Joy Harjo's Web Log
Joy Harjo posts reports here on her trips and other happenings.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Harjo's First Muscogee Nation News Column, reprint
Coming and Going in Indian Country, by Joy Harjo
Thursday night of the Creek Nation Festival, after we filled ourselves up with plates from Charlie’s Chicken, my sister and I dragged our chairs up to the stomp dance circle to enjoy the music and the company. Usually I’m right in there with my shells. That night I just took the spirit of it all in as the music carried us: the ongoing stories of friends, and the prodigious growth in the nation. I was in mourning for a beloved friend, a Mvskoke citizen who was buried just hours before, far away from the nation. He had left Wagoner with his family when he was eleven. Later he joined the military, married a Hawaiian woman and stayed in Honolulu. Bill Tiger made a community in the islands for many of us. He embodied the spirit of vnoketckv. And because of him when people far from Oklahoma think of the Mvskoke they’ll think Tiger: tall, outgoing and generous.
When we leave the tight circle of the nation in Oklahoma we become emissaries of a sort, whether we are officially appointed as such, or not. Anywhere we Mvskokes go we’re often the only Mvskoke anyone ever meets, or even the only Indian. And you can be sure that wherever you are, at the grounds, in church, or on a street half way across the world from Oklahoma, someone is always watching to see how you act.
I left Oklahoma late summer of 1967 for high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a BIA Indian school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Everything I owned was packed into my brand new army green footlocker. Richard Ray Whitman, Euchee Creek was a student there, as were the Fife sisters: Phyllis and Sandy. I left again with a Cherokee husband, son and step-daughter in 1970 in a car whose trunk slid off every few miles. We frequently ran out into the road and retrieve it. Since then I’ve lived mostly in New Mexico and Hawaii. I’ve gotten to do a bit of traveling to perform, from Argentina to a music festival north of the Arctic Circle in Saami country in Norway. What always strikes me is that no matter where or how far away from Oklahoma I travel, though we may be few and far between out there, I always meet up with Creeks.
I’ll never forget Alex Posey’s granddaughter being wheeled up to meet me at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. And some years back when I was feeling a little bewildered in the middle of Pennsylvania, Rosemary McCombs Maxey came up and introduced herself and made me feel at home. I was in New York City a few years ago and was proud to catch Tim Sampson appearing in his father, Sonny Sampson’s classic role in the Broadway show, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In this column I’ll be regularly reporting on and commenting about what’s going out here on that might be pertinent for our people. We have lots of talent all over, and there’s always something going on in Indian country.
I just received news from Muscogee citizen, Eddie Chuculate that his story: “Galveston Bay 1826” will be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 2007, which will be published by Anchor Books. Now this is quite an accomplishment, and one of the most prestigious awards for short fiction. It’s sort of like slamming a win in a national ballgame playoff. He’s the first Mvskoke citizen to win such an honor. He says: “Raymond and Frances Narcomey. were my full-blooded Creek great-grandparents. He was a preacher at West Eufaula Indian Baptist Church for decades. They had a house in Hanna, right across the street from Hillabee Indian Baptist Church. Maxine (Narcomey) Flanary, was my Creek grandmother, also full-blood even though it said 15/16 on her CDIB, which is ridiculous, because both her parents (Raymond and Frances) were both 4/4. My mother is Lorencita (Narcomey) Holmes. Dad was Donald Everett Chuculate (Cherokee)”. Other great American writers to achieve this honor include F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin and Louise Erdrich. Congratulations.
Will see you next month. Until then you can reach me via email email@example.com
Published Muscogee Nation News
A friend from India sent along a message with a posting of images from the bombings of civilians, i.e. (to circumvent journalistic language: babies, children, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles--or should I say, OUR babies, children, mothers...then we would know the true weight and depth of the matter) in Lebanon. Or Palestine, or Iraq, or U.S., Israel, or Europe, or Africa, or Canada---
The weight of this image of children signing bombs to be sent to destroy other children is almost unbearable.
This is the result of religious fundamentalism--of rigidity and judgement. Or a system that demonizes anyone different. Or any system that sets up Winners and Losers. No one will win and everyone will lose.
Yes, poetry has everything to do with this. Where do you think poetry comes from? It emerges from the field, like stars, flowers, weeds and concrete.
We will either lift everyone up, or take everyone down.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Guest column from Tim Giago: Debunking the Myth of Christianity
Thank you Tim for speaking up, and for allowing me to reprint your wise words.
I have always believed there are many spiritual paths. We are not to interfere with each other. My spirit goes on alert when I hear: "Everyone not Christian is going to hell." "We are the chosen people.", and any other lines used to implant fear and judgement. I heard these kinds of pronouncements frequently when I was growing up In Oklahoma. Non-Christians or traditional Indians were silenced, or hid.
