Community education project hosts Joy Harjo

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) August 2010

A hush fell over the crowd. The audience gazed at the stage with rapt attention. A much anticipated poetry presentation was  about to be given by distinguished  Muscogee Creek poet, Joy Harjo.

The performance was part of a community education project earlier this year  mainly  sponsored  by the Global Education Center of Nashville. It was Harjo’s first visit to the city. Being in Nashville had special bittersweet  historical significance for Harjo. “Although I was glad to be in this  part of  the country, coming  to Nashville also made me think of Andrew Jackson” said Harjo.    

She was referring to the home of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, whose anti-Indian policies are held responsible for the 1830’s Trail of Tears, driving all the major southern Indian nations – Creeks, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminoles and Chickasaw – to Oklahoma with great loss of life. She also, was cognizant of the fact that in 1813, Jackson organized an army in Nashville that invaded the Creek Nation and culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Creek men, women  and children.

Harjo recited some of her favotite poems and also sang Trail of Tears songs. She spoke at the W.O. Smith  Community Music School, another sponsor of her appearance.  She spoke of the need for peace and harmony in today’s world.

“Humanity needs to break its addiction to war” exhorted Harjo.

Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Among her ancestors was the celebrated Muscogee leader, Menawe, who fought against Jackson’s forces in the Creek War of 1813, and was wounded seven times at the Horseshoe Bend  Battle. Harjo’s family and most other Creeks were eventually driven west to Indian territory, now present-day Oklahoma.

Growing up with a rich Southern Indian heritage, Harjo first turned to painting as a means of expression. Although, trained as an artist at the Institute of American Indian Arts ( IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico she was attracted to other disciplines. In her senior year at the IAIA, her interest turned to creative writing.

Her numerous books of poetry include She Had Some Horses, The Woman Who fell From The Sky and How We became Human: New and Selected Poems. She has received innumerable awards for her poetry, among which are the Lila Wallace Reader’s  Digest Award, the New Mexico Governor’s Award for excellence in the Arts, The Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Writer’s Circle and the “William Carlos Williams Award” from the Poetry Society of America and Arrell Gibson Award for Lifetime Achievement.

While she was writing and publishing volumes of widely acclaimed poems, Harjo was also exercising her talents as a script writer, assisting in the production of television programs about American Indian history and culture.  Among  the  films she has worked on as a co-writer  are the Gaan story for Silvercloud Productions and the American Indian Artist  Series for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). Harjo has also produced several scripts for Nebraska Educational Television and has written a dramatic screenplay for the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium. Harjo has performed internationally, from the Riddu Riddu Festival in Norway to celebrations in Madras, India.

Harjo mentioned a satirical drama, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, currently playing in New York that she felt was demeaning to Native Americans in general and in particular to one of her direct ancestors. The play supposedly satirical, in fact, extolls the character of Jackson, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands Southern Indians in the 1830s, said Harjo.

“I went to see the play with an open mind, but the performance was so insulting to Native people that I left before it was over” remarked Harjo. “ In particular, there was a portrayal of my great grandfather, Menawe, sitting at a table wearing a cheap dime store headress signing a treaty. I found this part of the play especially offensive.”

Harjo said she was going  to request that changes be made and historical inaccuracies  corrected.