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In a strategy to have a positive social, cultural, and educational effect during her poet laureateship, Joy Harjo (Creek/Muskogee) realized the open, on-line, interactive map, “Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry,”1 making poetry from living, Indigenous Americans widely accessible, and making those poets feel part of an interlocking American cultural system, thus rejigging the image of the literary, sociological, and physical country to include Indigenous populations of valuable cultural specificity. The use of literature to develop more empathy, ties into a deepening of the vision of propitious Indigenous sides of American reality. We characterize Harjo’s poetry, defining the spirit guiding the map project. Then we sample Indigenous poets within the interactive map-support, focusing on three themes: connection to the natural and mineral world, preservation of language, and persistence through humor. The poets (Henry Real Bird, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Louise Erdrich, and twelve others) channel Indigenous pasts, with mastery of Western poetics: with tropes, and sound patterns designed to deploy meaning artfully; there is a robust technical control of ironies and polysemic expression throughout. They are syncretic poets in the sense that, while specific Indigenous traditions happily persist, the poems are reconciled to living within and make novel use of the products of American society.

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Introduction: maps and clichés

1The poetry of Harjo’s “Living Nations,” project can be introduced by thinking of syncretism and empathy in the map as a cultural projection. A continental map, like an abstract discourse, can stimulate a sense of being with the human family immersed in contiguous, and contested spaces. Clichés and maps stand in for common ground and the conditions necessary to start conversations. It is constructive to bring to the reading of diverse Indigenous poetries a consciousness of multiplicitous traditions that can coexist in the same place and the conviction that they will enrich each other when engaged with. Maps are synthetic educational tools, and most classrooms in the USA have had maps on the wall; thus the concrete question, “which map?” is crucial to building continent-embracing world views and empathy.

2 Given the practically infinite possibilities, the path to follow, for Harjo, is to make her map true to life, Indigenous, and forthrightly literary. Her hybrid relation to mainstream America is what, in Cartographies of New York and Other Postwar American Cities, Monica Manolescu would, speaking about a series of mostly contemporary artists, call both “creative and subversive.” Harjo’s creativity partakes of what Louise Glück calls, with some irony, in an essay, “American originality” (2017), and Harjo’s subversion is tied to Indigenous tricksterism (see below). Manolescu’s insight according to which to work with a map is to examine social presuppositions applies to Harjo, as it does to artists, like Vito Acconci, whom Manolescu studies; indeed, she explores several avant-gardist artworks using unusual maps of a virtual New York at odds with its complacency and myths of grandeur, and upending our stereotypes about place:

I explore spatial investigations that rely on cartographic procedures and the language of mapping in order to engage with the urban and suburban and elaborate a literary and artistic reflection on what it means to inhabit them creatively and often subversively. (Manolescu, 2018, p. 2)

3A look to the future interrogates a commonplace image of the present. Visual artists, from Jasper Johns on, have used images of maps to envisage alternatives. Katharine Harmon’s book, The Map as Art (Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography) (2010), gives many similar examples of artists looking specifically at the U.S. map, including Johns, but also Ai Wei Wei, Charbel Ackermann, Kim Baranowski, Vik Muniz, and others. Many were originally alien to the U.S., and thus intensely interested in its map as a vector of integration and a marker of difference.

4In counter-rhythm to today’s divisive trends, “Living Nations,” is a resource projecting the reader forward towards a well grounded state built on comradery and a virtual America for all. In its own, individual way, the poetry Harjo includes plays on a syncretic tradition (going back to Neolin, Popay, Tenskwatawa, and other inter-tribal leaders). As readers explore the map, meeting writers, denizens in exact, tribally marked spaces, they rub up against hybrid human nature as inhabiting places mingling in mind multiple traditions, with complex, interlocking, often tragic histories. Creating “Living Nations,” Harjo aligned with her preceding work on real and metaphorical maps: for example, her collection Secrets from the Center of the World (1989) and A Map to the Next World. Poetry and Tales (2000), referencing an Iroquois myth about the descent of a female creator. The map is a pregnant metaphor for her because it launches us forward into a reconfigured world requiring artistic exploration.

