Opening of the National Museum of the American Indian

The Opening of the National Museum of the American Indian

Events occur on many levels. I was present at one of the earliest planning sessions for the National Museum of the American Indian. Then, it was an idea, a series of ideas. That we were meeting together and breathing was a miracle itself in this land of genocidal intentions and means. We helped birth the vision, or was the vision there already to be fulfilled? I wonder how that works. Could be a little of both, that is, the yearning of a spirit to be born as an architectural being, and the need of peoples to have a place of representation on that terrible, sacred land called the Mall, the body of the Capitol Building.

Last Tuesday morning we were there to cap off that dream with acknowledgment, dancing, singing with hundreds of tribal groups and organizations. We’d been preparing for this. The Mvskoke contingent was made up of several groups, from the Principal Chief and other tribal officials, to the veterans, elderly, students in their crisp newly made outfits, many in wheelchairs, various societies including various members of my ceremonial grounds. There was a plan for a processional order, which appeared to be very loosely adhered to—I stayed with those associated with our ceremonial grounds, next to my cousin who is current head of the California Muscogee Creek Association.

It was a beautiful, blue-sky morning. Exhilarating to be altogether on those historical grounds, exhilarating to be alive in that particular moment together. For me to be there at that moment had everything to do with Monahwee surviving seven shot wounds at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend after near massacre by Andrew Jackson and his troops, by the efforts of his parents before him, his children, his wife and all who followed, and too, my mother’s Cherokee family who were forced to flee their homes for the west. There we were, shimmering with the gleam of blessings.

We all moved slowly in our groups up the Mall together. It was hot and often the procession stopped but the feeling didn’t stop. It grew. Each group sang or chanted. In the front of our group the Christians sang hymns in the Mvskoke language. In the back, we sang and danced the original Mvskoke songs. That’s how it is but it wasn’t always that way. For years since the Christians had pronounced us the children of devils our Mvskoke traditional ways were vilified, even by many of our own people who turned to the Bible ways. Some of that still goes on today by those who believe they are the official voice and way of the divine. Some were there, but many in that group had come to see that we have to embrace each other just as the Sun and Moon who were occupying the same equinox sky that day I will always remember the inspired singing and dancing as we moved together. I still see joy, and the color red (which is the color of renewed blood, of vitality). And I will always remember the conversations I shared with tribal members as we all met up and talked with new and old relatives. We laid aside any enmities for awhile, to walk together. And I finally got to meet Floy Pepper, Jim Pepper’s mother. She sure drives a mean wheelchair.

(The opening occurred on September 22nd, 2004 in Washington, D.C.


Here's the poem that was published in the Poetry Against the War anthology, in honor of the September 21st opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., and my performance on Thursday with DC Poets Against the War. Will check in along the way. Friday night about eleven. Still packing. It's raining in Honolulu. Sept 17, 2004


Yes that was me you saw shaking with bravery, with a government issued rifle on my back. I’m sorry I could not greet you as you deserved, my relative.

They were not my tears. I have a reservoir inside. They will be cried by my sons, my daughters if I can’t learn how to turn tears to stone.

Yes, that was me standing in the back door of the house in the alley, with fresh corn and bread for the neighbors.

I did not foresee the flood of blood. How they would forget our friendship, would return to kill me and the babies.

Yes, that was me whirling on the dance floor. We made such a racket with all that joy. I loved the whole world in that silly music.

I did not realize the terrible dance in the staccato of bullets.

Yes. I smelled the burning grease of corpses. And like a fool I expected our words might rise up and jam the artillery in the hands of dictators.

We had to keep going. We sang our grief to clean the air of turbulent spirits.

Yes, I did see the terrible black clouds as I cooked dinner. And the messages of the dying spelled there in the ashy sunset. Every one addressed: “mother”.

There was nothing about it in the news. Everything was the same. Unemployment was up. Another queen crowned with flowers. Then there were the sports scores.

Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine. Yet our children played in the path between our houses.

No. We had no quarrel with each other.

c Joy Harjo Honolulu, HI 2003



Tonight I'm struggling with the gulf between the literal and the metaphorical. No need to think there needs to be a bridge as ultimately they're really the same, depends on context and point of view. Reference poetry, music or any of the arts. No, that's not what the trouble is, I'm trying to figure how to make a ladder between lying and the truth. And maybe that's impossible because lies and truth though might both be made out of words, or thoughts or actions also exist on distant sides from each other. Let's just say I'm tired. From a few rough days, from a quick round trip of over 5,000 miles, from too many questions and not enough answers or clear paths to answers. Flying so far so fast is okay for the spirit, but the body lags behind, trying to catch up. The body is made for walking, running, and a little swim now and then. The spirit for flying.