In the last few years this misguided fundamentalist pitch has become a fever of self-righteousness in Oklahoma. What happened to respect? Does the Maker love and care only for the roses, and dismiss to hell all others of creation?
Debunking the myth of Christianity
Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji) 7/24/2006
© 2006 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.
A letter from an angry reader from Oklahoma chastised me for attempting
to explain why the Iraqi people hate America. She wrote, "Tim Giago
should realize that America is a Christian nation. Jesus Christ appeared
to Black Elk, not to the Muslims."
I wonder how many Indian nations consider themselves to be "Christian
nations." The two most potent weapons brought to the Western Hemisphere
by the European invaders were disease and the Church. While the diseases
unknown to the indigenous population destroyed millions of lives, the
Church destroyed cultures, religions, traditions, languages and customs.
The early demise of the Indian people can be equally attributed to both.
The letter writer, an Indian woman, continued, "We as Americans are
crusaders. We bring democracy to a dark and ignorant country." Is that
what the "crusaders" brought to the Indian people? Native Americans did
not become included in America's form of "democracy" until 1924, nearly
150 years after America's settlers signed the Declaration of
Independence. The "independence" and "democracy" was for white Americans
only. It was not until 1946 when Arizona and New Mexico finally ratified
the Constitutional Amendment that made Native Americans United States
citizens. For the first 30 years of his life, my father, born and raised
on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a fluent Lakota speaker,
was not a citizen of the United States.
The settlers who came to America in pursuit of religious freedom
outlawed most religious rites of the Indian people. The Sacred Sun Dance
of the Great Plains Indians was banned and its practitioners subject to
arrest and incarceration.
The Church created the myth that Jesus appeared to Black Elk in order to
convince other Lakota that Black Elk had seen the light and had become a
Christian in the end. His own family members dispute this outlandish
claim. As a matter of fact, Black Elk faced prosecution for practicing
the traditional spirituality of his ancestors. He had to perform some of
the sacred rites of the Lakota in secret.
The revival of the traditional religious practices of the American
Indians has grown stronger over the years and came out in the open after
passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act was passed in
1978. Can you imagine that "Freedom of Religion" was finally granted to
the Indian people 202 years after the Declaration of Independence?
There are those Native Americans who have attempted to integrate their
Christian roots and beliefs with Native spirituality. Can this happen?
Would the practitioners of the ancient Indian religions allow this? I
think not. First off, Christianity is foreign to the Native people of
this Hemisphere. It was brought from across the sea by the invaders. For
the most part Christianity is based on the teachings of a Jewish rabbi
Whereas, the traditional spirituality of the Native people has existed
long before the settlers landed on these shores. One Wicasa Wakan (Holy
Man) named Rick Two Dog, an Oglala Lakota, can trace his spiritual
family and advisers back more than 500 years. That even pre-dates the
coming of the Pilgrims with their overly righteous views of
Let's face it. The early settlers found the religious practices of the
Native people difficult to understand and distasteful and they dismissed
them, with a wave of the hand and a prayer, as heretical. Since the
Native people did not, according to the settlers, have a religion, they
were therefore pagans that had to be converted.
For an Indian man or woman to say that Jesus Christ is their Savior and
Lord is to deny thousands of years of the inherent spirituality and
religious customs of their own people. And to believe that they can
incorporate this foreign religious concept into their traditional
beliefs is now being discarded by many Indians that have returned to
their own traditional customs and beliefs. They see with eyes wide open
what Christianity has done to their ancestors and to themselves and they
I would like to hear from the Indian nations and have them tell me how
many of them consider themselves to be "Christian nations."
I have no bone to pick with Christians or their beliefs as long as they
practice those beliefs without interfering with my own beliefs and with
the beliefs of those who are not Christians. I attended an Indian
mission boarding school where Christianity was crammed down my throat
from the minute I awoke to the minute I went to sleep. It's not that
this was bad enough, but to debunk and criticize the traditional beliefs
of my ancestors in order to implant this new religion into my young mind
was outrageous. If the Church cannot apologize for the atrocities
committed against the Native people how can I be expected to forgive
them and least of all participate in their religious hypocrisy.
The Founding Fathers of the Indian nations will not be found carved on
Mount Rushmore. Instead their bones will be found in the dust of the
land walked upon by they and their ancestors for thousands of years,
long before the settlers came. And in the space of a short 500 years the
newcomers have brought this continent to the brink of self-destruction.
America may well consider itself a Christian nation, but please do not
willfully discard those of us who are not. We are also Americans and we
are also citizens of our own nations.
(Tim Giago is the founder and first president of the Native American
Journalists Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or by writing him at 2050 W. Main St., Suite 6, Rapid City, SD., 57702.
He was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota
Times and Indian Country Today newspapers)
Thursday, July 20, 2006
An Anthology of Stuff
I just finished my last post (will be added tomorrow) for poetryfoundation.org. I'm going to include excerpts here but cannot include the whole posts. You will have to access them from there. Please feel free to add comments on that blog. I am going to open this blog up for comments, after my new website design is premiered.
