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Promoting the Poet Laureate on Billboards

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The following is a guest post by Ivy Vainio, Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe Direct Descendant and cultural arts coordinator for the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, Minnesota.

Billboard design for Joy Harjo, currently on display along the I-35N freeway coming into Duluth, Minnesota.

“Remember you are all people and all people / are you.”
—from “Remember” by Joy Harjo, circa 1983 from She Had Some Horses

Early in 2019, the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) received news that we would be co-hosting the first American Indian United States Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, for an in-person event in Duluth, Minnesota, in April 2020. This event was sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Minnesota Center for the Book. Locally a community planning team was convened, facilitated by Oldenberg Arts and Cultural Community. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic our dream of bringing Joy to Duluth and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (FDLTCC) was derailed.

In 2021, the community committee reconvened with new excitement and energy, planning to bring Joy on October 18, 2021. Our plan was that Joy would meet with students before her campus presentation at FDLTCC during the afternoon, and then we would host a community presentation and music performance in the evening at AICHO—Duluth’s urban American Indian Center.

About two months before our in-person celebration was to happen, COVID-19 cases once again started to rise, and it was determined that October would see one of the highest transmission rates of the virus in Minnesota. The committee finally decided to turn our in-person events into free, online webinar events.

To encourage engagement with Harjo’s work, FDLTCC also put a call out to the campus and community for poetry and artwork submissions that reflected or were inspired by Joy Harjo’s poetry for an e-book anthology entitled “Bringing Joy: A Local Literary Welcome.” Over 80 submissions from people of all ages and diverse backgrounds came in, and the anthology was created and released prior to Joy’s visit.

Our virtual community event, “Bringing Joy—Minanaawigwendamowin Biijigaadeg,” was beautiful, inspiring, and thought-provoking, and filled everyone with Indigenous brilliance and resilience. Over 400 people were re/connected to Joy Harjo, her powerful words, music, and her lived experience. One of FDLTCC’s American Indian students stated this: “Joy inspires me to find my spirit within and share what is on my heart. My favorite part of the experience was when Joy began by reading the poem, ‘Calling the Spirit Back,’ that inspired the poem I wrote [for the Bringing Joy anthology]. It was an affirmation that I was in line with exactly where I should be at this moment. Joy inspires me to take more time writing and finding my creative side.”

Public Messaging ALWAYS Works in our Favor

It was important to us during the event planning process to market and promote widely. AICHO has been anchored in promoting local Indigenous artists, entrepreneurs, and health messaging during the pandemic, and we’ve been promoting our cultural events on billboards in Duluth since 2018. Large-scale messaging like billboards and murals bring Indigenous representation, issues, and awareness to the forefront 24/7.

In connection with Joy’s performance, AICHO decided to launch a billboard campaign. First we created a digital billboard promoting Joy’s community evening event. This billboard was up for four weeks in Duluth and came down the day after the October 18 events.

Digital billboard design promoting Joy Harjo’s Oct. 18 event.

Afterwards, AICHO supported an Indigenous awareness campaign with billboards of local American Indian artists and authors. Our first billboard featured Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe tribal member and artist Wendy Savage, then we showcased Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe tribal member and author Thomas Peacock. The campaign concluded with a billboard featuring Joy Harjo along the I-35N freeway coming into Duluth. This billboard is up now and will be on display for a total of four weeks.

Photo of billboard celebrating Thomas D. Peacock.

The community response to both of Joy’s billboards has been tremendous, especially the latter one on the freeway. We received comments such as “I drive by this billboard every morning, and it is so uplifting,” and “I love her (Joy). I had a class in Native American Literature in the ’90s at UW-River Falls and we read her poems.” An Ojibwe mother who drives her daughter to the Ojibwe Immersion School in Duluth stated, “(Seeing this) made us smile!” Another community member stated, “I was so thrilled to see this!”

The billboards have had a strong and positive impact on our BIPOC community, especially our youth. It shows all of us that we can one day become a U.S. Poet Laureate or a nationally-known artist who people literally look up to. We can be proud to be Indigenous on this Native land in Onigamiinsing (Duluth). We are still here. The billboard reminds us that we are connected through place, time (past, present and future), land and each other.