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Poet Laureate Joy Harjo meets with Indigenous artists and activists on Long Island

Segundo Orellana
Joy Harjo with members of the Shinnecock Nation, 3-week-old Benjamin Robin Ballard and his parents, Tela Troge and Matt Ballard, during Harjo’s residency as part of Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja’s NEA Big Read Long Island program.

Muscogee poet Joy Harjo made one of her final appearances in her role as U.S. Poet Laureate on Long Island. Harjo spoke at Stony Brook University in Southampton earlier this month and met with Indigenous artists and activists.

Harjo is America’s first Indigenous Poet Laureate. She’s been a voice for Indigenous poets and artists during her time in the role — publishing collections like “Poet Warrior” and “American Sunrise” — and poems like “Remember,” which she read on PBS Kids.

Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you. Remember. Remember.
Joy Harjo

Harjo is a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, or Muscogee Creek Nation, in Oklahoma. They’re descendants of those who were forcibly removed from their land in the 1800s by the U.S. government in what’s known as the Trail of Tears. Harjo has also worked on a project to catalog and showcase Indigenous poets from around the United States. She said her heritage informs her work.

“I think what’s different for Native poets than other poets in this country is that we come into this knowing the value of the spoken word, the value of language,” Harjo said. “We’ve watched destruction being made — rivers dammed, communities flooded, all sorts of things — with words and with language.”

Harjo said she tries to take history into account when she writes.

“And the work of our poets and writers is to be creative forces, truth tellers in a sense. Whatever genre you work in. And my approach would probably be different if I weren’t Muscogee,” she said.

Harjo came to Long Island as part of a National Endowment for the Arts program hosted by Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, a theater in Bay Shore.

“Her work is based on social justice, from her own communities, and she’s opened the space for the communities that are outsiders for the main cultures, and that’s exactly what we do,” Margarita Espada, the theater director, said.

Espada — who’s Puerto Rican — said Harjo helped bring a wider discussion about Indigenous culture to Long Island, the home of the Shinnecock tribe.

“We have Indigenous identities and no one is talking about it. So I wanted to bring the conversation through her book about the history, also to honor Indigenous communities here on Long island,” she said.

Harjo gave the keynote at Bay Shore High School's Ethnic Pen Writers' Conference, a public reading at Stony Brook-Southampton, and met with Shinnecock and Montaukett cultural activists on Shinnecock territory in eastern Long Island.

Denise Silva-Dennis, a Shinnecock teacher, artist and activist who helped put together a welcome program for Harjo, said she organized a group to welcome the poet laureate when she arrived.

“It was very nice for her to be among eastern coast people, since her people were once on the east coast of the United States,” Silva-Dennis said. “On Shinnecock, we’re all cousins anyway, or related one way or the other. So I think that she was able to relax, and feel like, ‘Oh, I’m among my people.’ They feel like the same people that she is related to in her life, the Muscogee Creek.”

Silva-Dennis said the Shinnecock can identify with Muscogee Creek’s struggles.

“We were always in our ancestral land here on the Shinnecock nation, but we once had all of Shinnecock hills, all the way past Hampton Bay and Eastport, and then further out east to Easthampton was our traditional territory. We were kinda pushed down into Shinnecock Neck, which is still traditional territory, but it was our summer camp,” she said.

Silva-Dennis said Harjo’s poems — like ‘Bless This Land’ — can give Indigenous people hope when they’re fighting for sovereignty.

“Just to be thankful for what we have still managed to hold onto. Even if something terrible happens to it, even if there’s earthquakes, floods and fires, she writes, new life is gonna come out, it’s gonna sprout up,” Silva-Dennis said. “All those poems just give you such a sense of hope and resilience.”

In addition, Harjo said she has found a lot of common ground among Native Americans in her travels, meeting with tribes like the Shinnecocks.

“Certainly the Shinnecocks have a very different story than, say, the Muscogee Creek people. We still deal with a lot of similar issues that sometimes are the same like racism, culturalism, imperialism,” Harjo said. “We continually find ourselves in the courts defending our rights, our personhood. And they’re still working at trying to destroy that affirmation of our sovereignty.”

Harjo has served three years as U.S. Poet Laureate — tied for the longest tenure ever. She’s leaving the post at the end of the month. The Library of Congress will honor her with a closing ceremony in Washington, D.C. that includes poetry, music and a gathering of Indigenous poets.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.