Thursday, June 20, 2019

Poetry Friday -- An Opportunity to Learn

Photo credit: Karen Kuehn

Hooray for our new Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, a registered member of the Mvskoke Creek Nation! She is our first Native American Poet Laureate, and now non-Native U.S. citizens have an excellent opportunity for learning.

At this past weekend's Building Cultural Competency symposium at the Highlights Foundation (my brief post about that here), one of the speakers we were most excited to hear was Dr. Debbie Reese, a registered member of the Nambe Pueblo Nation. And, no surprise, she's also very excited that we have a Mvskoke Poet Laureate!

Here's one of my big take-aways from Debbie's talk -- what we casually call "tribes" are actually Sovereign Native Nations, and we should name the nation to which a Native person belongs, rather than generically say Native American. There were thousands of these nations, each distinct in language, location, religion, story, systems of writing, and governance. (Note to self, when I am teaching my fifth graders about forms of government, I need to move beyond Democracy, Monarchy and Dictatorship and include Native governance.) Understanding that Native people belong to sovereign nations is important because the treaties of the past were made between heads of state. (Some references Debbie suggest we explore are Nation to Nation at the Smithsonian, the National Congress of American Indians, and the young people's version of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, which Debbie revised from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's adult version, along with Jean Mendoza, and which is set for publication at the end of July.)

One of my favorite poems by Harjo (so far...I'm just digging in...) is For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet. It begins

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle
of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth 
gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.

If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and 

Acknowledge this earth who has cared for you since you were a 
dream planting itself precisely within your parents’ desire.

Here's some bonus music that celebrates Native culture and language. The first is an adaptation of the Beetles' "Blackbird" sung in Mi'kmaq, an Algonquian language spoken by the Mi'kmaq, the indigenous people of Nova Scotia. This was produced for the 2019 United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages. Here's a CBC post about this production, and a WBUR radio spot featuring Emma Stevens.

"My Unama'ki," sung by the same 17 year-old high school student who sang the above version of "Blackbird," is a love song for the island of Cape Breton written by students and staff at Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni, Cape Breton (Unama'ki), Nova Scotia, Canada.

Why stop there? Here are 11 Pop Songs in Indigenous Languages You Need to Listen To, mostly from Latin America, but also Australia and New Zealand. And here's a Peruvian teenager who is trying to save the Quechua language through music. Okay. Enough with the rabbit holes.

I'm sure (I HOPE) there will be lots of posts about our new Poet Laureate in the Poetry Friday roundup this week. I look forward to learning from and with you! Linda has this week's roundup at A Word Edgewise.


  1. What a beautiful poem. I too am delighted with Ms. Harjo's appointment and look forward to getting to know her work more. Thank you for such a great kick-start for us. This phrase from 'Calling the Spirit Back..." is, "the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time,"
    Oh, I want to go there.

  2. That poem is lovely.
    I'm a fan of Debbie Reese's work and would have loved to have heard her talk. I recently finished reading Buffy St Marie's biography and went on to read Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. It's a harsh and depressing history.

  3. Wow, you really ventured into a lot of interesting places with this post! When I was in Guatemala, a long time ago, I tried to learn a little Quiché. One of my favorite poems by Joy Harjo is "Perhaps the World Ends Here."

  4. Mary Lee, thank you for giving me this opportunity to learn... I am off to revise my post to include the the name of the Nation to which Joy Harjo belongs... THANK YOU... xo

  5. I am so grateful for your attendance at the Highlights Foundation workshop, for your post here today (& yesterday) for all these links, which I expect to return to. I know & value the tireless educational work that Dr. Reese does with such integrity. Among many other corrections in our educations, It is crucial to honor that -
    They Were Here First.
    The First Peoples/Early Peoples were Governments, Families, Artists, Educators, Singers, Creative Minds.

    Appreciations for all this potent sharing dear MaryLee.

  6. Mary Lee, I stand here at the door of learning as I read your post with wonder. I am so in awe of Joy Harjo's poetry. I look forward to exposing teachers and children to her work. As an aside, when in Tuscon for the NCFL Conference, I met Larry Redhouse who led "resort guests in a morning ritual, explaining the basics of Native American spirituality, the concept of Mitakuye Oyasin the inter-relatedness of all, greeting the new day, making a prayer tie and smudging with white sage as a cleansing and blessing." I was hoping he would send me a poem for one of my galleries as he said he would. The experience at the morning ceremonies out in the open was unlike any other I have been to.

  7. Just becoming acquainted with Joy Harjo's work. So far, I love every poem I've read, including this one. And I'm looking forward to checking out some of your links from yesterday.

  8. Anonymous6:42 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing this news, poem, and music with us.

  9. Thank you for the introduction to Joy Harjo. I'm looking forward to learning more about and from her. The poem of hers you shared is gorgeous and full of wisdom. That last line gets me.

  10. After a long and stressful day today, "a breath offered by friendly winds" is exactly what I needed. Thanks for sharing, Mary Lee.

  11. Lost my comment, but I appreciate the learning you shared with us from your symposium and the Joy Harjo poem too (it's new to me).

  12. Thank you for sharing so much about your time at Highlights. How lucky you were to hear Dr. Debbie Reese speak! The poem you've shared is stunning. I can't decide which line I love best, but you can be sure that soon I'll "Open the door, then close it behind you.
    Take a breath offered by friendly winds."
    This line, too, is one I need to keep close. " the next person find their way through the dark."

  13. All very exciting! I have so much to learn about our new PL and your post was informative in so many ways. Thank you, Mary Lee! -- Christie @

  14. Thanks for this powerful post Mary Lee, there's too much of Joy Harjo's poem that I like to pick out just one line. I think I'd like to learn it and carry it around inside of me… The music here hits that special sweet spot also.
    And I really like the Peruvian singer Renata Flores Rivera and her take on "The Way You Make Me Feel! Thanks also for sharing all the links from your Highlights weekend review, I'll be stopping by them as I can.

  15. Thanks for the introduction to this poet I knew in name only, and for visibilizing some ideas and cultures that have been carelessly or systematically hidden. Huzzah for one Academy that uses its influence to uncover the whole rainbow!

  16. Such a gorgeous and wise poem. Thank you for sharing it along with wisdom garnered at the Highlights Foundation and all of these other wonderful resources. This is a treasure-filled post, Mary Lee.

  17. We have much to learn about the native people and having Joy as a PL is a great way to begin. Thanks for the rabbit hole.

  18. What a great, informative post! It's good to have some places to start in learning about our new Poet Laureate and all the other topics you introduced.


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