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Themes

The Impact of Cultural Identity

The first Native American to be chosen as US Poet Laureate, Harjo writes about her cultural identity as a Native, specifically as a member of the Muscogee tribe in Oklahoma. She states her connections with historic Native American leaders and her paternal grandmother, Naomi Harjo, who was an artist. She writes, "I felt close to my ancestors when I painted."

As a teenager, Harjo finds support for her Native identity at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. As a university student, she joins an activist group to raise awareness about Native issues. Though the group was inspired by the African American civil rights movement, Harjo notes the differences between the two movements and elucidates Native political and artistic goals.

Attaining a Balance Between Culture and Personal Identity

Harjo's identification with her Native ancestry is also intimately related to her relationship with her family and her community, as well as her understanding of the individual's role within the group. As a spirit waiting to be born, she watches her parents, learns their family histories, and speculates on past lives they shared. While she expresses love for her mother, she also describes her frustrations at her mother's inability to protect her children from an alcoholic father and a bad-tempered stepfather.

At the Institute of American Indian Arts, Harjo experiences a close-knit community:

I belonged. Mine was no longer a solitary journey.

After school, though, marriage proves to be an ordeal; Harjo takes on the role of wife and mother and loses connection with her individual identity. When she considers leaving her abusive second marriage, her husband manipulates her into staying, justifying that a Native family must remain together. However, as important as community is, Harjo notes the need for the individual to find their inner strength and identity:

In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music.

Coping with and Overcoming Abuse and Injustice

Throughout the memoir, Harjo writes about her need to recognize and confront abuse and injustice in order to grow as a person and artist. In the context of her father's alcoholism, she writes,

This earth can be difficult and jarring. Joy can only be known through despair here.

As a child, she experiences abuse from her father, as well as from a controlling stepfather who expresses contempt for both Native American ways and Harjo as an individual. When her stepfather violates her privacy by reading her diary and beating her for singing, the humiliation drives her to turn to drawing as a safer means of expression.

During her first marriage, Harjo struggles with a mother-in-law who appears to put a curse on her. She fears the...

(The entire section is 703 words.)