Tragedy there, on the map

  • 2 With the exception of Harjo’s texts, all the poems referred to are on Harjo’s map.

5Harjo’s introduction elicits empathy for its denizens through what links all humanity in quasi-Whimanesque brotherhood: “like any other group of humans, we travel for economic opportunities, for education, for love, and for adventure.” Harjo’s map is often about remembering and healing scars of conquests past. She is retaking some occluded intellectual territory for Indigenous Americans through a spreading process that starts with the poets themselves. For example, syncretic in cultural terms, Elise Paschen’s poem “Heritage X,”2 suggests how old family photographs measure distance like so many maps: “I wander through family history – / the marble monuments, / angelic statues – measuring / each step on the grass, / measuring photographs.” In that piece, Paschen regards the forgotten crimes against the Osage Nation, avoided by the descendants of the victims themselves, to renew the sense of ancestry. The exact spot where the crimes were perpetrated is on a map.

6Similarly, in “Exile of Memory,” from American Sunrise, Harjo points out how Bible school for Indigenous children taught about Loth’s wife, turned into a statue of salt because she looked back: to be an artist is necessarily to look back (p. 6). For an Indigenous writer, engaging and forging on within the mainstream, an uneasy negotiation, flirts with betrayal. To make the adoption of Western ways inclusive of the ancestral traditions is to show how the two can intertwine and converse.

  • 3 In Joy Harjo’s 2013 speech and performance at the Chicago Humanities Festival (min. 6), she mention (...)

7Harjo’s map shows a continent, focusing on widely dispersed writers figured on the map with hypertext circles to view texts and profiles. The American descendants of European settlers, long in dominant position, have provided the maps to the US classrooms—those maps that Johns caricatured in his map-paintings, ones where borders are passionately blurred (states and countries, seas and lands). When Harjo received the laureateship in 2019, a tragic blind spot in the American psyche, an under-noticed segment of the cultural map, and a precious opportunity to effect change, was illuminated; her chief project at that point addresses this lack of visibility astutely, projecting her inimitable enthusiasm and wisdom onto a cultural plane. Harjo’s personal story is iconic: her family’s past was made of “rebels and speakers,” with a great-great grandfather, Menawa, leader of the 1830s Creek Rebellion, and a miraculous survivor of the Andrew Jackson-led Horseshoe-Bend massacre. Her growing up in an inartistic neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, her involvement in the Living Native Arts movement at its beginnings in 1968, and her tours as lyricist and saxophonist for the Indigenous rock group she formed, the Arrow Dynamics Band, all show her building herself continuously and expansively.3

  • 4 Montana’s Indian Education for All Act in 1999 emphasizes collaboration: “every Montanan [will] be (...)

8An interactive website, “Living Nations,” also sends a political message about weaving the country’s diverse strands constructively and beautifully together: with the help of teachers, it brings new, important voices to the fore, spreads passion for poetry, and extends the cultural footprint of the Indigenous Nations—a computer-screen map for classrooms.4 Centering on a borderless U.S., the Harjo interactive map has pop-up screens with poets and poems, in her words, “to counter damaging false assumptions—that indigenous peoples of our country are often invisible or are not seen as human.”

9The map focusing on the continent of North America as a whole without country or state borders (all drawn historically by white men), where the various geographical features (mountains and lakes) are affirmed, activates an imagined polity in touch with the planet; in a strong, subversive gesture one might not even notice at first, Harjo is bringing us back to the underlying world below the cliché of the official, compartmentalized map. That is analogous to what poets often do (in their breaking up of syntax and in their allusiveness, they tempt the reader towards the non-logocentric, towards unmanageably complex underlying realities). A map evokes the tourist’s admittedly superficial view in the real world, but in approaching poetry a heuristic, first phase is indicated: especially, examining one’s own emotional and immediate reactions allows a break away from expectations. Subsequent readings then proceed through to deeper hermeneutic layers.

