Last Updated on June 8, 2022, 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 would thrive on “dreams and stories.”
Harjo’s mother-in-law continued to resent her, viewing her as responsible for her son’s failure following his postgraduate program. Every man her mother-in-law had been involved with had given her a child before abandoning her—including her son, who had left Ratonia with her while he studied at the Indian school. Becoming a parent also meant that Harjo had to give up the artist’s life she had always aspired toward. She moved with her new family back to Tulsa, where life became highly repetitive; she spent her days attending to childcare and domestic chores while her husband struggled to keep a steady job. She felt guilty that her mother, who had worked so hard for her, was now disappointed in Harjo’s circumstances.
One day Harjo’s mother-in-law, who lived next door to Harjo and her husband, burst into the house and blew a puff of cigarette smoke into Harjo’s face. Realizing that his mother was trying to curse Harjo, Harjo’s husband leapt to her defense, demanding that his mother leave. At a later date, Harjo’s mother-in-law showed her a book of Cherokee spells she had stolen to use against her “enemies,” confirming the accusation of witchcraft. After the day she had tried to curse Harjo, Harjo noticed that her mother-in-law had begun to “stoop,” the smoke seemingly weighing her down. However, as the family became poorer, Harjo and her mother-in-law were forced to work together.
As spring began, posters appeared around town announcing the arrival of the circus, which Harjo and her sister-in-law took the children to see. As she took in her new surroundings and the energy of the crowd, she felt inspired once again and imagined painting the people around her. An Italian man in a cape then approached Harjo and introduced himself as one of the “Flying Something-or-Other Brothers,” a member of the circus’s trapeze act. Having hardly interacted with any adults other than her husband lately, Harjo struggled to make conversation with the man. She eventually told him that her husband—who now spent his days drinking beer with his friends—had been a gifted dancer in school. As she watched the Flying Brothers, she considered how liberating it must be to leave one’s country in search of a new life. Harjo became convinced that her husband ought to pursue a career as a trapeze artist and took the Italian man to the pizzeria where her husband worked in order to introduce the two. As she and the Italian man spoke to her husband, Harjo realized that what she was describing was ultimately her own “dream of flying” rather than her husband’s.
After the discussion, the trapeze artist accompanied Harjo to her apartment and asked her to run away with him to Corsica. Although enthralled and tempted by the proposition, Harjo knew it was not to be; she could not leave her children. A few weeks later, her husband lost his job at the restaurant, then found employment at yet another pizzeria. The family moved to another part of Tulsa, accompanied by Harjo’s mother-in-law.
As Harjo’s time at the Institute of American Indian Arts draws to a close, her relationship with her first love promises to make the transition easier, as they share a cultural and artistic background. Harjo begins to connect more deeply with the sensuous elements of art during this time, with her forays into acting and dance helping her realize that “rooms of knowing [exist] throughout our bodies.” For Harjo, theater fortifies her artistic being, with the act of performance fusing the physical, aural, and transcendental.
After discovering she is pregnant with her boyfriend’s child and moving to Tahlequah to be with him, the toil of domestic life begins to diminish her artistic spirit and the sense of independence she had built. In particular, her future mother-in-law—a “jealous, overprotective, and mean” woman—comes to occupy the same liminal space as most of the antagonists in Harjo’s life. Even though her mother-in-law attempts to “curse” Harjo through witchery, the two sometimes become “allies.” Although Harjo dislikes her mother-in-law and experiences further trauma as a result of her behavior, Harjo’s perceptiveness means that she can appreciate that there is good and evil in everyone, thus diffusing some of the vehemence she may have otherwise felt toward her.
Harjo’s experience of giving birth to her son at the W. W. Hastings Indian Hospital shines a light on the institutional racism experienced by Indigenous women in the United States. Harjo emphasizes that many women are deliberately sterilized, with those who do not speak or read English fluently often signing their fertility away. This may be viewed as not only exploiting the vulnerable but also as a socially mandated form of ethnic cleansing. The clinical and sometimes threatening behavior of the doctors and nurses who surround Harjo as she gives birth reinforces the pervasive nature of institutional racism levied at Indigenous mothers.