Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1971
South signifies “release”; it is the direction of migrating birds, natural abundance, creative energy, and “eternal transformation.”
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Living in Tahlequah, Harjo was consumed by her “abandoned dreams,” which seemed to clamor for her attention night and day. Although she experienced moments of joy as she witnessed the growth of her son and stepdaughter, she also felt that ignoring her gifts would result in immeasurable sadness. She and her husband realized they had left their artistic dreams in New Mexico and decided to return there with their children. Back in Santa Fe, they reconnected with their old friends from school and began making art again, with Harjo becoming involved in community theater. Despite these changes, Harjo’s husband still struggled to find work, and their domestic life was characterized by drudgery. After a brief stint working at a gas station, Harjo decided to train as a nursing assistant.
One day, Harjo discovered a love letter from her husband to their children’s babysitter. After this betrayal, she felt freed from her husband and left him. Harjo decided to study premed and, with help from her tribe and the Eight Northern Pueblos Talent Search, secured a place at the University of New Mexico. She lodged with a Hopi family before renting an apartment for herself and her son in Albuquerque; her husband had refused to let her adopt her stepdaughter.
Shortly after Harjo started at the University of New Mexico, her family sent her fourteen-year-old brother, Boyd, to live with her after he became suicidal. Enraged, Harjo wrote to her mother, telling her that it was Harjo’s stepfather, not Boyd, who should be forced to leave. But Harjo’s stepfather opened all the family’s mail, and her mother wrote back that after reading the letter, he had forbidden her from even speaking of Harjo, who was now forbidden from visiting the house.
Meanwhile, a “revolution” inspired by the civil rights movement was taking place among Native young people, and Harjo herself became active in the Kiva Club, the University of New Mexico’s Indigenous student group. She also changed her major to studio art and officially divorced her son’s father, feeling afterward that she wished to remain single. However, one day when attending a press conference, Harjo’s eye was caught by a Pueblo man from the National Indian Youth Conference—a “modern-age warrior.” At a party later that evening, the man attempted to talk to her, but she was repelled by his arrogance. Nevertheless, when Harjo discovered their mutual love of poetry, the man “open[ed] one of the doors in [her] heart that had been closed since childhood.” The two quickly fell in love, and Harjo began to realize that poetry in English did not have to belong solely to a British or European tradition, but could describe her and her peoples’ own experiences.
Once she began dating the man, whom she terms “the poet,” Harjo found herself attempting to keep up with his heavy drinking and remembered her mother’s warnings not to “marry a drunk.” She recollects the first time the poet hit her, one night early in their relationship: Harjo and the poet went out to a bar where the poet mourned the anniversary of his best friend, a law school graduate who had been destroyed by alcoholism. After drunkenly attacking the bar staff, the poet climbed onto the roof of the bar and jumped down despite Harjo’s protests, then disappeared as the police approached. Harjo told him to leave the next day but forgave him when he apologized, telling herself his behavior had been caused by the pain of grief and racial injustice.
When the poet nearly drowns in a motel swimming pool one drunken night, Harjo is tempted to leave him to die. But Harjo is pregnant and has had a vision of her unborn daughter asking to be born; when she feels the baby kick for the first time, she pulls the poet from the water. She gives birth to their daughter, Rainy Dawn, that July. Shifting to poetry, Harjo writes, “there are no endings, only beginnings” and considers how her ancestry has contributed to the existence and identity of her newborn daughter.
During this time, Harjo often sketched and painted all night. Through her art she felt a connection both to future generations and to her ancestors, particularly to her paternal grandmother, Naomi Harjo Foster, who had died of tuberculosis. Foster’s painting of her uncle, the Seminole warrior Osceola, inspired Harjo to complete a series of paintings of modern-day warriors, including Native leaders and activists. “For the true warriors of the world,” Harjo believes, “fighting is the last resort to solving a conflict.”
One evening while walking home from the university, Harjo was consumed by panic and the insistent feeling of impending death. She called the poet from a pay phone and begged him to pick her up, but he refused, and Harjo was forced to will herself to walk the mile to their house in spite of her terror. The panic continued to plague Harjo for months, nearly causing her to drive her car off an overpass. When her worried friends introduced Harjo to a Native psychic, the woman warned Harjo that she was “in great danger.”
As she watched a shaman performing a healing rite on television one night, Harjo suddenly understood her life’s purpose: she was meant to “become the poem, the music, the dancer.” She began to write poetry and to admit to herself that she had to end her relationship with the poet, who repeatedly quit and resumed drinking. While alcohol initially made him poetic and charismatic, as he drank more, he became morose and then aggressive. On one particularly bad night, she fled the house with her children, leaving a trail of blood behind her.