From July 20/for tomorrow:
First sounds this morning: my soul finding the body, a phone message from Alaska of the “Airplane Song” being sung at the opening of the Eskimo games last night, and the calling, calling of doves.
Inspired by the gift of Eleanor Wilner’s exquisite poetry this morning. (Excerpted from “High Noon at Los Alamos”)
“As if compelled to repetition
and to unearth again
white fire at the heart of matter—fire
we sought and fire we spoke,
our thoughts, however elegant, were fire
from first to last—“
This body is something I’ve put on with breath. I slip it back on every morning. At night I leave it and go traveling, both vertically and horizontally. I will discard it when that opening beckons in the Milky Way.
from July 19:
Today I got to listen over the phone to the calls and cries of the blanket toss competition at the Eskimo Olympics, going on right now in Fairbanks, Alaska. Tug-of-war is another of the events at the Eskimo Olympics. The tug-of-war between white men and native women is a recurring event. The women have always won.
Some tug-of-war games I’d love to see: academic poets versus slam poets, novelists versus poets, East Coast writers versus West Coast…
It can be disconcerting to hear someone else speak or sing your poems. “Eagle Poem/Song” has been licensed and recorded and performed in many different, mostly classically European styles. The poem is transformed, becomes something else. The other recordings or performances become stepchildren of a sort. They make a new life for themselves in the arms of someone else’s music. It’s always a little strange. The words are the constant, yet the context changes. The poem goes from wearing red cowboy boots and jeans to wearing furs, a glint of diamonds and heels—and hangs out in different company.
From July 18:
For much of America I am a ghost. I learned this first several years ago when I was invited to perform at Auburn University in Alabama. The university is located not far from the historic grounds of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, at a bend in the Talapoosa River. My several-greats-grandfather, Menawa (we spell it Monahwee) fought Andrew Jackson in a last attempt to hold onto our homelands in the East. Monahwee’s band of Red Stick warriors were slaughtered. They were outnumbered by troops and firepower. Monahwee survived though he had seven bullet wounds. He was forced to go to Indian Territory, which eventually became Oklahoma. He lived to be almost a hundred. (One of my cousins promises to show me where he is buried the next time I’m back there.) We still have many stories of him. Even after the reluctant move to Indian Territory he once again became a fugitive. He dove between a woman and the husband who was beating her, on the streets of Okmulgee. He had to go into hiding. Justice has both global and intimate implications and is a familial theme.
After I walked the grounds of the battle I began to get sick. And just before the reading I had acquired a terrible case of bronchitis. (I’d never had bronchitis before and never had it after.) The lungs energetically process grief. Still, I had to perform. When I stood up to read I introduced myself as Monahwee’s granddaughter. The audience gasped. I was a ghost. According to American and Alabama state history, we had all been destroyed on that day in March 27,1814.
Most of America still believes this and suffers affront when we step outside of our place of silence in history and walk into a classroom, show up in textbooks, or start casinos like Mr. Trump.
My grandmother, Naomi Harjo, the daughter of Henry Marsey Harjo and Katie Monahwee, played saxophone in Indian Territory. My great-aunt Lois who made art, even had a BFA in art and supported my path as a poet told me that because her family dressed well and had cultivated European manners (their allotted land was on the largest oil fields in the country) most people took them for Jewish or Chinese. How could they be Indians?
Cotton Mather may not have originated the deceitful conceit: Indians are demons, not human beings, but he imprinted that into the atmosphere at the birth of the American imagination. Words are powerful and even have their own lives, make families, after they leave our mouths. Words spoken at the birth of anyone or anything are some of the most potent.
From the next:
From Blackfoot Physics, by F. David Peat p.5, “Western education predisposes us to think of knowledge in terms of actual information, information that can be structured and passed on through books, lectures, and programmed courses. Knowledge is seen as something that can be acquired and accumulated, rather like stocks and bonds. By contrast, within the Indigenous world, the act of coming to know something involves a personal transformation.”
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about his or her religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, and beautify all the things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respects to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of vision. When it comes your turn to die, do not be like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like the hero going home.
From notes written the morning of July 8th, Albuquerque:
I wanted to ask her, where did the bruises really come from?
I didn’t need to ask.
Or knew at 3AM with the wind a train
In the speed of dark
Which is inverse to the speed of light.
I saw her spirit at the edge
Of the sleeping shore.
We were both afraid of the current.
This is a test, said the water.
Floating shit is not a poetic device or a literal translation
The earth takes another heavy breath
And from the first one:
And for good measure, from one of the real poets of our times, Stanley Kunitz:
“When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you have to think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgement of the gift you have been given, which is the gift of life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. It is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
War, war and more war
Tomorrow, Wednesday June 19th, check the poetryfoundation.org site for a blog. I now have three there and will add two more through the week.