10The hypertext of the map encourages multi-linear reading trajectories, so that a visitor to the site could start with, say, the women poets, the Oklahoma poets, the scholar poets, or searching for those that include native language vocabulary. To quote Harjo, chiming with today’s hypertext culture’s fast-and-loose spirit: “Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end / You must make your own map” (Harjo, 2001, p. 5). The map’s hypertext dots recall the Mississippian mounds of pre-Colombian America seen from above, adding the romance of archeological discovery to the online readings.

11The time spent with the map as something nonsequential and decentralized helps the user internalize its form, re-envisioning North America. It is no accident that the colonial grab of lands, wealth, and natural resources recurs; Roberta Hill (Oneida) says, in “These Rivers Remember:”

These rivers remember their ancient names
Ha-ha Wa’-Kpa, where people moved
In harmony thousands of years
Before trade became more valuable than lives

12Hill’s poem alludes to an incident in the Dakota Wars where 38 Dakota warriors were hung for requesting respect of their treaty with U.S. representatives. She upholds Indigenous words by suggesting their proximity to natural forces described: pronounced correctly the river’s name, “Ha-ha Wa’-Kpa,” evokes its real sound. That idea echoes in a 1997 essay by Native-American novelist N. Scott Momaday where he asserts that the connection to the land through the knowledge of the ancestral tongue is vivid and of a sacred nature (Momaday, p. 124.) Preoccupation with the white settlers’ mercantilist distortion resonates with Joy Harjo’s line about aggressive American commercial culture making insulting blots on the land: “Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace” (Harjo, 2001, p. 3).

  • 5 The ability to toggle between the written and the aural escapes the logocentric and the ethnocentri (...)

13The map’s nodes allow one to start with Indigenous poets’ text, voice, or commentary. Poetry has a hypertext-friendly ethos, where bottom-to-top is an acceptable logic. Furthermore, orality is confirmed. Hearing voice and accent drives deep towards American oral traditions. Hill researched the right pronunciation of Dakota terms she uses in her poem. The spoken word swerves us away from the logocentric assumptions in Western culture.5

14 The visitors to the map create their own narrative; there is much story-telling in and around the poems. The map form encourages discovery of narrative: Indigenous literary culture includes fiction writers, like Momaday, Sherman Alexie, Tommy Orange, Louise Erdrich (who has a poem included) and James Welch (mentioned in Harjo’s “Grace” studied below). The map sends visitors to novels, and performances outside its immediate scope. Each node pops up a specific poet, whose personal choice opens intimate space for living reader-writer dialogue. There are multiple Indigenous cultures and jumping around geographically mirrors the project’s diversity-focused axiology.

The syncretic grace in “Grace”

15The rich texture, sonic, thematic, and emotional, within the layers of Harjo’s wildly affecting poetry reflects in the widely disseminated, 1990 prose-poem, “Grace.” The Poetry Foundation included it in its on-line anthology on “hope and resilience.” It refers to the tragedies of the past and to the capacity people must perpetually, magically, find to move forward in exiguous cultural terrain—indeed, that any Native American still lives is something of a miracle given the efforts to exterminate them. Miraculous escape is indeed a motif in Harjo’s oeuvre.6 An orientation towards the hybrid, the mixing of myth and blood so to speak, is a grace, as is acceptance of reality, and is in this poem’s aesthetic. American country music is partially Native American influenced; indeed, its mix of the Christian revivalist tradition and small-town life is syncretic on a highly Native-American mode. The characters in country songs are the nation’s weak and vulnerable. “Grace” is a word with revivalist overtones and sounds seamlessly country. When one hears her read the piece online, she breaks into twangy song.7 The second phrase of the poem, “the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway,” referring to the stealing of Indigenous lands and denial of Indigenous philosophy, feels like a twist given to the Western-inspired Bob Dylan line from “Like a Rolling Stone,” “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The poem’s trucks and diners sound full-out country.

