An American Sunrise

By Joy Harjo
Published: 2019
An American Sunrise book cover


Writer, musician, and current Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. An American Sunrise—her eighth collection of poems—revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act. It is a “profound, brilliantly conceived song cycle, celebrating ancestors, present and future generations, historic endurance and fresh beginnings,” wrote critic Jane Ciabattari. “Rich and deeply engaging, An American Sunrise creates bridges of understanding while reminding readers to face and remember the past” (Washington Post). Harjo’s many awards include a 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; and two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships. “To read the poetry of Joy Harjo is to hear the voice of the earth, to see the landscape of time and timelessness, and, most important, to get a glimpse of people who struggle to understand, to know themselves, and to survive” (Poetry Foundation). “Joy Harjo is a giant-hearted, gorgeous, and glorious gift to the world," said author Pam Houston. "Her belief in art, in spirit, is so powerful, it can't help but spill over to us—lucky readers.”

“I returned to see what I would find, in these lands we were forced to leave behind.”

– Joy Harjo, "An American Sunrise"


"Don't worry about what a poem means. Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen." —Joy Harjo

To open Joy Harjo's An American Sunrise (W.W. Norton, 2019) is to be immersed in the power of nature, spirituality, memory, violence, and the splintered history of America's indigenous peoples. To read her poetry is to be drawn into the rhythms, sounds, and stories of Harjo's Creek heritage. In this collection, she returns to Okfuskee, near present-day Dadeville, Alabama, where her ancestors were forcibly removed by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. “It came directly out of standing and looking out into the woods of what had been our homelands in the Southeast before Andrew Jackson removed us to Indian Territory,” said Harjo in an interview with TIME. “I stood there and looked out, and I heard, ‘What did you learn here?’”

The collection is prefaced with a short prologue about her ancestors’ removal and a map of the Trail of Tears, the difficult series of trails over 1,000 miles long, taken by foot during their forced relocation. Several thousand indigenous people died as a result of this journey. According to its caption, the map depicts just one of many trails the Muscogee Creek Nation took to “Indian Territory”—now Oklahoma—“just as there were [many trails] for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and many other tribal nations.” “We were forced to leave behind houses, printing presses, stores, cattle, schools, pianos, ceremonial grounds, tribal towns, churches,” noted Harjo in the prefatory prose. “We witnessed immigrants… taking what had been ours, as we were surrounded by soldiers and driven away like livestock at gunpoint.”

In the beginning poems, Harjo “doesn’t just honor the people, creatures and landscapes that were lost,” wrote the Washington Post. “She embodies and embraces them.” “History will always find you, and wrap you / In its thousand arms,” says the first poem, “Break My Heart” (p. 3). “Exile of Memory”—a long poem broken into several short sections—is a meditation on historical trauma and weaves together memories of the past, present, and future. In the opening section, Harjo is warned not to return to her ancestral homeland: “You will only upset the dead” (p. 6). Other sections tell of the intergenerational trauma. “We are still in mourning” begins one section (p. 9). The children were “given prayers in a foreign language to recite / As they were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.” Other sections recount her experiences revisiting her ancestral homeland with her husband. “We could not see our ancestors as we climbed up / To the edge of destruction / But from the dark we felt their soft presences at the edge of our mind / And we heard their singing” (p. 16). In some sections, the speaker feels resolved in the natural beauty that still remains, in the trees and the “herd of colored horses breaking through time.” (p. 19). “The final verse is always the trees. / They will remain” (p. 14).

Woven throughout the collection are passages of prose written by Harjo, as well as excerpts, lyrics, and quotes from outside sources that help paint the complex backdrop to her poems and add a chorus of voices to the collection as a whole. “The Road to Disappearance” (p. 36) is an excerpt from an interview with Siah Hicks (Creek) on November 17, 1937, who recounted what the older generations said about leaving their land behind. “The Indian is now on the road to disappearance,” she recalled them saying. And “Mvskoke Mourning Song” (p. 51) is from an interview with Elsie Edwards on September 17, 1937, and tells the story of Sin-e-cha, who was aboard the steamboat Monmouth that carried Sin-e-cha and her tribal town during their removal, and which sank in the Mississippi River. Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” appears after a poem that is dedicated to her, and includes the short passage, “Emily Dickinson was six years old when Monahwee and his family began the emigration to the West” (p. 60).