Finally Harjo forced the poet to leave, but one night he returned and drunkenly attempted to force his way into the house. Threatening to kill Harjo, who had invited friends over for protection, he pulled down the telephone lines and shattered a window that he climbed through just as the police arrived to arrest him. Harjo soon found herself hosting regular gatherings of her Native women friends who were being abused by the men in their lives—men who, like all of them, were “broken” and “haunted” by the devastation that had been wrought upon their peoples. At this time, Harjo notes, domestic abuse shelters did not exist, and discussing personal problems was considered counterproductive to the fight for Native rights.
After ending her relationship, Harjo began to spend her weekends partying. Her knowing warned her that this was the wrong path to take, however, and she chose instead to take a parth to a better life. In a poem, she explores the “perfect,” original state of being before “jealousy . . . fear, greed, envy, and hatred” diminished the world’s benignity. Yet Harjo ends the poem on an optimistic note, suggesting that the light formed from “A spark of kindness” has the power to restore the earth’s benevolence as humans work together to create a better world.
One night after studying for her finals, Harjo fell into a restless sleep and was awoken by a vision of vicious demons that attempted to drag her into the “lower world.” The demons persisted for weeks before being driven away by a Navajo healer. Nevertheless, Harjo continued to experience panic and anxiety, even as she excelled in school and had her poems published in the student magazine. For years she had dreamed of being chased by a monster, and now she dreamed she had been chased into a white room, unable to find her voice. In all the years of running away, she had never experienced this before. Hearing “snuffling breathing,” she turned to look at the monster for the first time. Just before she gave up in despair, her knowing prompted her to fly up out of the ceiling; when she did so, her panic disappeared along with the monster, and Harjo was “free.” She carried this dream with her “through several layers of consciousness” to the future, where she saw herself as a prolific poet and musician.
That night, Harjo wrote a new poem releasing the “beautiful and terrible / fear” that had been her constant companion throughout her life as a result of both her people’s history and her own trauma. She considers that there are many moments of change in our lives, some small, others seismic, like falling in love. Previously Harjo had been held back by not feeling able to articulate her own experiences of the “sacred” in words, but that night the transcendent “spirit of poetry” arrived to teach and lead her. From that night onward, Harjo “followed poetry.”
Harjo’s panic took many years to dissipate, initially becoming so acute that it almost killed her. Thirty years after the onset of the anxiety, she found herself paddling a canoe in Maunalua Bay off the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, with her thoughts feeling as natural and serene as the waves. Harjo realized that through vnektckv, or compassion, she had finally released her panic. Supported by the ocean waves, she forgave herself and those who had taken part in her story.
In the final part of her memoir, Harjo experiences an almost constant battle between living a static, unremarkable existence and her deep desire to nurture her creative gifts. While living in Tahlequah, she considers that a gift that is abandoned “will turn on you.” This is in contrast to how a gift is typically perceived—as an unconditional blessing to be treasured. Instead, much like conveying the truth of her cultural history, Harjo views her gift as a responsibility to her fellow human beings and herself.
While her husband’s affair with the babysitter signifies a terrible betrayal, it also marks the beginning of a long journey to liberation for Harjo. During her time as a student at the University of New Mexico, she begins to participate in the burgeoning “revolution” known as the American Indian Movement—a revolution subtly mirrored in her personal metamorphosis.
Harjo states that the relationship she develops with a Pueblo man she nicknames “the poet” opens “the doors in [her] heart that had been closed since childhood.” Her overwhelming love for the poet, however, is arguably as much about what he represents as it is about the man himself. He helps Harjo to see poetry as a universal language in which she can partake, yet he ultimately comes to embody another toxic and abusive male figure in Harjo’s life—and it is no coincidence that the overwhelming anxiety Harjo terms “the panic” emerges amid their combative relationship. The ending of this relationship is one of the final hurdles that Harjo must overcome before being able to embrace her identity in its entirety as “the poem, the music, and the dancer”—a hybrid that represents the complexity of her artistic self.
Nevertheless, the panic does not diminish immediately, and it is only after she can touch the “monster” of her nightmares and bear witness to its loss of power that her fear, once like “panicked butterflies in gale-force winds,” can transform into calm thoughts “rising and falling” like the ocean. The trauma Harjo has carried with her has no single source: it is the trauma of her people’s history, her own past, and her spirit struggling to break free. One of the first poems she writes after relinquishing the panic, “I Give You Back,” expresses the paradoxical nature of releasing something that has been harmful and damaging yet has also signified an integral part of her identity. In renouncing her fear of fear itself, Harjo can experience what it truly means to be “crazy brave.”