
As Harjo lost herself in painting later that evening, Herbie arrived at the studio to try and cajole her into attending the dance being held at the canteen, with the hope of winning over Lewis. This reminded Harjo of the bet that Clarence had made, and she resolved to warn Lupita. At the dance, Harjo saw Georgette standing alone and felt sorry for her, recalling how afraid Georgette had been when the ghost had chased her through the night.
Harjo spotted Lewis and Clarence coming from the direction of the ditch and noticed that Lupita was not with them. After questioning the boys, who laughed and told them Lupita was “on Venus,” Herbie and Harjo left the dance to look for her. They found Lupita in the shadows by the art studios. Noticing dirt on Lupita’s jacket and bruises on her body, Harjo realized that Lewis and Clarence had raped her. The three of them returned to their usual ditch, accompanied by a local who had bought them alcohol. As they drank, Lupita told them that her mother had died when she was ten, leaving her alone with her sexually abusive father. Herbie then revealed a scar left by a man who had raped him as a punishment for being feminine. After some time, Lupita disappeared into the bushes, and the warning bell sounded from the dorm, where each girl was subject to a breath test to check for alcohol consumption. Despite being drunk, Harjo passed. Back in her room, however, Georgette told Harjo that Mrs. Wilhelm was looking for her.
Harjo arrived in Mrs. Wilhelm’s office to find Lupita sobbing as she begged to go home to Venus. Mrs. Wilhelm asked Harjo if she had been with Lupita earlier that night, and, realizing that truth is “a shining luminous bridge past all human failures,” Harjo admitted that had. Mrs. Wilhelm sentenced them each to “a month of restriction,” and that night Harjo held Lupita as she cried.
This part of Harjo’s story is characterized by the themes of abandonment and loss, as her father leaves and she is forced to leave her childhood home when her mother remarries. During this time, Harjo also realizes that the trauma that has characterized her childhood has not disappeared, but merely mutated into an even more insidious form of violence as she witnesses the vitriol of her new stepfather. When he decides to beat Harjo’s five-year-old sister in front of her and her brother, the welts on the child’s legs signify the loss of innocence that will shadow Harjo throughout the rest of her adolescence. The description of there being “hundreds of snakes in the yard,” an image with biblical undertones, affirms that the home is no longer a sanctuary, but a phantasmagorical nightmare.
Even as Harjo witnesses the horrific violence of her stepfather—and his increasingly lascivious interest in her—Harjo’s “knowing,” a kind of spiritual instinct she possesses, continues to offer her guidance. A series of spiritual happenings, including the resurrection of her dead fish, show Harjo that she can still reach “the sacred” and encourage her to trust in herself and her intuition.
In her junior high years, Harjo begins to develop more as an individual and becomes increasingly aware of her sexuality. But for Harjo, this is not an exciting rite of passage. Having been raised to see sexuality and imagination as sinful, it instead is a fusion of “power and shame” that conflicts with evangelical Christian teachings. Critically, it is during these years that Harjo comes to understand that her creative self cannot flourish while living in her stepfather’s house or attending the local church.
When she earns a place at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Harjo’s love of music, art, and literature is restored, and she experiences an authentic sense of kinship with her fellow students. In describing her years at the school, she admits that one of the stories she tells—of an “old man” of the moon who acts as her spiritual guide, and of the rape of a beautiful aspiring opera singer who claims she is “from Venus”—is partially fictionalized. Crucially, Harjo never reveals which parts of the story are true. As the quotidian and the phantasmagorical collide, the sheen of fantasy arguably offers protection from the deep historical and personal traumas experienced by Harjo and her classmates.