16“Grace” can be read as evoking barely surviving a particularly cold winter and commandeering the courage, with friends, to move on; it slyly embeds throughout multiple references to indigenous experiences in history. There are a lot of peculiarly Indigenous trajectories, and “Grace” foregrounds a lot of that kind of movement. Like many of her poems it is dedicated to someone (part of her sense of the collective), here Darlene Wind and James Welch, both Native-American artists. The poem addresses them again in its last part, where the three friends disperse as pushed by some moral wind, and there is some play in the poem on the name, Wind (she does remind one of wind, when evoked incipiently and symbiotic in a burst of whooshing alliteration, “I think of Wind and her wild ways”). Wind is an active force in the sound of the poem and its themes; it/she is particularly associated here with movement from place to place, a certain disheveledness, and even erasure, in the following word groupings: “the stuffed horizon of snowbanks” (clumped or sculpted by wind); “broke fences” (blown over); “skated through fields of ghosts” (lost, scattered, and blown away); “to break ice” (exert force: strong wind could; sun cannot quite); “truck stop along Highway 80” (cut loose, vagabonding). In the very idea of addressing “Wind.” there is an echo of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” and its wild ways. The “ghosts” of the poem may refer to the syncretic ghost shirts and desperation, Lakota, ghost dances, of Wounded Knee. Consciousness of erasure carries with it a steeling of nerves and the need for recovery.

17There is resistance too: the poem’s “coyote and rabbit,” Native-lore, trickster figures, symbolize survival strategy, leading brutal colonizers astray. The white buffalo, a rare but existent creature, tied to shamanistic divination, also reinforces the ghostly atmosphere. “Hope of children and corn” references the plea to perpetuate native ways, the sacred crop of corn, which has also become a mainstay of down-home American habitus. The poem gestures to the greater American collective when it suggests the depth of the intermingling of cultures with the protagonists sitting down at a truck-stop diner to “coffee and pancakes” (the corn flour in the pancakes recalls invisible Indigenous cultural survival, and their crops, within modern American culture). Given the title, a slight interpretive push sees the truck-stop diner scene as a syncretic communion, over the blood and body of sacrificed “Indians.” The arrival of a sunlight that is missing warmth, a cold light, contributes to the tragedy-laden painterly depictions of miraculous but indeterminate moments of grace.

  • 8 A book that means to tell the story, with honesty about the atrocities and misrepresentations, is R (...)

18A series of hard consonant sounds, the “cursed country of the fox,” refers to dishonest practices and bad contracts proposed to peoples whose lives and rights were not considered of equal worth and impediments to colonizing. In her performance, Harjo emphatically does not sing that line. The “starved and mutilated” refers to atrocities sponsored by U.S. troops, rarely mentioned in history books for over a century.8 The “stubborn memory” is indigenous folk memory that refuses to die, a force within Harjo’s poetics. The “town that never wanted us” refers to the widespread kidnapping of the young to “educate” them (removing Indigenous culture) in boarding schools, to forget their language, to move them towards Americanization and menial jobs in unfriendly towns.

19The poem’s final statement reflects faith in change, a movement from the particular to the high ground of the universal: “I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.” It is a lesson in absorbing seemingly decisive setbacks yet to fight on by more strategic means. “We have seen it,” frames the hope as vision, and, by extension, the visionary. Paradoxically, by invoking an invisible white buffalo, and “something larger,” that white buffalo seems intermittently there nonetheless: in the process of its being denied, its virtual presence is affirmed: specifically, a buffalo can be both “imaginary” in the sense of unreal (in fact, destroyed as part of an elimination policy), and also in that it can be imagined and its story can still play a role. A specific animal is missing, but visionary life can continue in resilient Indigenous resistance.

