The following guest post is by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture, and the Arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This is the third in a series of five posts documenting Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s summertime meetings with librarians and curators across the Library of Congress. The meetings grew out of Harjo’s interest in learning more about the Library’s services and collections, especially Library materials pertaining to Native peoples and cultures. This post highlights Harjo’s visit to the Library’s Manuscript Division. Future posts will explore her visits to the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division and American Folklife Center.
In the opening to her memoir Crazy Brave (the title of which is a play on the name Harjo, or warrior, and a double entendre about being bold and being Indian), Poet Laureate Joy Harjo describes first hearing the sound of a jazz trumpet as a child in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the radio of her father’s black Cadillac on a hot southern afternoon. Her Oklahoma youth, friends, and family are all creative source-springs for Joy, as is the Mvskoke (Muscogee) Creek Nation in which she is enrolled. The paths of her ancestors reach outward and deep into the Native American history of the Southeast, of Alabama and Florida.
Joy Harjo arrived in the Manuscript Division carrying with her a continuum of places, relatives, activists, literary inspirations, musicians, and tellers of stories she has loved. During her time with the collections, she encountered word-magic and art and evidence of lives that came before, all offering her different points of connection.
Joy was accompanied on her trip to the Manuscript Division by her husband, Owen. We began by walking behind the scenes to see Walt Whitman’s walking stick. The cane—a gift to Whitman from his friend, the naturalist and poet John Burroughs—is a piece of twisted maple through which living sap once ran. Burroughs dubbed it “A Calamus,” after the Calamus cluster of poems in Leaves of Grass, and the plant that grows up strong in marshes. It is a symbol of the love between men that permeates all of Whitman’s poetry, as well as the connection of the poet with Nature. We had looked earlier at Whitman’s draft for his poem “Osceola,” which is a tribute to the death scene of a warrior-hero, the Creek leader of Seminole resistance in the Second Seminole War and an ancestor of Joy’s.
We looked next at a large Winter Count that originates from Battiste Good (Brown Hat) and his son, High Hawk, of the Brulé Sioux of South Dakota. Painted in 1907, its series of evocative pictographs guide story-telling elders as they recount age-old oral tradition. The story is based on eye-witness, borne through time to new generations through re-telling. (“You savored each story they told you,” Joy writes in her poem “What Music,” “and remembered / the way the stars entered your blood / at birth.”). The Winter Count harkens back to the introduction of the horse, to buffalo hunts, storms, and epidemics, to Christian priests and pastors in black coats (“We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their / long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen” Joy writes in her poem “When the World As We Knew It Ended.” “We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed / the babies. We saw it, / through the branches of the knowledgeable tree. . .”).
Then we moved on to other kinds of pictures, stories, and poems. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is heralded for her formative role as an early Native American poet who wrote in a syncretic bi-cultural and bi-lingual form. Her drafts of poetry in English and Ojibwe—and the legends, Chippewa tales, and vocabularies she collected—are documented in the division’s Henry Rowe Schoolcraft Papers.
Nearby on other archival shelves, the Passamaquoddy fieldwork notebooks of Native American folklorist and politician Lewis Mitchell are preserved in the Pennell-Whistler Papers.
The Civil Rights advocate and novelist Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, was born, like Joy, in Oklahoma. We looked at a draft of the “Hickman Arrives in Oklahoma” episode from Ellison’s unfinished second novel in the Ralph Ellison Papers (Ellison’s drafts have been edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley and published as Three Days Before the Shooting). We also enjoyed a folder of accolades and Oklahoma state arts-festival invitations Ellison received for his support of the humanities.
In the U.S. Works Progress Administration Records for the Federal Writers Program, State Guide Series, for Oklahoma, Joy and Owen looked at an essay about Indian archaeology and ancient Indian mounds. We talked about Owen’s interest in the traditional ceremonial uses of tobacco. We also read silently a poem written by a mutual friend, Michael Harper, poet laureate of Rhode Island, who blended jazz and history into his poetry (Dear John, Dear Coltrane). Harper, who passed in 2016, left behind a very personal typed poem, which resides in the records of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center archived in the Manuscript Division.
Our gaze then turned to art. We looked through a folder of children’s art drawn at the Fort Spokane Indian School in Miles, Washington, saved within the sculptor Solon Borglum’s papers. There are horses running into sunsets, horses pulling ploughs, and horses that are companions in adventure. “We aren’t a Plains horse culture,“ Joy writes in her collection of poems, She Had Some Horses, “though we came to know horses.” She is seven generations removed from Monahwee, who could speak with horses, and she says her cousin, a barrel-racer, had affinity with horses that was like kin. (“Horses wheel / toward the morning star. Memory was always more than paper and / cannot be broken by violent history or stolen by thieves of childhood” writes Joy in her poem “The Myth of Blackbirds”).
Art, drawing, and painting open spiritual doors to poetry-writing, to activism, and other self-expression that sustains culture. The Vincent Price Papers contain evidence about many Indian artists whose works were exhibited in association with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the Interior Department in the 1960s. There are also materials about creative arts awards to young poets and writers of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico—Joy’s alma mater. The Indian arts and Indian rights movements flourished hand-in-hand.
New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson’s papers document the local debates that raged over the creation of the IAIA in the early 1960s. Arts promotion—despite the earning potential of commercial art and the cultural heritage preservation goals that could be realized through the transfer of skills in weaving, pottery, sculpture, basket making, dance, theater, creative writing, music, and painting—seemed to many Indian leaders to be secondary to basic education and employment needs. Not everyone could be a famous Native American ballet dancer, argued one Pueblo Indian leader opposed to transitions at the school. Not everyone, we can now say—regarding Joy Harjo, IAIA graduate—can be the first Native American poet laureate of the United States.