Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926
Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 9, 1951, the daughter of a Creek Indian father, Allen W. Foster, and a Cherokee French mother, Wynema Baker Foster. Harjo enrolled in the Creek Nation as a member and at the age of sixteen moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts.
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She became increasingly interested in writing, and in 1975, while she was a student at the University of New Mexico, her first book was published. The Last Song includes nine poems set in Oklahoma and New Mexico that articulate her deep connection to the land. Harjo lived in Oklahoma and, as she told Geary Hobson in a 1979 interview, those memories are forever with her. “When I was a little kid in Oklahoma, I would get up before everyone else and go outside to a place of rich, dark earth next to the foundation of the house. I would dig piles of earth with a stick, smell it, form it. It had sound. Maybe that’s where I learned to write poetry.”
In 1976, she received her B.A. in poetry from the University of New Mexico and in 1978 received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa. That same year, she was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and returned to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts for a year.
What Moon Drove Me to This?, Harjo’s second book, came out in 1980. It was her first full-length book and included all the poems from The Last Song as well as new ones. In this collection, she continued to use Native American images to expose the truths beneath the surface of ordinary experiences, especially those of women. She also introduced a personality, Noni Daylight, who sees clearly because she moves between realms of time and space.
While continuing to write, she also taught at other institutions. In 1980 and 1981, she was a part-time instructor in creative writing and poetry at Arizona State University. Returning to the Institute of American Indian Arts, she taught there from 1983 to 1985. In 1983, her best-known volume, She Had Some Horses, was published. In it Harjo refines her earlier images and ideas into clearly defined poems revolving around the theme of freedom through self-knowledge. The title poem is one of Harjo’s most anthologized works.
Harjo taught at the University of Colorado from 1985 to 1988 and at the University of Arizona from 1988 to 1990. In 1989, she collaborated with photographer Stephen Strom on Secrets from the Center of the World. Her prose poetry describing the beauty and truths of the land accompanies his photographs of the Four Corners area in Navajo Indian country.
Harjo joined the faculty of the University of New Mexico as a full professor in 1990 and taught there until 1995. During her first year at the university, her book In Mad Love and War appeared. A departure from her previous writing, the volume moves beyond American Indian symbols and images and contains narratives about people whose lives have failed, affecting the balance and order of those who survive.
After leaving New Mexico, Harjo moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. In 2000, she published A Map to the Next World: Poem and Tales. Although she continues to incorporate larger themes such as the power of love, the dehumanizing effects of colonization, the importance of observing native traditions, and the power of memory, the tone of this collection is more personal. She weaves Hawaiian and American Indian myths with her own experiences, “mapping” out a new direction in her artistic development.
How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, published in 2002, offers a cumulative perspective on Harjo’s development as a writer, as well as a singular view of her spiritual and psychological growth, from her early twenties through midlife. The collection is comprised of selections from her seven poetry collections, plus thirteen previously unpublished poems written from 1999 to 2001.
In addition to writing and teaching, Harjo is accomplished in several other areas. She has done much screenwriting and has written teleplays, public-service announcements, and educational television programs. In 1985, she wrote the film script Origin of Apache Crown Dance and coauthored another, The Beginning. In 2000, she published a children’s book, The Good Luck Cat. She continues to contribute to literary journals and has edited several, including High Plains Review, Tyuonyi, and Contract II.
In 1986, Harjo made the tape Furious Light, on which she read selected poems, accompanied by music. Her 2004 CD, Native Joy for Real, is an eclectic offering, blending elements of hip-hop, jazz, blues, and reggae. Music is an important part of her life; she tours widely and plays the saxophone and flute in rock, big band, and jazz bands.
Harjo also travels to many readings, workshops, and literary festivals, so her work reaches a larger audience than does that of many poets. She has served on several advisory boards, including the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium and the New Mexico Arts Commission. In addition to her several visiting professorships and writer-in-residence posts, she has participated in the Artists-in-the-Schools program, which exposes public school students to working artists of all kinds.
Harjo has received many awards and grants in addition to her National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She is the recipient of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award, and the American Indian Distinguished Achievement Award, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writer’s Award. She has two children, Phil and Rainy Dawn, and several grandchildren.