Harjo’s grandfather from several generations back, Monahwee (also spelled Menawa) is a recurring figure in the prose passages and “My Great-Aunt Ella Monahwee Jacobs’s Testimony” (p. 63). According to these passages, Monahwee was second chief of the Creeks, one of the chiefs of the Red Sticks, a group that worked to preserve traditional indigenous culture. He fought Andrew Jackson’s forces in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, opposing American expansion; “had a reputation for valor and military skill;” and was also a “doctor of medicine” (p. 65). One passage reads, “It is said that Monahwee got his warrior name Hopothepoya (Crazy War Hunter) from stealing horses in Knoxville. Knoxville was in traditional Mvskoke territory, therefore, the horses were not technically stolen. They were liberated” (p. 67).

Many poems open a dialogue with Harjo’s ancestors and tribal history. “I grow tired of the heartache / Of every small and large war / Passed down from generation / To generation,” the speaker says in “The Fight” (p. 21). “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War” takes on the voice of ancestors and imagines them trying to write a poem while European immigrants “began building their houses all around us and demanding more. / … started teaching our children their god’s story, / A story in which we’d always be slaves” (p. 48). Searching for origins and understanding are at the heart of many of these poems. "I am driven to explore the depths of creation and the depths of meaning," said Harjo in an interview with Terrain. "Being native, female, a global citizen in these times is the root, even the palette.”

In other poems, Harjo’s personal life is at the forefront. In “Washing My Mother’s Body,” Harjo’s speaker imagines bathing her mother’s body one last time after her mother’s death, something she didn’t get a chance to do. “I return to take care of her in memory. / … As I wash my mother’s face, I tell her / how beautiful she is, how brave, how her beauty and bravery / live on in her grandchildren” (p. 30). “I am tender over that burn scar on her arm” she writes, “From when she cooked at the place with the cruel boss.” In this poem, “ritual becomes visionary as the mother’s body becomes a crossroads of tenderness, suffering, joy and oppression both intimate and public” (New York Times). “My Man’s Feet” is an ode to Harjo’s husband, “the sure steps of a father / … when he laughs he opens all the doors of our hearts” (p. 71). The poem “Directions to You” (p. 22) is addressed to Harjo’s daughter, Rainy Dawn Ortiz. “Rabbit Invents the Saxophone” (p. 75) is a creation story of the saxophone—an instrument played and beloved by Harjo and her grandmother.

Throughout the collection are poems that take on different forms. “Weapons,” (p. 27) is broken into sections by color: black, yellow, red, green, and blue. “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues” (p. 37) is a series of short songs based on several painting titles by indigenous artist T.C. Cannon. “For Those Who Would Govern” (p. 74) is a sequence of questions posed to anyone in a position to govern. “Advice for Countries, Advanced, Developing and Falling” (p. 79) is a call and response poem, where the speaker’s statements are followed by responses from an imagined audience. The title poem, “An American Sunrise,” (p. 105) is a golden shovel, a poetic form invented by the poet Terrance Hayes in which the last words of each line are words taken from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. The end words in “An American Sunrise” are taken from Brooks’ famous poem “We Real Cool.”

The poems in An American Sunrise are at once praise and song and facts plainly spoken, “from a deep and timeless source of compassion for all—but also from a very specific and justified well of anger” (NPR). They open many doors, into personal and historical heartache and survival, joy and tears, stolen land and the celebration of nature and loved ones. They offer a “stark reminder of what poetry is for and what it can do: how it can hold contradictory truths in mind, how it keeps the things we ought not to forget alive and present” (NPR).

Joy Harjo
Photo © Melissa Lukenbaugh

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, musician, and current Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo—her surname means “so brave you’re crazy”—was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Mvskoke (also spelled Muscogee) Creek Nation. One of her earliest memories is a sense of awakening when she first heard Miles Davis’ horn on the radio in her parents’ car. “That music opened an incredible door,” she told NPR. “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 said, 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” (NPR). 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; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation; a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship; and two National Endowment for the Arts 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 National Endowment for the Arts’s 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 2016, she joined 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.”