20In “imaginary” there is the word “image,” which helps understand the seriousness with which Harjo takes the presence of ghosts and mythical entities as cinematic after-images. It seems that suppressed creatures can continue to exist in contour—or filmically. That is the case of the mounds built by the Mississippian peoples in the pre-columbian period: we have evidence they were there, as Harjo points out, reflecting on the site of former mounds on the U.T. (Knoxville) campus: “These mounds might be leveled by shovels, tractors or hate, but they will show up on any energetic geophysical map. They continue to exist in memory, in memory maps” (Harjo, 2019, p. 77). A bird’s-eye view of such sites proves the mounds’ existence.

Land and nature

21The human-animal names in “Grace” and the sounds of nature dictating language in Hill, showcase Native-American proximity to nature as cultural genius. Contending with ecological collapse should motivate our entry into Indigenous minds: indeed, countering a dominant culture exploitating nature to exhaustion necessitates living in nature, and empathy for animals. Extending feelings for the experience of the continent’s initial inhabitants means learning from their symbiotic relationships. That biosphere-friendly approach is felt in Salish and Kootenai poet Heather Cahoon’s inclusion, “Baby Out of Cut-Open Woman:”

These are the stories that belong here,
that pushed up through this soil unfurling
as arrow-leaved balsam
root leaves and boulders found in unusual

How else does a thing enter this world
now so changed we struggle to hear the shapes of a language
that no longer fits every ear.

22The oxymoronic expression around a line-break, “balsam /root leaves” encapsulates a nagging discomfort, which reflects the theme of awkward existence, nausea, that marks Indigenous lives especially: we find the world in its state when we arrive, as the growing tree finds the boulder it must wrap around to extend upwards as best it can. There the poem presents an image of coping coexistence, while also suggesting violence: in the title, in the irregular line breaks, strong enjambments, and the words, “arrow” and “enter.” Regarding Indigenous removal, denial of mutual modes of life (the stolen territories), the words “the stories that belong here” express yearning for comprehensive feeling. The connections of Indigenous cultures to the territories includes migratory logic, and internet can be virtual nomadic space.

23Henry Real Bird (Crow), writes in English as a second language and feels the Crow-bias has helped his poetry. “Thought,” sounds eco-poetical, foregrounding Native-American refusal to consider land as property, being deeply tied to its vitality:

We are but nomads asking for nothing
But the blessings upon our Mother Earth.

24“Mother Earth” (Gaïa) and “blessings,” are activated with a purposeful twist, subtly suggesting forbearance (asking for nothing implies being left alone). The poem’s word, “blessing,” and, later in the poem, the repetition of “good,” mark a syncretic welcoming of Western religious diction around “goodness.” Earlier the poem described a thought as, “a cloud’s shadow / Touching the Wolf Tooth Mountains,” thus tied to the first principles of nature. The expression is boldly geographically specific. Many nomadic tribes’ relationships to nature and climate were intricate, like those of migrating birds. “Indian removal” entailed breaking a finely tuned mechanism of migratory movements.

25More academic than Real Bird, equally attached to the land, Jennifer Elise Foerster (Muscogee Creek) from San Francisco, tells of looking for the ancestral homes of the Creek in north-west Alabama (her career took her to nearby Tennessee); she comments on physical transformation of ancestral lands, “I knew I would have to follow invisible maps. The landscape has changed, the surfaces of our histories have been written over. But Poetry is a different kind of map, a wayfinding that doesn’t care for surfaces.” Her “Notes from Coosa” expresses desperate hopes for poetry’s capacity to resuscitate what was quashed, residing only in deep levels of consciousness, if anywhere:

to find you in the language where I lost you
as if you were a sentence in this poem
and this poem an archive of the forest.

