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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 9, 2000

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Writer Joy Harjo jams with Dave Correia who was
just hanging out near the Hilton Lagoon. Harjo is
of the Muscogee tribe from Oklahoma. She now
lives in Hawaii.

Spreading joy

Joy Harjo uses the lessons
of her Muscogee heritage and
life experiences to weave her stories

By Cynthia Oi


SOMETIMES Joy Harjo feels invisible, as if the vagueness of the physical identity that lets her slide between one world and another erases her at the same time.

She is a fair-skinned woman with reddish-brown hair, slim and youthful at 48, a mother, a grandmother, a saxophone player, a poet and writer who likes to ride horses and paddle canoes. This is a woman whose literary accomplishments are sterling, whose explorations in academics are broad.

But when asked who she is, she'll say she is Muscogee.

"I'm a full member of the Muscogee tribe." A tentative manner disappears from her speech, her voice strong with the breath she gathers to push the words out.

Harjo gets up on stage to perform after having said she would never do that. She allows just a thin bit of public intrusion into her private life, yet her poems and writings are autobiographical and revealing.

What seem like contradictions are in truth the many colors of her portrait, all of them hardly invisible.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Besides playing the saxophone with her band,
Poetic Justice, and writing, Joy Harjo paddles
for Anuenue Canoe Club.

Harjo is sitting oceanside near the Hilton Lagoon on this breezy day, waiting for paddling practice to begin. Since she moved to Honolulu two years ago, she has connected herself to the island culture, much like she does when she travels to other parts of the world.

"I'm like one of these people who gathers up stories, like how a butterfly and a bee collects pollen," she says, brushing her hair away from her face. "You go from one place to another with that function -- at least some of us do."

This wanderlust of stories has taken her to Europe, South and Central America and across the United States.

"I'm an ambassador," she says. "A lot of times people are excellent writers and musicians, but they don't have an audience. I've been blessed to have an audience."

When Harjo describes her life, she does so in simple sentences without a lot of elaboration.

"I was born in Oklahoma. I went to New Mexico for an Indian boarding school in Santa Fe. I majored in art.

"I was 16 when I got pregnant. I had a boy. I have a son and a daughter. My daughter was born when I was 22."

She seems to save words for her writing, as in this piece from latest her collection, "A Map to the Next World":

"No one noticed me as I lumbered through that town in my teenage body thrown off balance, as I stared in store windows dressed in homemade maternity clothes I cut and sewed from shirts and pants I owned that no longer fit. It was the first time in my life I was invisible ..."

-- "when my son was born"

To pay her bills, Harjo plays alto sax, solo or with her band, Poetic Justice. She has also published six books of poetry and has just released a children's book, "The Good Luck Cat." She has received several awards for her writing, including the 1998 Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Oklahoma Book Arts Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas. She is also a member of the National Council on the Arts.

"I make a living performing poetry, and sax and music. I guess you could call it a living," she says, laughing softly. "The books -- some of them are top sellers in the poetry world -- but top sellers in the poetry world is not the same as in the other world."

She isn't complaining.

"I don't know if I believe in luck," she says. "I believe in grace -- sometimes you get a break, sometimes you don't. I don't know how it works.

"I love doing what I'm doing. It gets worrisome sometimes -- I don't have a check coming in constantly. But I'm doing what I love to do and that's a rare thing. Maybe in that sense I am lucky," she says.

The saxophone is in her blood. "My grandmother, Naomi Harjo, was a painter and she played sax. In Indian territory, in the Creek nation back in the early 1900s, she played saxophone -- which blows apart stereotypes of Indian women. Now my daughter is playing saxophone."

Harjo planned to be a painter, but became involved in the movement to restore Indian rights.

"I started writing out of that," she says, and it stuck with her.

She is influenced and inspired by many factors.

"I think as a Muscogee person, my influences are Muscogee. But if you grow up in this country, this world, there's all kinds of influences," she says.

In "we never say good-bye," she catalogs some of them.

"In Cairo I felt I had come home, though it was far from anyplace or language that I new in this life as a Mvskoke (Muscogee) person from Oklahoma ..."

"On the Saami lands in northern Norway, I knew I could die and my spirit would be taken care of ..."

"In Hawaii ... as we were honored by a chant written and sung for us by Alika Kali, I felt the power of the words, his voice circle us and knew that there would be no good-bye..."

Harjo also is influenced by the Navajo (her grandchildren are Navajo), who she says have a great literary tradition, one passed on verbally much like that of native Hawaiians.

"Most 'literatures' aren't written. Most of them aren't in books," she says, and because of this, aren't given their due. "People don't think about that; they give value to European literature because it's written on pieces of paper in a university.

"And one thing that blows me away is Hawaiian native literature. It's rich and there's so much of it."

That is why she isn't so focused on talking about her own talent, she says.

"It's not about me. My horn, my poetry is not about me. It's really about making connections between the song and the people; the poetry is in the heart of the people.

"I feel like I'm serving the people. I'm part of something larger."

She thinks of herself as "a strange Muscogee person."

Although she is an enrolled member of the tribe, her appearance can be confusing. "I'm more like what you call a hapa." This has caused some problems.

"At a meeting in Ecuador, an Indian woman with lighter skin than myself and Hispanic features tried to have me thrown out as a non-Indian ... it was painful to be considered an intruder ..."

"Lighter skin makes life easier in the white world ... I don't fit either world precisely."

-- "the design of light and dark"

"I'm a Muscogee and I get taken for things I don't want to be taken for," she says. "Often I feel I am invisible. I slide between the lines at times. My identity is my native culture and I'm strongly rooted in that.

"But I'm a full tribal member of a sovereign nation, and that gets tricky, as you know here. A sovereign nation within a sovereign nation is a contradiction in terms. In a way, that defines my life.

"I go away and around and I come back. I'm spreading the stories."


Bullet Who Joy Harjo reads from her new children's book, "The Good Luck Cat"
Bullet When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Bullet Where: Native Winds Gift Gallery & Craft Supply, 1152 Koko Head Ave., Kaimuki
Bullet Cost: Free
Bullet Call: 734-8018

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