Just back from paddling. I needed it. Water soaks up grief. No wonder most of the earth's surface is water.
Shame on the behavior of a few humans who are feeding off war. They kill for power. Then they grow hungry for more.
Where are the councils of women? Where is balance and a check of powers?
I don't feel good about this predicament we're in here on earth in this age. I predict it will get worse. It will, if nothing is changed.
Protocol - (the song version)
c Joy Harjo (published in a different from in A Map to the Next World, W.W. Norton)
Open with chant
I do not know your language though I hear the breaking of waves through the years.
It is blue and if I am to follow protocol I will introduce myself
and in that you might know that I did not find myself
here on your island by some coincidence.
When we emerged from that misty original place
we were led by four young winds, and a star who took the form
of talking fire. After we set up camp some of us went to look for water.
I found it years later, near the scarlet volcano just as it was predicted,
when companies of white men have fooled themselves and the sleeping
ones into thinking they’ve bought the world.
My family still has the iron cooking pot that was traded to us
when treaties were forced with blood. Those who signed were killed.
Now I have a gas range and there is no end to the war.
When I arrive from the sky after traveling through clouds,
and the afterburn of jets I will consider the gift
of those who kept walking though their feet were bloodied
with cold and distance, as their houses and beloved lands
were burned behind them.
I will consider the tyranny
of false rulers and how though they appear to dominate
your island they are small and brittle and will break.
When we meet in the beginning place, you honor me with pikake and maile
and a chant that allows me to paddle with you into the waters
so I will not be known as a stranger.
I offer you coral and tobacco and a song that will make us vulnerable
to the shimmer of the heart. It allows us to walk the roots
with our peoples through any adversity to sunrise.
Chorus: (translate to Hawaiian)
This is how I know myself.
This is how I know who you are.
Monday, July 17, 2006
I Will Get My Subterranean Back
Podcast for the evening of July 17th, 2006. Final version of I Will Get my Subterranean Back. To be published in LYRIC.I%20Will%20get%20my%20subterranean%20back.mp3
Poetryfoundation.org blog for the next five days
Stormy Monday...the storm's the sawing, hammering and generators.
I promise a podcast of "I Will Get My Subterranean Back" tonight, after the workmen on both sides go home. Peace.
This week's Monday through Friday blogs are hosted on the PoetryFoundation.org site, a comprehensive site for poetry. Here's the link. Poetry Foundation Harjo Journal
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Belated Notes from the Road
I had a plan to blog everyday during a journey, complete with photographs. What I have found with blogging, writing, photographing, videotaping, or any such recordings of experience, is that the process of noticing and recording the experience becomes the experience. It changes the experience. It can heighten or it can distract. And when you are struggling with lack of sleep from an onslaught of ideas, memories, from moving from one principality of sky and earth to another too quickly, without time to visit and share, and you have performances to be up for--sleeping, when possible, and eating for energy, take over.
Here's some highlights, insights:
Walking downtown Santa Fe at dusk after an incredible dinner at Pasqual's and discovering Cafe Paris tucked into Burro Alley where Tahitian dancers were practicing for a show. For me it was a convergence of perfection: Tahitians, Paris, Santa Fe and New Mexico.
The drive from the Albuquerque airport to Taos, New Mexico on a Sunday afternoon with L. and Jill Bialosky, my Norton editor. The sky blue and the earth freshened with recent rains. Memories a stacked and flowing ribbon of earth.
A prairie dog town behind the Sagebrush Inn in Taos.
Shaking with exhaustion while dressing and getting ready to head over to the conference center for dinner and a performance. I don't usually know where it's going to come from or how it's going to happen. It's like writing a poem or a song. I have to stand sideways, do my practice, write my notes. Then I acknowledge the source and turn it over. I walk out into the late sun, into a field of sage and damp earth. It finds me.
A fire in the fireplace in the room with friends, and Pam Houston's dog Fenton who remembered the room, and the door leading to the prairie dog town. He asked to be let out into the night, for memory.
(No photo of Fenton. This is Pam Houston, one of my favorite writers, and me.)
How my youngest grandchild who is learning to stand stood in the swimming pool holding onto a rail and splashing. Joy. Then she experiments; she let go and fell back into the water. She's under. Quick rescue. She gasps, briefly cries with shock. Then she's again holding onto the rail and splashing. She trusts. All of us fall many times before the triumph of the first step. Why are some so trusting of the process, and others fearful? Even at that young age she could have made a decision that water is bad and vowed to never enter it or trust it again. Water then would be labeled "bad"--and the "water" part of experience would be injured. Then, the light of the spirit, dimmed.
Playing "shark" in the pool to lighten the spirit especially of my grandson Tayo, but for all of them.
Tamarin's grace and beauty.
