Joy Harjo Biography


(Survey of American Culture: American Ethnic Writers)

Article abstract: Joy Harjo has published poetry, written screenplays, lectured, and taught in creative writing programs; she is also a jazz musician and artist.

Joy Harjo's collections of poetry express a close relationship to the environment and the particularities of the Native American and white cultures from which she is descended. She is an enrolled member of the Creek tribe, the mother of two children (a son, Phil, and a daughter, Rainy Dawn), and a grandmother. Various forms of art were always a part of her life, even in childhood. Her grandmother and aunt were painters. In high school, she trained as a dancer and toured as a dancer and actress with one of the first Indian dance troupes in the country. When her tour ended, she returned to Oklahoma, where her son was born when she was seventeen years old. She left her son's father to move to New Mexico, enrolling at the university as a premed student. After one semester, she decided that her interest in art was compelling enough to engage in its formal study.

Educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she later worked as an instructor, Harjo received a bachelor's degree from the University of New Mexico and a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Iowa. She was a professor of English at both the University of Arizona and the University of New Mexico.

Harjo has received numerous awards for her writing, including the William Carlos Williams award from the Poetry Society of America, the Delmore Schwartz Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, and two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Harjo's poetry has been increasingly influenced by her interest in music, especially...

(The entire section is 734 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 926 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In a 1989 interview, Harjo remarked that “I write poetry because it is a way to travel into internal landscapes/starscapes which also become the external. It helps in traveling between many worlds and helps in speaking them.” By creating images that bridge the gap between American Indian concepts of the world and those of mainstream culture, Harjo’s poetry reveals what happens when the two worlds collide. Her work illuminates the harmony and balance necessary not merely for Native Americans or women but for all people.

(The entire section is 86 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Joy Harjo was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she lived until she was sixteen, and has been strongly influenced by her Muskogee Creek heritage. She received her B.A. in 1976 from the University of New Mexico, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa two years later. She has been an instructor of poetry at several schools, and from 1991 to 1997 she taught at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. In addition to her other writing efforts, Harjo is a painter, a musician (she plays the saxophone), who has produced several records with her band, “Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice,” and a screenwriter. She has lectured widely on poetry and the arts and has been active in Native American affairs,...

(The entire section is 138 words.)