Poetry is a literary tradition with a long history spanning ancient and even prehistoric times. As did languages and cultures, distinctive forms of poetry developed and evolved around the world, influenced by traditions, histories, cultures, and outside forces.
For Indigenous nations in North America, poetic traditions share common themes but still maintain their unique styles. Existing long before European influences, Native poetry tells each nation’s stories, such as those traditions and histories that shaped them, as well as their mythology and spiritual beliefs. As the twenty-third U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Joy Harjo wrote, “The literature of the aboriginal people of North America defines America.”
Harjo, who recently began her third term in the role, has learned from and built upon the poetry and storytelling traditions of Indigenous nations. She is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and the author of nine books of poetry. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge, and wisdom,’” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, “and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making.”
As the Library’s first Native American poet laureate, Harjo launched her signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” in November 2020. The project highlights and maps the work of contemporary Native poets across the country. She’s also the editor of a companion anthology, Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry, published in collaboration with the Library of Congress. The “representative offering,” Harjo said, showcases “poetry [that] emerges from the soul of a community, the heart and lands of the people.”
In addition to writing poetry, Harjo has engaged her creativity and shared her culture through books, plays, and music. She is also an accomplished singer and musician, playing saxophone and flutes, with the Arrow Dynamics Band and, previously, Poetic Justice. A look into the Copyright Office’s records shows a variety of registrations dating back to 1976, when Harjo registered her first volume of poetry, The Last Song. Since then, more than a dozen copyright records list Harjo as the copyright claimant.
Among these creative works are two children’s books: The Good Luck Cat, a story of a Native girl and her lucky cat, with illustrations by Paul Lee, and For a Girl Becoming, with illustrations by Mercedes McDonald. In the latter, Harjo explores the journey of a Native girl from birth to adulthood. She later explored her own journey to finding her voice in her first memoir, Crazy Brave, which she registered with the Office in 2012.
Harjo is also the claimant on copyright records for many of her songs and sound recordings, including Native Joy for Real, She Had Some Horses, Witchi Tai To, Winding through the Milky Way, and Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears. Harjo’s music, often a blend of blues, jazz, and rock, derives in many ways from traditional Muscogee music and showcases her poetic talents.
You can also find Joy Harjo’s poetry in the new Copyright Office exhibit, Find Yourself in Copyright, which features her 2017 book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. The poems in this collection illustrate many poetic forms—including lyric, freeform, and prose—and explore the struggles of the Indigenous people and the hope that endures for all. She writes:
We will all make it through,
despite politics and wars, despite failures
and misunderstandings. There is only love.
Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. Once the Library of Congress’s Madison Building fully opens to the public, you can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor. In the meantime, you can explore the exhibit’s companion website.