Ditto on the second performance at St. John's College for the Breadloaf group. Not enough sleep again. Not sure where it's going to come from--practicing sax in a room, singing to find the spirit of the evening. I am blessed by family. I sit near the back when I'm ready. The threads are coming together in a beautiful pattern: my ex and a woman, my sister, L., my daughter and her children, Craig Womack, Gerardo and the luminous memory of that room when Mei Mei Berrssenbrugge and Lesllie Silko and me were there years ago for an event.
A discussion with L. on the plane from Phoenix to Honolulu about story, after reading my colleague Dan Mueller's story, "Connected". There has to be mystery, a large unknown, a discovery when you're writing--if there isn't one, then what is the point? Creative acts are about bringing mystery into physical shape. (Mueller's story, by the way, the mystery is human motivation and behavior....)
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
A story in honor of Rainy Dawn's birthday today
I agreed to give birth to my daughter. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." * I was twenty-one and in a difficult relationship with someone I knew down to my bones. It was a difficult time in Indian country. We were at war, yet we were full of hope and ideas on how it could all work out, beautifully. Wounded Knee was the outcome of many skirmishes all over the country. In New Mexico there were many. One of our Kiva Club members, Larry Casuse was killed by the Gallup police. I had a small son. I was painting and poetry was starting to come forth out of these times. Then one night in the middle of the mess my daughter's spirit came to me. She looked as she does now, as I have seen her through all the ages I've known her from birth to now 33 and much older. Though logically this was the worst time to conceive: there was no money, I was in a precarious relationship, I was still in school and had plans to go to graduate school, and as nations within nations we were struggling, I said yes, when she asked me to give birth to her. There was no question. I have never regretted that decision.
Here is a short story/part memoir blend that is mostly fiction. The last paragraph is the closest to true of any of the story--
in honor of Rainy Dawn:
Everyone has their own version of the world I tell myself as I wait on
the Central Avenue sidewalk while Larry disappears behind the Starlight
Motel to take a piss. The vacancy sign flashes on and off. Closing hour
traffic jams the street. I imagine everyone taking off for the forty-nine,
squeezed into cars and pickups with cases of beer under their legs heading in
a caravan to the all night sing on West Mesa. Each direction is a world and
each world has its own set of rules, its own hierarchy of gods and demigods,
its own particular color. I am painting a series based on the four
directions but I am stalled. It has been months since I’ve painted.
When I was five my mother began standing me on a chair to wash dishes
after dinner because I couldn’t otherwise reach. The front of my dress was
usually soaked when I finished. "Don’t get your dress wet like that, it means
you’ll marry a drunk." Yet night after night after dinner she would drag a
chair to the sink and my dress would soak no matter my efforts otherwise.
Every morning I wake up with a hangover after trying to keep up with Larry I
remember the wet stomach of my dress. I then promise I will let him go. I
know I cannot save him, but to let him go feels unbearable.
This morning Larry mentioned that his cousin was coming into town from
California and wanted to have dinner before heading out to the pueblo. Would
I like to go to Alonzo’s for pizza with them? A wedge of tension cut the air
between us. I tried to ignore it. Last night he said he was going to quit
drinking again and Alonzo’s is one of his favorite bars. I watched as he fried
the bacon and stirred the eggs, as he placed them in a perfect arrangement on
our plates. He cooked as deftly as he honed out an argument or turned a piece
of silver into the wind. I poured Joe Junior a glass of milk and wrapped a
sandwich for his lunch. He fidgeted, running his Hot Wheels cars up and down
his chair, across the table, faster and faster in response to the tension.
"Stop it! I yelled, surprised at the vehemence in my voice. He put his head
down on the table and began slowly kicking the table leg. I told myself then
that I could use a break.
That night after cleaning the house and walking guiltily by my easel I
took Joe Junior to the babysitter. He liked going to Larry’s sister’s house
because she had twin boys his age so I didn’t mind leaving him for the night.
When I handed him over with his pack of clothes, toys and snacks I hugged
him close, savoring his freshly shampooed hair. I felt bad for yelling at
him this morning. He saw the twins peeking around the corner and wriggled
free. Larry’s sister was roasting chile and had just pulled out of the oven a
fresh batch of those little fruit pies her people make. She offered me some.
"And take some for Larry,too" she said. When she said her brother’s name
worry flickered across her forehead. I was worried, too but to entertain all
the reasons would cause an avalanche. I would prefer to stay here with Joe
Junior in Larry’s aunt’s warm house, to wash dishes and set the table and visit, but the zigzag of anxiety went way back, over tortuous territory. If I followed the source it would slam me back into childhood, to my father staggering in
drunk, beating my mother the shame and hate in him burning, burning. Then
he’d hit my brothers. And then me whom it was said he loved most. He’d save
me for last, when his anger was ashes, when the fire was hottest. And then
he’d hold me, "Sugar, sugar" he’d croon, the tears so thick they made a lake
on the linoleum floor.