26Those eleven-syllable lines astutely make the reader feel the pangs of longing in the sound, echoed in the words “lost” and “as if,” since an odd number of syllables conveys incompleteness when the reader has internalized the more common ten- or twelve-syllable line. The yearning for the lost, mere ghosts, resonates with “Grace.” The magical image of a forest sprouting out of a book alludes originally to strategies for recovering the people’s link to the land (resuscitating what was their extremely rich and nourishing land of Alabama). The poem being an archive, believes in a future, in nature’s capacity to rebound. The well-designed “sentence” compares to a seed awaiting the right conditions, the sensitive reader, to sprout.

The moon as nature’s witness

27To reboot our sense of Gaïa is to go to the moon in thought, which Alaskan Joan Naviyuk Kane does. She and her family were physically displaced from their home in the 1950s. In crisp and lucid poetics, she states, for the record, the brutality of that forced removal, alluding to a clinging to language in order not to lose more, while deriving solace from the moon in its real and poetic auras with roots in many cultures. It is given agency over recovery of well-being through words:

The moon pronounced with clarity
its known topography. Our letters
and lists, reconstructed grammars:
they replace the ways in which we were
grabbed, then pushed and shoved.

28Kane juxtaposes sophisticated, scientific words, like “topography” and “reconstructed grammars,” with starkly violent Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (“grab” and “shove”) to counter a self-proclaimed civilized class. The literary associations with the moon are multiple in the Western literary tradition whereas NASA approaches it scientifically; planting the flag seems symptomatic of the colonizer’s property obsession. Kane’s personified moon is a voice of nature both initiating language, and judging, as it looks down on Alaskan crimes.

29Thus, references to the moon navigate in and out of Indigenous traditions: b: william bearhart (St. Croix Chippewa) evokes the orb in an ekphrastic poem on a Georgia O’Keeffe’s nature loving aesthetic. He speaks of repairing the human spirit through connection to myth, celebrating and, in his prosody, helping us feel O’Keeffe’s conflations of landscape and the body:

Two skeletons of different stomachs:
One lost in the desert, the other a planet, a god
A wolf swallows his own rib to rebuild all of us

30The words, “to rebuild all of us,” dialogue well with O’Keeffe’s work, understanding her compositional questioning. The hard vowels in the passage evoke the bones, while the vibrations of the repeated letter “b” in the third line sound like arduous construction, or some desert music. The moon is seen within the confines of bones on the desert floor in O’Keeffe, like native cultures’ living presence within an American territory picked dry: the Indigenous culture is the larger one, as it respects and reaches for the elemental mechanisms of nature: its smallness an illusion. Bearheart ties back to Indigenous tales and to O’Keeffe. “All of us” signals the poet’s inclusive, panoptical vision.

31The distant perspective interests non-binary artists like bearheart and Lehua M. Taitano (Chamoru), a queer writer from Yigu, Guåhan (Guam). Her poem, “Current, I,” uses the space of the page to convey both the pain of a memory not wanting to emerge all-of-a-piece but rather in bits, through struggle, and to offer the white space as release:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Current, I, Lehua M. Taitano.

32Spreading words on the page can make a visual impression, mark a hesitation, and slow down the reader. Here the emotion and rage delay the arrival of the next words. The gap between “obscured” and “by flags” is emphatically long to indicate a hard word-birth and to allude to cultural geographical distance. Flags, like maps, are national symbols, used to legitimate horrid behavior. For Taitano, as for Kane, the moon is the useful neutral observer (when possible.) The tragedy linked to an obscured moon in the poem is resonant with some Western myths about the moon, such as the Diana and Acteon story. Guam is geographically tied to an archipelago: thus the spacing figuring the chain of islands. The title, “Current, I,” puts forth the “I” as a connector like a sea current linking islands together.

Living languages, fragile and precious

  • 9 She says “All poems are little houses. I figure if I can build it nice enough, a spirit will come a (...)

