US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo on what home means for Native Americans kicked off their land

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Sarah Sweeney

As a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is the descendant of Native Americans who were forcibly removed from their land in the 19th century Trail of Tears. Thousands died on the march from their ancestral homes in the Southeast to so-called “Indian Territory,” which is now Oklahoma. Much of Harjo’s work explores themes of home, place, and displacement. 

As the first Native American Poet Laureate of the country, she’s carried those themes into her signature project. It’s called “Living Nations, Living Words.” It features the work of other contemporary Native American poets, plus an interactive map that places each poet in the place that they feel most rooted. 

The inspiration for her project came from a trip she took to Knoxville, Tennessee, which is near the ancestral homeland of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Harjo herself grew up in Oklahoma. 

“During that time there, my husband and I drove all over the area, went to places that had belonged to our relatives, because we knew where they were and walked around those lands,” she tells KCRW. “I went back and none of our people were visibly there. 

She adds, “We were happy to be going back to Tulsa. And there was a huge contradiction. Like, how can we be happy about going home when home is here, but home is there?”

Harjo says the digital map helps provide roots to Natives who aren’t featured in prominent American culture.

“Natives have been so disappeared [sic] from the American story. And yet, if we make a map that shows no political boundaries, that's one thing. …  One thing that came out of this project is really starting to see how all poets' voices … are innately tied to land and the idea of place.”

Today, Harjo navigates through her identity as a resident of two nations: the Muscogee Creek Nation and the United States. And that translates into her project.

“The root concept is: There is no America without Indigenous peoples and Indigenous people’s poetry. It's crucial that we're recognized as root cultures of what we call America.”

“Living Nations, Living Words” features work by contemporary Native American poets, plus an interactive map that places each poet in the place that they feel most rooted. Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton.  (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The idea of maps

Historically, Harjo says the Muscogee map looked different than a modern-day map. 

“I have a couple of lines from a new poem somewhere that actually talks about this, where I say, ‘An old Muskogee map is different. We know by trees, rocks and the obligations of relatives. We might be going nowhere. Our roads aren't nice lines with numbers, they wind like bloodlines to gossip and stories of the whole league in the wind.’” 

The concepts are different enough that she points out a comment by former U.S. Senator Henry Dawes, who was the chairman of the Dawes Commission. It was the government entity responsible for stripping land from Indigenous tribes.   

“He said he was mystified by our practice of sharing resources without trying to exploit them for personal profit. And I think about that in mapping, and I think about mapping to keep people from voting. And what happens when there's no line drawn between Mexico and the U.S., because it wasn't always there, or [between] the U.S. and Canada.”

Harjo hopes her project changes how people think about the idea of land placement and their relationship with maps and geographic boundaries. 

“I look at my grandchildren … and this next generation, how they will see place and how they will understand place and displacement.”