There is a world of mist in which my father now lives. It is beyond the
Milky Way but it is also as close as my voice to your ear. I have often seen
my father in the middle of the night when I am painting. Or when I have
tucked his grandson in after he has fallen asleep. He is just the other side
of the spin, the same frequency as moonlight. He’s held here by
disappointment, by the need to speak. He tells me he loves me and asks if I
will forgive him. I do not say anything. "You’re a dreamer", my mother says when I tell her, "just like your father. And you won’t ever get it together until you decide to deal with the real world." She is an elected tribal official and
she teaches Sunday school every week. She has a mission in her small world.
She wants to make sure there are rules and that they are enforced.
The first time Larry hit me was on a Saturday night like this one. We
hadn’t been together long. We were still amazed we had found each other. We
were partying away not at Alonzo’s but at the Feathered Dancer on the other
side of town. He was talking politics with his buddies while I played pool
with my best friend Jolene and some other students in the backroom. I kept
feeding the jukebox with quarters, playing the Rolling Stones, "wild horses
couldn’t drag me away" over and over again. He was down about the
anniversary of the death of his best friend a few years ago. That should have
been a warning to me. This man had been his idol. He had been the only man
from his pueblo to finish law school and he fought the U.S. legal system by any means possible, including his fists. But he couldn’t fight alcohol. He was taken down by drink, his body found in a field weeks after his death. His grieving brothers were honoring him by drinking to oblivion and they were
getting rowdy. I tried to ignore them and kept shooting the solids into the
pockets, just as I had ignored my father when he and his friends partied,
argued and played. I knew the routine. There was a high and then there was a
Every small hair on my neck was on alert. "Fuck you", I heard Larry
yell. We ran in from the pool tables to see what was the matter. Larry aimed
a pitcher of beer at his cousin Leno’s head. It missed and smashed into the bar mirror. There was a terrible crash. We all scattered as the bartender called the police. Larry refused to go, instead, he decided to climb the fence to the roof of the bar. Leno and I tried to stop him. He punched me and I went down. He climbed to the roof and jumped, then stood up like a defiant child, without a scratch, and walked away, the sound of approaching sirens growing loud and shrill.
I should have left him then, instead I caught a ride back with Jolene who tried to convince me to stay at her place. "No, I want to get the sad good-bye over with", I told her. The next morning he apologized profusely. This will never happen again, he promised as he made us breakfast of his specialty: chorizo and eggs. He came back from the 7Eleven with a newspaper and a bouquet of wilted flowers. I told him to pack his bags, to get out. "No", he said. "How can we make a better world for the people if we cannot hold it together in our own house?" I convinced myself that we owed it to ourselves to keep trying. I found excuses. He was taken over by grief for his buddy, I told myself. And most of the time he wasn’t like that, I reasoned. I took him back.
The next few weeks were tender and raw. Carefully he planted a garden in
the small yard behind the apartment with my son. He worked obsessively. He held fire in his hands and he crafted a bracelet to bridge the hole in our universe. I believed he didn’t mean to lose control. I believed that he loved me.
"So did your father", Jolene reminded me. "You’ve gone and married your father."
I didn’t want to hear her and after that I talked to Jolene only when I had to, at rallies, at Indian center meetings. She was a distant reminder of prickly truth, a predictor of trouble. I watched her disappear on the horizon as I turned to tend to my shakey world. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes.
We were nervous the day we headed up to Santa Fe in a borrowed car to get
married. I had never planned to marry anyone and this would be my second.The first had been to Joe Junior’s father. Larry had gotten grief from his parents for shacking up with a girl who wasn’t from his tribe. Marriage would make me one step closer to acceptable.
It was a perfect spring day as we headed north. Joe Junior stayed at Larry’s sister’s place and was excited about getting to help make the wedding cake. A small reception was planned for the next day. We’d just passed the city limits when the Ranchero Bar came into view, poised on the reservation line. All the windows were painted and broken glass mixed with gravel in the parking lot. Larry pulled the car over and parked. "Let’s go in, just for a beer", he said. "To celebrate." It had been a few months since he had stopped drinking, after the punching incident. He already had enough jewelry for a show and had attracted a dealer who talked New York and Europe markets. We had been happy.
"No. You can’t drink."
"One drink will not hurt me, or you either", he said as he opened his door.
"We have a lot to celebrate."
"Okay, you promised", I reminded him.
"I promise", he said.
One beer turned into a pitcher because these were his brothers, he
announced eloquently to the bar. The pueblo farm workers sitting around him
smiled at me and nodded their heads. "It’s time to go" I urged him under my
breath, all the while smiling at his new friends.
"I can’t turn down a drink because I would offend them" he whispered to me, looking at me sharply because I should know better. Obviously he wasn’t afraid of offending me.
