West Summary

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Last Updated on October 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482

West, Harjo writes, “is the direction of endings,” “tests,” abandonment, and finding one’s path; it also acts as “doorway to the ancestors.”

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On her way to a dance at the Indian school when she was sixteen, Harjo collided with a Cherokee postgraduate student. They attended the dance together, bonding over their mutual desire to become artists and discussing their family history. The older student told her about his first memory, in which a boy with a burned face came to his grandfather for healing. His grandfather prayed and sang, taking water in his mouth and then spitting it at the burns. The boy was miraculously healed. After gazing at the stars together that night, Harjo and the student became lovers.

Harjo became involved with the school theater program, assisting with the production of the fall play, A Taste of Honey. She had never considered acting before, but after a friend urged her to sign up for an acting class, she relented, and she believes now that her “knowing” guided her choice. She studied acting and stagecraft with the drama coach, Rolland Meinholtz, and took modern dance classes with the Blackfeet choreographer Rosalie Jones. Theater helped Harjo reconnect with the sacred, and she was soon cast in a touring production of Mowitch, a play by one of the older students. Harjo’s stepfather forbade her from participating in the tour, but her mother gave official permission instead. The tour, which included performances across the Pacific Northwest, offered Harjo a new sense of family and creative power.

After the tour, Harjo, secretly pregnant by her boyfriend, returned to her stepfather’s house in Tulsa. Her boyfriend told her he would send her a bus ticket so she could move to the Cherokee town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where he lived with his young daughter, Ratonia, and his mother, who didn’t know about Harjo. When the bus ticket failed to appear, Harjo borrowed money from her brother, Allen, and left for Tahlequah. 

To keep Harjo a secret, Harjo’s boyfriend initially had her stay in the living room of his friends’ “filthy” house, which she cleaned, and look after his daughter every morning. Later, he put her up at the house of his grandmother, with whom Harjo enjoyed spending time. When it becames increasingly impossible to hide Harjo, he finally introduced her to his mother, whom Harjo had been warned was jealous and unkind. When she finally met her, Harjo realized that all these assertions were correct, as well as that her prospective mother-in-law possessed a beauty that belied her hard life. Harjo moved into the family’s small house that same day.

During Harjo’s last visit to the Indian hospital, she was offered sterilization and given a form to sign. Native women who were not fluent in English often signed the consent form, not having been told what it was they were really consenting to. Being fluent, Harjo avoided this fate. On the morning she gave birth to her son, Harjo was forced to attend the hospital alone while her boyfriend, now her husband, went to his part-time job. Harjo knew that her life was approaching a “great, precarious change” and felt her own “birth cord” connecting her to her mother in Tulsa.

Harjo was only able to give birth in the hospital because it had been built as part of the US government’s treaty deal, which involved providing healthcare to Native people. Giving birth, which should have been a sacred experience, became a dehumanizing one under the direction of the apathetic doctor and threatening nurse. When she finally saw her newborn son, Harjo was overwhelmed by love but also consumed by uncertainty and anxiety. Even as she held her child for the first time, the nurse stood guard, believing that Harjo was “young and Indian and therefore ignorant.” Harjo vowed that her son...

(The entire section contains 1482 words.)

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