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Joy Harjo puts long-ignored indigenous people at the center of our cultural and geographic map

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For the second time in as many years, Joy Harjo, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, has opened a window to celebrate the wide, diverse world of Native American poetry.

Last summer, Harjo, Muscogee (Creek), was the main editor of the anthology “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.” That comprehensive collection contained works by more than 160 Indigenous poets dating from the 17th century to the present.

Harjo returned last month with what she terms her signature project as the 23rd Poet Laureate. It’s a digital project with the companion publication “Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry.” For this anthology, Harjo wrote the introduction and collected the poetry written by 47 contemporary Native poets. She is one of the 47.

In the introduction, Harjo boldly states her reasons for this collection: “As the first Native Nations poet laureate, I was aware that Indigenous peoples of our country are often invisible or not seen as human. … You will rarely find us in the cultural storytelling of America, and we are nearly nonexistent in the American book of poetry.”

So she conceived of the concept of mapping the country, not through geography, but rather through poetry. Each of the 47 chose a poem based on the theme of place and displacement with four contact points. Those points are visibility, persistence, resistance and acknowledgement.

Harjo writes that the poets also chose where on the “story map” they wanted to place themselves.

In the book’s foreword, Carla D. Hayden, Librarian of Congress, explains, “By clicking on the map, users can immerse themselves in these poets’ worlds: (With location markers) see where each poet lives or feels most rooted, read their poems and biographies, and – best of all – hear their voices and languages as they recite and (briefly) discuss their poems.”

The map is in three sections. It begins with the East, or Becoming. Two of the tribes rooted on the Eastern Seaboard – the Iroquois and Muscogee (Creek) – inspired American democratic government even as history diminished them, Harjo writes. The poem “Daybreak” by Jake Skeets, Diné (Navajo), opens the section and is a template for the shape of the anthology, she notes.

Then there’s the Center, or the North/South. Though a physical place, the area metaphorically represents what Harjo calls “the heart of presence and knowledge, of understanding.”

The last section is West or Departure, but according to Harjo it also looks to the future.

The digital information about the project – including the map – is on the Library of Congress website. Go to Scroll down to “Living Nations, Living Words,” one of a series of presentations on subjects listed alphabetically.

Dine poet Sherwin Bitsui

These are some of the other poets in the anthology/digital project with links to the Southwest: Layli Long Soldier, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a resident of Santa Fe; Sherwin Bitsui, Diné (Navajo), who teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and is a faculty member at Northern Arizona University; Luci Tapahonso, Diné (Navajo), who grew up in Shiprock, was the inaugural Navajo Nation poet laureate and is emerita professor of English literature and languages at the University of New Mexico; and Laura Tohe, Diné (Navajo), recipient of the 2020 Academy of American Poets’ Laureate Fellowship. Harjo, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident, studied and taught at UNM.

And there is b: william bearhart, a direct descendant of the St. Croix Chippewa of Wisconsin. He died during the project’s production. However, bearhart lived to recite and discuss his poem “Transplant: After Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pelvis IV, 1944.” He graduated from the Lo Rez MFA program at the IAIA.