I sipped my beer and felt my heart sag in disbelief. This was my wedding
day. If I had another drink I wouldn’t hear the voice telling me to get out,
to get out now. I poured myself another beer from the pitcher, matching Larry
drink for drink to the delight of Larry’s new friends. The day stumbled into
oblivion. I have a faint memory of dancing a rancheria in front of the
jukebox with a cowboy, and of a hippie girl coming into the bar and sitting
on Larry’s lap. "It‚s part of my job" he told me once after I had yanked a
blonde girl off him and demanded he come home with me. He had pocketed the
girl’s phone number as he slid off the stool and followed me. He had a reason
We didn’t make it to Santa Fe to get married. I tore up the marriage
license and tossed it like confetti over him and his drinking partners, confirming that I wasn’t the kind of girl his pueblo parents wanted for his wife. His mother would never embarrass his father in that manner no matter what he did to her. I left him with the borrowed car and hitchhiked back. I called Larry’s sister and told her the wedding was off and I’d pick up Joe Junior tomorrow when I could pull myself together. I could not think; I could not paint, I looked up the women’s center in the student directory. What would I say to them? Do you have a crisis center for idiots? I missed Jolene and my friends, but I had too much pride to call them now. I dialed my mother’s number and hung up. She would just say, "I told you so."
It is now two-thirty in the morning and the avenue is quiet. Larry should have been back by now. The small desk light in the motel office makes me feel lonely. I feel far away from everything. There’s that ache under my ribs that’s like radar. It tells me that I am miles away from the world I intended to make for my son and me. I imagine my easel set up in the corner of the living room in our apartment, next to Joe Junior’s box of toys. I imagine my little boy asleep in my arms. I imagine having the money to walk up to the motel office to rent a room of my own. I know what I would do.
First I would sleep until I could sleep no more. Then I would dream. I fly to the first world of my mother and father, locate them as a young married couple just after the war, living with my father’s mother, in her small house in Sapulpa. I am a baby in my mother’s arms, cooing and kicking my legs. Then I am a girl on my father’s shoulders as he spins and dances me through the house drunk on beer stolen from the bootlegger. I hold on tight. I hear my mother tell him to be
careful, let me down. We are all laughing. He spins until I am in high school and I have won the art award. Then I am a teenage mother. "A new little Sugar", he says as he holds his grandson and sings to him. Then I am standing with my mother at my grandmother’s funeral, singing those sad Creek hymns that lead her spirit to the Milky Way. My father can’t be found in time for the funeral. Then he’s next. The centrifugal force of memory keeps moving through the sky, slowly sifting lies from the shining truth.
My mother told me that if you go to sleep laughing you will wake up to
tears. My father’s mother told me that to predict the shape of the end of
something take a hard look at the beginning.
"I’m not interested in marriage or finding yet another man to break my heart," I remember telling my friend Jolene as we stood in the heat in front of the student union the day I met Larry. The tech people were making racket while they set up the microphones and tables for the press conference. I had just gotten over Joe Junior’s father. He left me before the baby was born, even took the junk car, drove off dragging it behind his cousin’s truck to his mother’s house in Talihina.
"Well, there are always women" she said nodding towards a table that had
been set up by the women’s resource center. They were passing out
information on their services. I walked by the women’s center every day on
my way to work at the Indian center after classes. Once I stopped to visit on
my way to an organizational meeting. I had heard a speaker from their center address students on the mall about women’s rights and it occurred to me that our centers could link up in an action. But the day I walked in with my son in hand I got the distinct feeling that Indian women with children weren’t too welcome. I had never gone back.
"Women would certainly open up our options", I agreed with Jolene and
we laughed. We thought it was funny, but we agreed that as women we spent
most of our time with each other, took classes together and cried on each others
shoulders in the shifting dance of creation and destruction.
It was a fine looking contingent from the National Council on Indian
Rights who made their way to the makeshift stage. They were modern age
warriors dressed with the intent of justice in their sunglasses and long
black hair. "There is my future", I said lightly and nodded to the Pueblo
man whose hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail. I watched as he
balanced his coffee and unclasped his shoulder bag of papers. He felt
familiar at the level of blood cells and bones though I didn’t know him. I
had heard him holding forth before at meetings and had seen him in passing on
"Who is he?" Jolene knew everyone because her father was a name in
local Indian politics.
"His name is Larry. He’s an artist," she said, "A fine artist. He makes jewelry. Be careful. Women love him and are always chasing him." I could see why and I could not stop watching him as he read the press release demanding justice and detailing how it could occur. He was as beautifully drawn as he was smart.
As we stood in the hot sun listening to the prepared statements I was suddenly aware of the fragility of life, how immensely precious was each breath. We all mattered--even our small core fighting for justice despite all odds. And then the press conference was over. That day would become one of those memories that surfaced at major transitional points like giving birth and dying. I
would feel the sun on my shoulders, hear the scratch of the cheap sound system and feel emotional. I would recall a small Navajo girl in diapers learning how to walk, her arms outstretched to her father. I would remember picking up my son at the daycare across campus, his bright yellow lunchbox shaped like a school bus.
