Editor’s Note: Nick Martin is a member of the Sappony Tribe and a staff writer for Splinter, where he covers Indian Country. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.”
These words, from the poem “Grace,” rattle in my brain from time to time. They offer comfort in some moments, and inspiration in others. On Tuesday, when Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced that Joy Harjo, the writer behind these emotions, will succeed Tracy K. Smith to become the 23rd Poet Laureate, the words rang out again; this time, they took the form of hope.
When she assumes the position in the fall, Harjo, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, will become the first Native American in United States history to claim the prestigious title. The honor was not entirely a surprise; if anything, it was the most logical step for Harjo to take in her career, given that the list of awards bestowed upon her over the last 40 years would trail on for the remainder of this column if I listed them out.
For those coming to her work just now, start with her 2004 collection, “How We Became Human,” which provides a sampling of her work from the preceding three decades – though I’d encourage those with the time and access to dive further back into her bibliography, hopefully opening with my longtime favorite, “I Give You Back.” (You can read it here or watch her perform the hell out of it on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” here.)
But for those of us who have long known Ms. Harjo’s work, who have clung to it and repeated the above “fear” poem to ourselves in the dark of night, there exists something else in the announcement, present but unwritten, that cautiously bubbles in our hearts every time a Native artist grasps the nation by its eyes or ears.
Hope is a crucial theme found in Ms. Harjo’s work, whether it comes in the form that stubbornly pervades “Eagle,” or the kind that makes a late appearance in “Running.” (I urge you to read them.) But for the Native people of this land, hope has been, and continues to be, a fleeting sensation.
Because we are regularly relegated to the shadows and edges of modern society’s psyche – save for the scattered moments we cannot be ignored – the hope we cling to does not typically root itself in a desire for admiration by the colonizer society that surrounds us. To wait on the various American literary communities to decide to promote and highlight authentic voices of Indigenous people, whose ancestors its government displaced and segregated not so long ago, is to wait for the sun to rise in the west.
Instead, Harjo, and the Native women that have followed behind her, paved paths that did not exist before they arrived. They eschewed the norms set by the industry gatekeepers that would have them produce more commercially appealing (read: American sympathetic) works. The ones who we revere do not simply succeed, but capture a tribe-specific authenticity that seems to bleed through their pens.
When asked by NPR how she considers her Creek culture and identity when she works, Harjo succinctly responded that, “it doesn’t necessarily become a self-conscious thing – it’s just there.”
As Julian Brave Noisecat wrote for the Paris Review last June, Harjo was a member of the initial Native Renaissance, which spanned from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is because of Harjo and her fellow artists that readers with no tribal connection are now willing to listen to the burgeoning second wave of the Renaissance.
After all, it was a year ago this month that Tommy Orange’s “There, There” – a searing, insightful, and inspiring collection of a dozen urban Native narratives weaved together so skillfully that the final section demands both reading and re-reading in a single sitting – exploded onto shelves and into the awards scene.
But what does the financial and critical success of our writers mean if our people still remain unseen? Is attaining a level of reverence and fame once reserved for those that sought to “Kill the Indian; save the man” enough for Native artists? Should they not turn the spotlight they’ve drawn through their gifts and labors back onto their people to illuminate the issues they face?
Maybe that isn’t the right question – to place the responsibility on the few Natives capable of demanding a nationwide audience is obviously incorrect. But that there is a desire to do so at all hints toward a larger, systemic issue of Native erasure that, to this day, awaits an adequate governmental response.
Such redress can be glimpsed in the official apology that California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, offered to the Native people of the state in the form of an executive order on Tuesday. But the federal government has yet to issue such an apology. Newsom’s order noted the “violence, exploitation, dispossession and the attempted destruction of tribal communities.”
That begins to help.
And now Joy Harjo will be Poet Laureate.
A lyric from “Halluci Nation,” a song by A Tribe Called Red, appeared in front of my eyes the moment I read the news this morning:
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“We are the human beings
The callers of names cannot see us but we can see them”
They will read our works, they will use our lands, and they will even celebrate those of us whose talent demands nothing less. But will they listen to us after the final period of the poem arrives? In Ms. Harjo’s ascension, and the ascension of those that fill the literary community still today, I find hope that they will. And for now, that will have to do.