33Weaving new links to nature, the poems above show concern for native languages’ potential of embedding us into organic existence (Hill, Foester, and Kane). Language itself, the preserving, the spreading of fluency, is at stake in re-establishing stolen Indigenous pride and agency and an opportunity from new knowledge hidden in rarely studied tongues. Poetry excels at evoking a language not just of words but of music. Repetition eases memorization and collective recital. Poetry here is akin to sacred language, and a poem as a kind of house for the spirit, as Harjo points out in interviews9 (Harjo, 2008). Harjo’s poem “Exile from Memory” uses the anaphora, “all night,” explicitly referencing dance: “All night, they welcomed us / All night, the stomp dancers” (Harjo, 2019, p. 44).

34Ambitiously unlocking knowledge in a language, Mahealani Perez-Wendt (Kanaka Maoli) in “Na Wai Eā, The Freed Waters” gives the reader a Hawaiian language lesson:

other men have our lands
then her words went dry
and Pahulena was no more.

where earth shuddered and heaved
with sounds
where great schools of fish hearkened
where the torrents narrowed
Nū’āilua was the name given;

35Though “words going dry” sounds sorrowful, the hope of teaching the precious, talismanic words of her tongue is counteractive. The pedagogy depends on the oral delivery of the unique Hawaiian words and collocations. As with Hill, the real sound of the words and their relationship to Hawaiian specificities are crucial. The moment where the words come is one of grace: “Nū’āilua was the name given.”

36Language animates Luci Tapahonso (Diné/Navajo) in “Ilíígo Naalyéhé: Goods of Value;” she instructs us about a Navajo social/philosophical concept:

Like our elders, our hope is that the young ones become diné bił da’ílíngi

persons of virtue—a man who helps when a stranger’s car stalls,
the one who offers the exact words of comfort when needed,
gives a soft hug or holds your hand in silence. […]

37Without actually knowing all the nuances behind the notion of ílíígo hané and chi’yáán łikaní articulated in the piece, it is clear that the other’s language has nuances lost in translation. The Navajo notion, diné bił da’ílíngi, resembles the Greek ἀρετή, with more empathy (“the one who offers the exact words of comfort” a caring notion for today.)

Humor to help one cope

38The trickster figures were central to “Grace,” as in: “We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey.” People having undergone exactions tend to develop a strong sense of humor, initially a coping device. Harjo exposes funny paradoxes that highlight her people’s plight in the present: she records in American Sunrise that at an Indigenous conference, a Peruvian Native remarked: “we thought John Wayne had killed all of you” (2019, p. 36). There is laughter at the improbable luck in survival stories: “Because who would believe the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival those who were never meant to survive?” (2016, p. 44).

39Deborah A. Miranda (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen) operates with the same mix of fantasy and deadpan humor. The conceit of a “colonizatium” element in her poem, “Indigenous Physics: The Element Colonizatium,” amuses especially by mixing the scientific and the highly emotional and by its surprising truth:

1. The elimination of a substance from a living organism
follows complex chemical kinetics.


what is the half-life of Colonizatium?

40Another example of humor points at American obsessions with emblems of the past. Tiffany Midge (Standing Rock Sioux) wrote, Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese (a tragi-comic title); in her “Antiquing with Indians,” the Indigenous humor is biting and necessary:

$30 seemed too steep, even for a stereotype,
even for bones, perfect and white, snapped through
afros, pierced through noses, prehistoric as flint.

41That piece provides an ironic look on the distorting gazes Indigenous people have had to live with. The American system remains based on commercialism and particularly extols shopping. The poem mimics adopting America’s obsession with “antiquing” (collecting low-grade junk mimicking the “disappearing Indian”), ignoring the wider context. That it is an Indigenous shopper flips the irony. Midge, evokes the diction of modern American nostalgia (“highballs,” “snapped,” “board game,” “action figures,” “galore,” “pin cushion,” and “wrist clasp”). The board game based on racialized stereotypes is amusingly horrifying.