That night at the impromptu party after the strategy meeting I watched
from the doorway of the kitchen of Jolene’s cousin’s apartment as Larry
easily rolled a cigarette with his hands, then licked it. His hands were warm sienna and snapped with the energy of his quick mind, his ability to shape metal. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke in my direction with his perfect lips in my direction. The lazy lasso hung in the air between us. I passed him a beer as I was the end of a brigade passing out beer from the cooler in the kitchen.
"So who are you skinny girl?" I kept passing and throwing beer to the rest of the party as he talked, pretending to ignore him.
"You must be one of those Oklahoma Indians," he said. I had been warned that he was used to getting what he wanted when it came to women.
"Come on over here and sit next to me, next to an Indian who is still the real thing." I considered hitting him with a beer for that remark. These local Indians could be short-sighted in their world.
"Why would I want to? " I retorted. "Besides, you look Mexican to me." His
eyebrows flew up. His identity had never been challenged, especially by a
woman he was interested in.
"We’re full-bloods. We haven’t lost our ways."
"And what does that mean? That my people have?" I questioned. "Then why do you have a Spanish last name?" Of course I knew the history but he had pissed me off, still I couldn’t help but notice his long eyelashes that cast shadows on his cheeks. I caught the last beer and opened it, stood close enough for his smell to alert my heart.
"All tribes traveled, took captives and were taken captive." I emphasized
"captive" and leaned in to take a puff on the cigarette he offered me. Jolene waltzed over and grabbed my arm, dancing me to the living room in time
to the music in order to save me. I didn’t talk to him again until I headed out the door with my ride, two other first year students. We were buzzed on smoke and flying sweetly.
"Hey girl", he shouted from the corner as I reluctantly made my escape. "I’m going to get you yet."
It happened quickly. When I got home that night there was a message that my father had died. Joe Junior and I left for a week. When we returned Larry met us at the bus station with flowers and toys. He took us for breakfast at the Chuckwagon and then we went home together. It wasn’t long after my father’s death that I dreamed a daughter who wanted to be born. I had been painting all night when she appeared to me. She was a baby with fat cheeks and then she was a grown woman, with a presence as familiar as my father’s mother. She asked me to give birth to her. I was in the middle of finals and planning for a protest of the killing of Navajo street drunks by white high school students on weekends for fun. They had just been questioned and set free with no punishment.
"This is not a good time", I said. "And why come into this kind of world?" Funny, I don’t remember her answer but her intent was a fine unwavering line that connected my heart to hers.
I walk behind the motel to look for Larry. He isn’t anywhere but I find his shoes under a tree where he has taken them off. And ahead of them like two dark salamanders are his socks. A little farther beyond is his belt, and then a trail of pants, shirt and underwear until I am standing in the courtyard of the motel. My stomach turns and twists as I consider all the scenarios a naked and drunk Indian man might get into in a motel on the main street of the city.
I hear a splash in the pool. He’s a Pueblo; he can’t swim. I consider
leaving him there to his fate. It would be his own foolish fault, as well as
the fault of a society that builds its cities over our holy places. At this
moment his disappearance would be a sudden relief. Strange that it is now
that I first feel our daughter moving within me. She awakens me with a
flutter, a kick. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I never told Larry
about the night she showed up to announce her intention, or how I saw her
spirit when she was conceived wavering above us on a fine sheen of light.
Behind her my father was waving good-bye. The weave pulled tighter and
tighter, it opened and then he was gone.
c Joy Harjo 2001
*Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Monday, July 03, 2006
"From the Moon We All Look The Same"
It's late. Just after eleven p.m.. Drove through a hlll of ghosts over Likelike from Kaneohe. Some strange and tricky winds. And stranger yet,a white cat stops in our lane while coming up the hill. We have to come to a total stop and go around the white cat. The winds follow us up.
Tomorrow the McFarland Race at Waikiki. It's my favorite. And I'm slated to race in a mixed crew. We race out and race and surf back.
Last week finally saw Gore's Inconvenient Truth. It's an important treatise about global warming and how it relates to the various modes and forces of environmental destruction. The scientific research matches up exactly with native prophecies. Basically both say, if things don't change and we're still making mountains of diapers, styrofoam and pop cans, then: learn to swim or run.
(Indians are also an "inconvenient truth", especially in these hyper-politically correct times.)
What stays with me are the images of earth. The first, the classic "blue marble of Earth" image was released from NASA around the time my son was born, in late 1968. The environmental movement can be ilnked to the image surfacing in national and world consciousness.
We are definitely alive and there is no separation or apparent hierarchies. We are one. Or I. Or we. "From the moon we all look the same." (from my poem/song "Promise")
A later image is taken from the Odyssey, from far far out into space. It's the image of Earth from farthest away.
We are casting light. Even Earth is dreaming.
We have to help each other out in this mess. All of us.
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