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Laureate at the Library: Talking Geopoetics with Joy Harjo in the Geography and Map Division Research Center

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The following guest post is by John Hesslercurator of the Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas in the Library’s Geography and Map Division. This is the second 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 Geography and Map Division. Future posts will explore her visits to the Library’s Manuscript DivisionPrints and Photographs Division, and American Folklife Center.

The 19th century linguist Daniel Brinton once wrote that “time is spent collecting remains in wood and stone, in pottery and tissue and bone, in laboriously collecting isolated words and in measuring ancient constructions […] but closer to the very self, to thought and being, are the connected expressions of people in their own tongues.” And so it was when the new Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, visited the Geography and Map Division a few weeks ago, in order to get a sense of how language and our collections of indigenous mapping connect cultures and people to place.

Joy and I began our tour by talking about the intersection of language and geography—and the fact that, as the curator of the Kislak Collection and a linguist, I had actually spent some time studying the Muskogean family of languages, her native tongue.

For linguists and for poets alike, language has a strong connection to place, and the indigenous maps found in the Geography and Map Division are complex visual reflections of this concept. The Division holds several extremely rare maps written in Nahuatl, a language from the Uto-Aztecan family which was spoken by the ancient Aztecs and currently by about one million people in Mexico and Central America.

Joy Harjo and curator John Hessler looking at the Nahua Mapa Quetzalecatzin, an indigenous map created in Mexico around 1590. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Photo by Shawn Miller.

We started our explorations by examining one of the world’s great masterpieces of indigenous cartography that has only recently been acquired by the Library of Congress, the Mapa Quetzalecatzin. The map was made by Aztec scribes in 1593, and is a rare survival of an early indigenous manuscript from the Americas. Written with Nahuatl hieroglyphs and logograms, it graphically tells the story of a noble family, starting in the 1400s and extending more than a century into the 1590s. With a striking palette of reds and bluish greens it relates the genealogy of a man named Lord-11 Quetzalecatzin, and connects his descendants to the lands on which they were born and had lived and farmed. The internal logic of the map shows a family’s history on one side, with their lands on the other, and reinforces visually that space and time are seen in Nahuatl thought as deeply united and a single concept. In maps like this a kind of geopoetics comes into being, as space and language evolve into philosophy and metaphysics.

Detail of Nahua Hieroglyphic Writing on the Mapa Quetzalecatzin. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Other examples of indigenous mapping shown during Joy’s visit included a very rare Comanche pictographic map drawn in 1787 to show the Battle of Sierra Blanca. The map, which was composed using pictographs, narrates a battle that took place between two Plains Indian tribes, the Comanche and the Apache. The pictographic form, while understandable to its indigenous authors, was later annotated with a key written in Spanish which narrated for a European audience the dynamics of the battle as if it were unfolding before them.

Comanche and Apache Battle Map from 1787 composed with pictographs. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

As our tour progressed and we looked at more modern materials showing tribal lands, Joy often reflected on her love for cartography and on the fact that she included a map in her last book. Joy has also found a place for maps in the language of her poetry—in, for example, her poem “A Map to the Next World.”

In the last line of that poem Joy writes, “You must make your own map,” and so the rest of her visit centered on her desire to actually make a map of the locations and the “places of emergence” of indigenous poets of the past and present. Once I heard this I could not help but introduce her to the Story Map Project, which started a few years ago at the Library. This project provides the software and a platform that allows curators, librarians and staff to make online interactive applications that highlight our collections using film, images, and sound recordings, all centered on a custom designed map.

Joy was excited by the prospect of creating one of these applications to help chronicle the languages and places inhabited by the indigenous poets of the Americas—and we too are excited about the possibilities of making “her map” a reality here at the Library of Congress.