Letter to Young Native Poets

I have been wrestling with what to say and how to say it ever since I first heard of the shunning directed at one of our very successful young native woman poets.  And now there’s another being singled out, for similar reasons: accomplishments. I have been watching, thinking that after the first time some collective understanding might come, because to lose such a force from the circle would be a noticeable loss. Now it’s happening again, and another young woman poet from our community is being separated out by name calling, by questioning her unquestionable “identity”, by those who have no room to question. She has been parted from her beloved community, a community that was deeply important to her growth, to the development of her poetry, to who she is as a poet. It is very, very painful to be abandoned by those you love, to lose your community. The root is of the attacks is based on craving, the instigator(s) want(s) what someone else possesses. The weapons are false words. I recognize it. I have been through these kinds of stories. And because of this, I offer this letter.

November 5, 2017


Letter to Young Native Poets


As poets, we work with words; we are word artists. And as indigenous people who are closer to our oral roots than most others in this processed, colonized American society (this whole country is colonized, colonizer and so-called colonized) we can still hear and witness in our tribal communities how words are crafted in rhythm and song to bless, praise, assist and enable. Words can also maim and kill. History proves it. There is a cost for using words in this manner. And because we know this, how our word-crafted poems and song are tools, we must understand that to use words in such a skillful manner brings great responsibility. This is essentially true for all poets. We need each other and work side by side, though ours is such an isolated art.

These gifts of using words were not given carelessly. You were carefully sought out by the ancestors who love the people, and you agreed to take it on. The gift isn’t yours to squander. It is to be used to bring understanding, to speak truth, to engender fresh paths of thinking and acting, to make a place on which the next generation can stand, even dance.

To be a poet in these times is to be misunderstood, to be without a place in society, and even derided by family and community members who believe you strange, and your art a suspicious pursuit. It was not always so, and isn’t so in most of the rest of the world. Poetry has been used to keep cultures alive, to bury the dead, to celebrate every large and small thing in this world. And for most peoples, it is precious, more than gold or any other thing of value fought over by humans. Poetry will go with you when you pass from this place, hence, the power of it: to heal. Being a poet isn’t easy. Poets have been killed for speaking the truth, because it was given to them to speak.  It can be difficult to make a living, to find support. It is a burden to carry, to hear what others cannot hear.

Poetry is the toughest teacher. It connects us with knowledge of sound, sonic architecture, rhythm: of when and how to move about the earth with or without words. And it is poetry that has led to the deepest mystical understandings, has uncovered unspeakable truths in both the poet and the listener of poetry.

Now here you are, emerging as a generation who has come together to be a force for change, for innovation, for bringing forward that which has sustained our people(s) for generations, long before colonization, when we did not have to contend with the devastation wrecked by genocide within our collective body and spirit.  You made it to here. We who were and are here before you watched for you, welcomed you.  What joy to see poetry continue in all its forms, from different kinds of song language, from sonnets, to spoken word, to rap, to jazz, l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e, and even in many of our tribal languages, in a manner only your generation could imagine it.

Every accomplishment by any one of us, feeds all of us, takes care of our collective spirit as poets and citizens of this time. Every stumble will be felt in each of us. We are part of a circle.

Each of us has a part. Don’t be fooled into comparing yourself with another. Though we are together, everyone has their own individual path. We do not know what anyone else has endured. We do not know the why and how of timing. No one is like the other. Don’t be fooled by a definition of success that does not include the possibility of everyone succeeding. It will blind you to your own gifts.

There is a high from war, and I believe from any disparate kind of act, or obsession. Once as I stood in the circle of a community dance way up north, a poetry warrior from Bad River told me how he had become addicted to fighting. He was discharged after his service in Vietnam, then fought his way in bars all the way across the country, from San Diego to the middle of Kansas. He woke bruised and broken in a field. His spirit’s keeper sat with him, told him to go home to ceremony, to be cleaned of the addiction. That’s why he was there at home, in the circle, and why he was writing poetry.

Use your words well, for they will always return to you. We need everyone, even the instigators of trouble, who have lost their way. They misuse their gift of words. Do not support any kind of talk or action that will hurt anyone else. Do not be misled by a society that believes that only men deserve success, not women. Those are not our ways. We need everyone, every kind of poetry, the diversity of our cultures, languages and experience, and even the diversity within cultures. To turn on someone who is part of us is exactly how the genocide was planted to work. We must set aside falsehoods, whatever their source, to see reality.

Turn instead toward the source of your poetry and listen. We are here to learn how to listen, translators of sorts to what can never be fully translated. What a calling! Act honorably. And tend this valuable circle of young native poets. We need you, all of you. You were put here to take care of each other, to make a force of poetry that will enable all of us to make it through the environmental, political, world shifting changes that we are just beginning to see, something that was predicted years ago in our communities. You agreed to take this on, to be a singer. You have creative work to do, to remake the world for those who will follow you. They are waiting for you.


Joy Harjo



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