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 pre-med 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, she 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 jazz. She plays the saxophone in a band, Poetic Justice, that combines the musical influences of jazz and reggae with her poetry. Many of her poems are tributes to the various musicians that have influenced her work, including saxophonists John Coltrane and Jim Pepper.
The history and mythology of her people and the current state of their oppression also are prominent themes in her work. As she states in the explanation of her poem “Witness,” “The Indian wars never ended in this country . . . we were hated for our difference by our enemies.”