Crazy Brave

American Indian poet Joy Harjo didn’t realize that her visit to Israel last week would be politicized.

Joy Harjo 370 (photo credit: Karen Kuehn)
Joy Harjo 370
(photo credit: Karen Kuehn)
Joy Harjo was on her way to Israel from Glenpool, Oklahoma, last week, having been invited by professors at Tel Aviv University to perform and do a reading for students. The feminist American Indian poet, writer and musician accepted the invitation, unaware of the firestorm that awaited her.
“This public thing is excruciating,” she says, in an interview last week with The Jerusalem Post in her Tel Aviv hotel room.
Upon landing in Houston, en route to Tel Aviv, Harjo, who is half Cherokee and half Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the author of seven works of poetry, checked her e-mail. She had received messages from fellow Native scholars, artists and activists, all begging her not to go to Israel and imploring her to sign her name to the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, pledging not to set foot in the country as it de facto meant she supported the government’s policies regarding the Palestinians.
“If you go, you’re supporting the subjugation of Palestinian people,” they told her, she recalls. “I was getting hate mail immediately,” also via social media. Most puzzling, she says, was why these calls only came once she had left the country – her schedule having been booked and public knowledge for some time.
Harjo, who first visited Israel 20 years ago and has traveled here several other times for poetry festivals, says she never heard of the BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions), having been out of the academic world since the 1990s – when she taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona – and having been engrossed in writing her memoir, Crazy Brave, published in July, and other projects like starting an arts council for the Muscogee tribe, and a new album “somewhere between blues, jazz and native music.”
“Bottom line, I have to follow what my soul says, or my spirit,” she explains, in her clear, soothing voice. “And my spirit said that poetry and the arts should be without borders, should be without political borders.”
The 61-year-old grandmother of seven wears relaxed jeans, sneakers and a button-down white top, as her long black hair loosely falls to her shoulders. She has several intricate, black tattoos on her hands and arms, which she says resemble her tribe’s traditional tattoos. Her poetry focuses on the natural world of the American Southwest, her native ancestry, survival and the limitations of language as a form of expression. She has received many awards and fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been called a leading figure in the Native American Renaissance, a literary movement of native voices which began in the late 1960s.
She might be crazy brave, but talking about getting bullied by colleagues brings her to tears.
“I respect and even love many of the people who had signed on to the boycott... it was not an easy decision to make, because I am not in agreement with the politics of division. I don’t agree to forced encampments for Palestinians, for checkpoints. I think that’s inhumane. I’ve seen it in my own country,” she says.
“[But] to have my decision to come here and perform be turned into a statement that therefore I came to perform, therefore I hate Palestinians is unconscionable and at the same time so many people that I care about have turned my appearance here to be something unconscionable.”
Robert Warrior, director of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, told Palestinian news site The Electronic Intifada that he regretted not reaching out to Harjo sooner, as it may have changed her mind.
“Joy is a valued friend and colleague, but I disagree with her decision to go to Tel Aviv to perform,” he said. Native Hawaiian activist J. Kehaukani Kauanui, a member of the advisory board of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, also sent her a personal message regarding the visit. A petition on gathered some 2,000 signatures calling on her to cancel.
She sees similarities between the Palestinian story and her own people’s story, including some settlers’ belief that God gave them this land, that it is their right to live there, and the native people are primitive and don’t know how to use it.
“The language of conquest is very similar,” she says.
The use of gun power, she says, also resembles the American story.
“You have guns at your face. What use are words? What do you say? You’re a people and you’re faced with guns or have guns at your back while the people are walking you out of your lands, which is what happened to my people, to my particular tribe.”
But Harjo, who doesn’t like to be backed into a corner, kept her obligation to Tel Aviv, and requested to add in the last couple days of her trip a visit with Palestinian students and artists living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“I don’t believe in the political hard-lining [of] the arts. It goes against the nature of art for me,” she says. “I don’t want to be legislated. I don’t want that voice [the spirit of poetry and music] to be legislated by either side. I don’t think that’s in the spirit of the arts at all or cultures or of ideas.”
Harjo, who has signed on to teach at the University of Illinois in the spring semester, does not at all regret her performance, where she says she interacted with a religiously and culturally diverse crowd and with professors who also care about human rights. She read poetry and a section from her memoir, and played the saxophone and native flute. The Oklahoma-native also sings and plays in a jazz/blues/native band called Arrow Dynamics.
Her former band, Poetic Justice, broke up in 1998 when she moved to Hawaii for 11 years.
At one point, practically debilitated by stage fright, Harjo says the saxophone helped her get over it.
“When you play a sax, that saxophone is irreverent, it’s noisy, it’s a trickster... you cannot hide the saxophone in your hands, so it’s a good teacher.”
Though a woman devoted to the written word, she admits that music “goes into places that words cannot reach. Words can echo and kind of get into those places.”
She recalls a student whom she had met in Beersheba on a previous trip, who approached her at the reading in Tel Aviv with two of her books in hand. “She said my words had always stayed with her.”
She has received e-mails from Arab and Jewish students alike telling her about the profound influence her writing has had on them.
“I felt a connection with the audience. It was important to come here.”
Harjo breathes a sigh of relief when the conversation shifts to Crazy Brave, which chronicles her childhood and teen years until the point when she began writing poetry in college, after switching her major from pre-med/dance at the University of New Mexico.
Growing up in an artistic home with three siblings, Harjo names her mother and Aunts Naomi and Lois as strong influences on her as an artist and proud native woman.
“My mother wrote lyrics and sang but was overtaken by life with four children and worked,” she says. Aunt Naomi Harjo, she says, played saxophone in Indian territory before it became the state of Oklahoma. “I always say, put that in your book of images of native woman.” Then, laughing, she adds, “There’s really no book, there’s usually just one or two images.”
After being accepted into the Institute of American Indian Arts high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she performed professionally in an all-native native drama and dance troupe. But after giving birth to her daughter at 17 (she had her son five years later), Harjo worked odd jobs until starting college, and later attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she received her MFA.
“It took me 14 years to write Crazy Brave because I kept changing the form and I also kept running away from the story,” she says. “I said I don’t really want to write about myself. But it’s about writing about memory.”
It’s part chronological, and also thematic, with stories sprinkled throughout. Harjo agrees with one reviewer who said it is like being with her in her mind.
Eventually, when her editor called the book in, she says she just gave up and started writing whatever came. “I’m gonna write what needs to be written,” she says.
Through the process, she has learned, “that what you fear has just as much magnetic pull as what you love.” The reflective writing was painful and difficult at times, but also taught her about forgiveness and looking at herself without judgment.
“If you embrace the story without judgment... it’s easier to move what you don’t need anymore out because holding it with judgment, the pieces they stay stuck there.”
Harjo is also working on a show commissioned by the public theater in New York to reinstate indigenous people to the story of the origins of blues and jazz. After Israel, she’s heading to New Orleans for research, which will also help inform the album she’s working on.
“There are so many incredible stories that need to be told,” she says. “That should be the focus; on people’s stories rather than trying to silence anyone.”