42Louise Erdrich’s humor (Turtle Mountain Band Chippewa) in “Advice to Myself is for anyone caught within a constraining life. The speaker of the poem ignores “gray rolls [of dust] underneath the couch” in order to think about spiritual priorities, couched in purposely ungainly terms: “Pursue the authentic—decide first / what is authentic.” The poem’s true empathy, the practically universal nature of the quandary, remains specifically Indigenous: dust under the couch linked to wind and the dead. Thus it is both a universally amusing and deeply Chippewa poem; her advice to herself, the opposite to self-help books, cultivates winking distance from the mainstream.

Conclusion: crossing the divide

43The poets on Harjo’s map endeavor to recapture their pasts to better integrate an American future transformed by their contributions. We have adduced writers seen affirming evident cultural sovereignty through the authority of their writing. The texts selected color readers’ views on America, one that is given an Indigenous twist. The poems are replete with unique musical strains, value mankind in nature and nature in mankind, and project an entertaining wryness against a tragic backdrop. For Indigenous artists, asserting cultural power has been long in coming and is still fraught with historical frustrations and obstacles. To succeed, such efforts require many open-hearted, pluralistically minded readers. Encouraging people to read literature is a collective and individual responsibility with high stakes for national empathy. Harjo, as befits a poet laureate, can highlight shared humanity through immersion in ordinary small-town and rural American life. Her hybrid, syncretic approaches to cultural identity are meaningful, realistic, and draw the reader in.

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Momaday, N. S. (1998). The Man Made of Words. Essays, Stories, Passages. St. Martin’s.

O’Keeffe, G. (1944). Pelvis IV. Oil on Masonite, 36 1/16 x 40 3/8 inches, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM.

Wallace, P. B., Kalstone, D. (1998). “Joy Harjo,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature (fifth ed., vol. 2). Norton.

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1 Referred to as “Living Nations.” The interactive map is accessible online via The Library of Congress.

2 With the exception of Harjo’s texts, all the poems referred to are on Harjo’s map.

3 In Joy Harjo’s 2013 speech and performance at the Chicago Humanities Festival (min. 6), she mentions being a direct descendant of Muskogee spokesman, Menawa, and that she comes down from a line of “rebels and speakers.” The phrase is also mentioned in Patricia B. Wallace’s and David Kalstone’s introduction to Harjo and her poetry in the 1998 Norton Anthology.

4 Montana’s Indian Education for All Act in 1999 emphasizes collaboration: “every Montanan [will] be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner […] every educational agency [is encouraged to] work cooperatively with Montana tribes” (MCA 20-1-501).

5 The ability to toggle between the written and the aural escapes the logocentric and the ethnocentric; thus the interactive map produces differences which Jacques Derrida (1972) usefully relates his notion of “différance” (with an “a”), in Positions (p. 39).

6 The Poetry Foundation removed “Grace” from that collection replacing it with Harjo’s more accessible “Perhaps The World Ends Here,” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. That poem shows how something we may ignore, a kitchen table, can be the nexus of all things.

7 Recognition is “grace”: the reading was at the Academy of American Poets’ offices. The parts where she sings include “we had nothing to lose,” and “down like honey,” marking them as deeply country and western.

8 A book that means to tell the story, with honesty about the atrocities and misrepresentations, is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2015).

9 She says “All poems are little houses. I figure if I can build it nice enough, a spirit will come and live in it.”

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Légende Current, I, Lehua M. Taitano.
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Référence électronique

David Reckford, « The Harjo Map: a tool with a feel for shared humanity »Hybrid [En ligne], 10 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2023, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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David Reckford

David Reckford teaches, at Cergy Paris Université (CYU), the Contemporary American Novel, Literary Translations, the History of the Medias, and American Civilization, and is part of the research unit, Héritages (UMR 9022). He teaches at the École du Louvre, the Beaux Arts de Paris, and Sciences Po Paris. His PhD, from Université Paris-Nanterre, was on the New York Poets. He is a painter and a poet.

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