September 16, 2004 Honolulu



Today is the official release date of NATIVE JOY FOR REAL! It is available on Amazon.com, CDBaby, iTunes, Napster, and we're working on other distribution. If you have any ideas for distribution, venues, radio stations please advise. It was through one of the readers of the blog that the performance in DC on 23rd of September is happening. So, thank you thank you, or in the Mvskoke language, mvto, mvto. Just tried to upload the beautiful poster image announcing the DC Poets Against the War event at the Provisions Library. It didn't work. Will try again. Thank you C.L. and Provisions Library and the CD Poets Against the War.

Started the morning in a hotel room in Marina del Rey, at 8AM LA time which is 5AM Honolulu time. I was still in a time zone fog and there was a fog still over the marina obscuring the sun. Got dressed to work out and drove over to Washington St. to the beach for tea, and a look at this side of the Pacific. Still grey out, no surfeit of surfers (I couldn't help that one!)--the wavelets rather tame but more than the last time I stood here on this beach looking out to the west. The first time I stood in this spot floated through and there I was again, in the early eighties, parked in Venice Beach for two weeks in a friend of a friend's apartment. It was the second stop on my month of driving around the country alone, though the first few weeks I had a companion, a poet who was recovering from a terrible breakup. She asked for a ride as far as the coast. Those weeks began every morning with breakfast at a little place on Venice Beach for a few bucks. Then writing for a few hours, then walking. It was the longest break I'd every had from my children. They were with their reluctant fathers for a short vacation. I felt selfish to have this luxurious time just for the writing life, but I soaked it up. Afternoons I'd read or walk, never went far. One night we drove downtown for a reading by Audre Lorde, then over to Silver Lake to a bar, dancing. I didn't want to stop. Then after two weeks drove on up the coast to San Francisco for a few days, let my friend out there and kept going, all the way to Seattle, then to Meridel LeSueur's in Minneapolis, then to New York City, down as far as Jacksonville, then the Creek Nation in Alabama, then over to my father's trailer in Oyster Creek, Texas then back up to New Mexico. And a million stories in between. And I was in there somewhere, burning with a need to know all of it. I didn't die, or maybe I died a thousand deaths between then and now where I try to eke out a note tonight after slogging through a script rewrite in a hotel room all day. Time is a wave, a series of waves. I can see it now.

September 15, 2004 Los Angeles



It's Saturday night in Honolulu. Could be any late summer Saturday night in Honolulu. It's not. It's the anniversary of September 11th and we're on the verge of a terrible national election. The outcome of this election will demonstrate how culpable voters are--and many people won't vote because it doesn't make sense to vote because it appears that votes don't count due to ballot box treachery or because there's a lack of relevant candidates. I've been following the presidential race like everyone else. Or actually, squinting my eyes, heart and soul because I just don't want to see it anymore. It's a technique I developed in childhood when my father would hit the low end after the high when partying with his buddies, when he'd strike out against the membrane of the world that hurt him and hurt those who loved him. I knew his pain, could see it flare around him, strike the aurora of sadness and blow. I'd pretend it wasn't happening, distance myself to some far planet or star until it broke and rippled into nothingness. And then it would be okay again. It's an old habit I've tried to break because what is is what is and you might as well keep absolutely focused so you don't miss anything at all. I'll never forget the scene in Sharon Doubiago's memoir of growing up in Southern California when a semi tractor trailer loses control and heads straight toward the car she's in. Everyone else screams and hides. She keeps her eyes wide open because she wants to see, to know this thing.

Tonight my friend and her 83-year-old mother are finishing our meal at Willow Restaurant. We're next to the water, under a coconut palm and several flowering trees. The mother is beset by ghosts of old friends and times she's had in that place. Everything's changed, but not really. Plumeria sweetness lifts and falls with light trades. We go back to the buffet line for more curry, coconut cake, and ice cream. She informs us she's voted. I don't say anything because I don't want to argue with her about politics. There can be no true communication here. She like many others are voting for an idea of a place they once knew, once dreamed about--many are intellectually developed people, yet they are going to vote for a man who confuses "feces" with "fetus", who's led us into the worst financial, educational, spiritual deficit in this country, who's made enemies of our world allies, and involved us in wars that will benefit his family and friends. And threatens us with more violence if we don't vote for them. They are running a campaign of fear. Reminds me of the time I was sitting in church as a child, realizing that I had never heard about the devil until I was in the so-called house of God, and the devil appeared in every other sentence. Fear tactics.

