Joy Harjo gives words to the poet warriors who were her ancestors

The Indigenous writer’s new memoir understands memory as counsel and ritual as the potency of love.

Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States since 2019, is clear about terminology in her memoir. She explains that members of Native nations like hers usually define themselves with reference to ancestral clans or homelands. Collectively they use the term Indian or American Indian. She prefers Indigenous, Native Nations, or Native—and chooses not to use Native American, a term she claims was coined in academic literature in the 1980s.

Why does terminology matter so much? Called by her ancestors to fight for the restoration of her people’s language and way of life, the author “reached for a gun. / She was given a paintbrush, / A saxophone, a pen. / These will be your instruments of power.” Harjo is finely aware of the living, breathing voices of her ancestors, and she seems skeptical of the written word, her own warrior weapon, be­cause “too many with pens poised over paper wrote down laws that robbed millions of acres of our lands, that stole children, homes, and legacies.” One of her poems explains that “early in her writing life, the warrior poet decided” that if her “creative work did anything in this world, [she] wanted Indians to be seen as human beings.”

A citizen of the Muscogee Nation and a resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo belongs to ritual communities and wisdom councils that are not limited by space or time. In this book, poems separate sections of biographical prose, inviting readers to slow down and listen to the conversational wisdom of elders: “Life never goes in a straight line in our Native communities. Time moves slower.”