October 2019

  1. The preface to An American Sunrise describes the Indian Removal Act of 1830 from the perspective of indigenous peoples who were “rounded up with what [they] could carry,” and is accompanied by a map showing one trail the Muscogee Creek Nation took to “Indian Territory.”  Were you familiar with the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears before reading this collection? If so, did this account differ from or add to what you had previously heard? How so? If not, what surprised you most about this account?
  2. In “Exile of Memory” (p.6), the speaker is warned by “one who knows things” not to return to her ancestral homeland, and is asked if she knows “how to make a peaceful road / Through human memory.” Why do you think she chooses to return despite this warning? What do you think she means at the end of this poem when she says, “I will sing [my leaving song] until the day I die” (p. 19)?
  3. “Grief is killing us. Anger tormenting us. Sadness eating us with disease,” reads one section in “Exile of Memory” (p. 10). In what ways can trauma be passed down from generation to generation?
  4. “We are in time. / There is no time, in time. / We are in a traditional Mvskoke village, far back in time,” the speaker says in one section of “Exile of Memory” (p. 17).  Where else in the collection does Harjo challenge assumptions about time and/or blur past, present, and future? Have you ever been in a place where you felt the blurring of past, present, and future?
  5. The prose section on page 29 states that “Until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for Native citizens to practice [their] cultures. This included the making and sharing of songs and stories.” What are the roles songs and stories play in a culture? Are there songs, stories, poems, prose pieces, or other practices that are important in your culture? How would the future of your culture be impacted without them?
  6. In “Washing My Mother’s Body” (p. 30), the speaker imagines washing her mother’s body after her death. How does this poem relate to the larger act of historical returning that takes place in the collection? Can you think of times in your own life when you felt you needed to make peace with things “left undone”? If so, did reading this poem make you think about those experiences in a new way?
  7. Harjo brings up music and song throughout the collection, in “Mvskoke Mourning Song” (P. 51), “Singing Everything” (p. 53), and “Rabbit Invents the Saxophone” (p. 75). “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues” (p. 37), “Falling from the Night Sky” (p. 54), and “Welcoming Song” (p. 104) are labeled as songs. Were there other poems that seemed like they could be songs even if they weren’t labeled as such? If so, why? What qualities do you think music and poetry share? Are there things music can do that a poem cannot, and vice versa?  
  8. Many of Harjo's poems are about the relationship between humans and nature. In “Honoring,” for instance, Harjo asks the reader, “Who sings to the plants / That are grown for our plates” (p. 68)? What might Harjo be asking us to realize or remember about the natural world?
  9. One way to talk about a poem is to describe its form. An American Sunrise includes poems in a range of forms, distinguished by elements such as line length (short lines, long lines, prose), line breaks (where a line starts and ends), stanza shape, capitalization, and punctuation, to name just a few. Are there places where one or more of these choices affected how you read a particular poem?
  10. Throughout the collection are interview excerpts, songs, quotes, and poems from outside sources. How did their presence enhance (or detract from) your engagement with the collection? If they enhanced your engagement, which of them most resonated with you? Why?
  11. In “Tobacco Origin Story” (p. 81), Harjo recounts a tale of how the tobacco plant came to the Muscogee Creek People. In what ways is this origin story connected to—and disconnected from—the present day that the speaker describes? Are there particular stories that have been passed down in your own cultural heritage that you find relevant to your life today?
  12.  “Becoming Seventy” (p. 87) is an exploration of memories ranging from the birth of a daughter to the “Star Wars phenomenon,” presented in lines that get longer as the poem progresses. If you were to write a meditation on memory, what would it look like and what would you choose to include? What do you think the speaker means when she says that “All memory bends to fit" (p. 94)?
  13. “Beyond” (p. 95) is the only poem in the collection that is offered both in English and in translation (“Ren-Toh-Pvrv,” p. 96). Why do you think Harjo might have wanted to offer this particular poem in both languages? How is language tied to cultural identity, and how can it be a tool for oppression or survival? What did you notice about the ways Harjo approaches both the colonial legacy of the English language and the original language of her ancestors in the collection?
  14. Untitled prose passages written by Harjo appear throughout the collection, many of which involve Harjo’s grandfather from several generations back, Menahwee. What impact did reading these plainly spoken passages have for you? Did you learn anything you didn’t know from these passages? Did they build on your reading of any of the poems? Which ones and how so?
  15. The book’s title poem, “An American Sunrise,” appears on page 105. What are some of the different meanings or connotations you can think of for this phrase, here and elsewhere in the book? Why do you think Harjo chose this title for her collection?
  16. The last poem in the collection, “Bless this Land” (p. 106) harkens back to the song “This Land is Your Land,” a famous American folk song by Woody Guthrie, written after the song “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. How does this poem build on or challenge those songs? How does Harjo emphasize the history of native peoples and the land in this and other poems? Has reading An American Sunrise affected your understanding of American history?