NEA Big Read
How We Became Human

How We Became Human

by Joy Harjo

We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

Joy Harjo (b. 1951)

"We are in a dynamic story field, a field of dreaming. Move as if all things are possible."— Joy Harjo in Literary Mama

Writer and musician Joy Harjo—her surname means "so brave you're crazy"—was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke (also known as Muscogee) (Creek) Nation. One of her earliest memories is a sense of awakening when she first heard Miles Davis's horn on the radio in her parents' car. "That music opened an incredible door," she told National Public Radio. "I could almost see the shape of my whole life." In Harjo's early years, she would often hear her mother singing, or find her writing a song at the kitchen table. Of Cherokee, Irish, French, and German descent, her mother loved lyric poetry. She was like fire, Harjo says—always full of inspiration. Unable to afford books, and with just one dress to wear, her mother dropped out of school in eighth grade.

Harjo's father, who worked as an airline mechanic, descended from Muscogee Creek tribal leadership. Among his ancestors was Monahwee (also known as Menawa), a Red Stick leader who fought Andrew Jackson's forces in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, opposing American expansion. When the Red Sticks were defeated, it set the stage for the removal of the Muscogee people from their homelands. Harjo describes her father as a mystery, relying on anger and alcohol to cope with his sensitive nature. When he left the family, Harjo was eight years old. Her mother remarried a man who was physically and emotionally abusive and forbade singing in their home.

Like her innate connection to music, Harjo loved words, and loved drawing as a child—it was an experience she likened to dreaming on paper, and it was a passion she shared with her grandmother and her aunt, both of whom were talented visual artists. In first grade, she drew a picture of ghosts and colored them green, scandalizing the other students who asserted that ghosts could only be white. She would never forget the vehemence of their reaction. At 16, Harjo escaped her difficult home life to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico. Early in her adult life, she experienced two rough marriages, single motherhood, and battles with alcohol, self-abuse, and panic attacks.

When she discovered poetry, she says, it was a revelation that changed her life. After receiving her BA from the University of New Mexico-Albuquerque, Harjo was accepted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she received an MFA in creative writing. "A lot of my poetry is inspired by injustice, love, the move for balance, and compassion," she told Sampsonia Way. "This debris of historical trauma, family trauma... stuff that can kill your spirit, is actually raw material to make things with and to build a bridge ... over that which would destroy you," (National Public Radio). Among her influences are the poets June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Charles Bukowski, Rubén Darío, Mahmoud Darwish, and Pablo Neruda, as well as John Coltrane and Kaw-Muscogee jazz musician Jim Pepper. Stand-up comedy, too, has been an inspiration: "In both poetry and song you're writing concise pieces with a snap to them. Stand-up comedy is similar in that way, except they get laughs" (Sampsonia Way).

Harjo has published numerous award-winning books of poetry—including the 1983 classic She Had Some Horses—as well as children's books and works of nonfiction, including her memoir, Crazy Brave, which took her 14 years to write because she had to face her demons and find the strength to share the pain of her past in a public way. It received the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction and the American Book Award. Harjo's many other awards include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas; the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets; the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award; and two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) creative writing fellowships. Harjo has also released five albums of music and poetry and is an award-winning saxophonist and vocalist. She performed for many years with the band Poetic Justice and continues to perform today both solo and with her band The Arrow Dynamics, playing the alto saxophone, guitar, flute, horn, ukulele, and bass. Her album Winding Through the Milky Way received a Native American Music Award for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2009.

Known for her contagious sense of curiosity and purpose, Harjo is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and has served as a member of the NEA National Council on the Arts. For many years she has also been a professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; in fall 2016, she will join the faculty of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as Chair of Excellence in Creative Writing. "Throughout her extraordinary career as poet, storyteller, musician, memoirist, playwright and activist, Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul," wrote poet Alicia Ostriker in her citation for the Wallace Stevens Award. Her "visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing."

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