It really comes down to common sense. Common sense will tell you the truth. Is this someone you can trust? Who will take care of the people, be a steward of all our gifts? Have we forgotten the qualities of true leaders? I always think of Crazy Horse. He was humble. He didn't make false promises. He took care of his people and would look after their needs, take care of the elderly, the kids, make sure everyone had enough to eat, fought and played hard. He cultivated a far-seeing-ness by looking closely, a near-seeing-ness. He didn't talk much and when he did speak every word meant something. Sometimes I think of our spoken or written words like children. We give them breath as they leave us. They have a similar potential as children. Which reminds me, I keep thinking of the children's tale of "The Emperor Who Had No Clothes" and this leadership crisis we're in as a country seems like a clear case of some thieves trying to pull one over on the public. What happened to picking leaders based on leadership ability? Is that even possible in this system?

So tonight in a punch of panic it finally hit me, and I was overwhelmed by the immensity of the insanity at work here. A light rain feeds the flowers and trees as we walk to the car past a beautiful young man smoking a cigarette while he waits and I am smitten by grief. Then grief followed by anger. Maybe this is what my father went through, an Indian man in Oklahoma who'd lost a country to Andrew Jackson, and then the replacement country to oil and oil money people. What parallels. So what do I do now, now that I see it in all it's outrageous detail?

c Joy Harjo September 11-2004 Honolulu


Jim Pepper, and You Don't Know What Love Is

Okay, first the contest: The Creek/Caw jazz sax player was Jim Pepper. Look him up if you haven't. His music's hard to obtain but not impossible. Three sent in the correct answer. I choose the first to respond. Some of you are out there pretty late or very early in the morning. (Need to hear back from you with your address, S.C. so I can send you the CD.)

At the moment I feel like a DJ. I did just play a dinner hour jazz set here in my office/studio, because I didn't get to horn practice until late and the neighbors can hear everything. So I played heartbreak jazz over trax for their entertainment. Mostly they get scales in the middle of the afternoon. Ended it with "You Don't Know What Love Is". How many times has that phrase been shouted, in probably every language in the world? There's the tears, the slamming of the door: (car, house, heart) the running away. Then the return, or the grief and then memory. This is the starting point of probably 75% of the songs on the planet, by human, cricket or other creature or plant.

The morning before last I emerged from the dream world as if I had been gone a long time, for years. It was difficult to surface because a friend I hadn't seen since she was camping in the mountains above Santa Fe with her husband and small son appeared to me. They moved back east to her husband's reservation and later I heard she'd died tragically. The story goes she was found dead in a field or on the road after heading to the store with the collected change from a party to buy the next round. This was the first time I'd seen her since. As she drove up my logical self whispered, "but she's dead", but my spirit self brushed off the thought and greeted her. She was wearing beige slacks and a cream-colored blouse. She had shed the malnourished alcoholic skin I'd last seen her in. She shined. Next to her was the memory of the first husband who is still physically here. I was standing at the stage door, horn in hand, getting ready to go out and perform. She came to give me the go ahead, and to remind me not to turn back as she had, from her dream. She was a gifted actor and the denial of that dream had destroyed her.

I've pondered all this since that morning. I recalled her pain, her struggle, her lack of opportunity or ability to seize her dreams, and her friendship to a young, lost Indian student those many years ago. We get through this world with the help of many. We must thank them, give something back.

One way to honor is to continue humbly, with purpose in your path, bearing your gift like fire through the storms, despite setbacks and losses. Another is to help others realize their gifts.

I also realized that to let go what was given you to do results in hell. We grow heaven and hell in the same manner we grow trees, children or dreams. Each starts with one thought, one song, one word, one kindness or hurtful act. And continues the same way.

So, for you my friend, here's a dedication for the evening show tonight, one of my favorites by Mal Waldron, performed by John Coltrane, "Soul Eyes".

Good night.


The Small Voice and CONTEST

The resistance to writing blogs is this: I usually spend time writing and rewriting before letting anything out into the public. The blog is a journal and maybe journal is related to journey. And my journals are generally private events, places to work out ideas, dreams, stories, poems before they reach the first draft stage. They’re embryonic, even wild, unformed. Some can be caught, some not. So I fret over letting anything go in a blog.

Several themes intertwine this week, a week in which I’ve traveled to Kona on the Big Island for the Queen Lili'uokalani Canoe Race, then spent a few days after on the beach as I’ve tried to figure the next move in all this. The apparent themes are: death, political madness, lying and imperialistic actions done in the name of all of us—our children will pay for these evil stupidities--, and the internal human battles that we all deal with, which are immense in the flare, then appear even petty in the overview of hours and days. But the small is the large after all and it’s the small internal battles that are behind each world war—I grimace to think of the litter of recent failures, but after each battle I come to an understanding I haven’t had before---so maybe they aren’t failures because something’s been gained, something I can hear and speak or sing or play through my horn. And then someone else picks up on it and continues to create with it…

There is a wise one in all of us. The voice of that one is subtle, doesn’t yell or elbow or otherwise call attention to itself. It’s just there, like the knowing silence in those old Creek relatives who know that real power comes with humbleness. But there’s no mistake when I’ve heard that voice. One day the clatter of my mind was too much as my thoughts wheeled around and around about not having this or that, not being this or that, and off onto the track of judgment. You know what I mean. It’s so easy to stand there with your mental hands on your mental hips, smacking your lips with judgment over someone else’s weaknesses and poor choices in life. They’re so easy to see. Meanwhile, your weaknesses are dancing circles around you in cheap polyester, making a racket you can’t hear or see, unless you shut up for awhile. And everyone else might be pointing fingers and laughing up at the raucous pride, the need for attention, or whatever it might be. We often leap to our own uninformed conclusions, usually by leapfrogging over the wise self. And what invariably happens is that whenever I make those judgments or pronouncements I find myself on the other side of them almost immediately. And then I hear my words come back to me, sharply, painfully. Then I know I have gained knowledge.

It’s hot in this studio. It’s generally orderly: there’s musical instruments, stacks of paper, blankets hung on the wall, books, stacks of paper, my computer—tonight everything’s askew, like my mind. The couple across the way are fighting again. He howls. Her voice punches. Back and forth. Each is wrapped in private pain, but it’s a pain they share.

What is it within us that allows us to wake up from that terribly rutted hellish road?

Okay, so here it is, the contest. The first person to send the answer to nativejoy@earthlink.net will receive a free Native Joy CD. Name the Creek saxophone player who has influenced me. (First and last name.)

Also, looks like I’ll be doing a performance sponsored by the DC Poets Against the War organization in DC on September 23rd at the Provisions Library. More info will follow as soon as I have it. Will be performing some of the trax from the new album as long as there’s a good sound system.



I am in the middle of working on a short story “The Howling Contest” that takes place in a bar frequented by Indians, bikers and poets in Albuquerque in the early seventies. When you’re in a story, you’re in it, and all during the day it surfaces and will keep forming there at the edge of consciousness, or is it unconsciousness or super consciousness? It’s based partly on truth, partly fiction, partly myth. I am back at it this morning, though I have two hours to write, pack and get ready to fly to Kona to be part of the support for some friends’ 18-mile canoe race, and the Chinese attorney neighbor with the harsh voice is yelling at her teenage girls, though I don’t think she knows she’s yelling. She always sounds like she’s yelling. So that as I write part of me is answering: yes mom, okay mom, I will mom and then I’m ducking and getting out of the house as fast as I can to school. She’s also showering as she ushers them with her voice through the morning. The bathroom echo chamber amplifies the sound. You can hear everything up here anyway and that thought makes me cringe because if I can hear them, they can hear me, and that’s why I don’t practice music here past eight p.m.. A saxophone moan travels miles here, as does howling.

Today I had a major dent slammed into my self-confidence and did a little howling myself. Quiet kind. I do have pride. And this morning I go out with my shame-faced prayers for my feeling-sorry-for-myself lapse and am amazed again at the beauty of this time just before the sun comes up and everyone else is already out celebrating: the butler birds, doves, Brazilian cardinals, skinks, trees, opening flowers. There are just some things you can do nothing about, like the sun coming back and putting a shine on all of it. Yes, the disappointment is still there. And yes, I’ll still think about it now and then and it will be tender for awhile, but I will also let it go and focus on what I can do and what gifts I have here in my hands to return a thank you for all this. There’s just some things you can do nothing about except acknowledge the injustice and keep moving with grace towards making something of what you are given, like a story, a new song, a morning in which I have a home, am not dodging bombs or being dragged to my death by monsters. I read about it as I walk back up the stairs with the morning paper. I keep all that in mind, in heart. Ultimately, the only thing I have control over is my own dignity, no matter what happens. So, my wounded little dignity is taking a big breath, doing a stomp dance shuffle and will keep making music anyway.

c Joy Harjo September 3, 2004 Honolulu