Mvskoke Nation News Column from Harjo for June 2007

It’s dusk of yet another day. It wasn’t an easy day, yet it was a blessed day. There were mangos from the mango tree, the sun came out to visit and give life, and the earth once again supported us and gave us beauty and a place to live. I did not have to leave my refuge here on the side of the Ko’olau’s overlooking Honolulu. No flight to catch, no insecure security, no possible TB carrying passengers coughing in my direction. And this house was surrounded by singers: all kinds of birds, clouds, plants and insects, each with their songs (most of them love songs, just like humans), and they overruled the neighbor’s noise. Her hearing is bad so she pumps up her music and television, which is everything from popular Hawaiian hits to Japanese pop to Korean soap opera. She often plays the same song over and over and over. We can hear everything up here on this slope. I’ve heard fights and breakups, love trysts (cats seem to be getting the most action in the neighborhood), family celebrations, and once a mother tending a sick child who coughed through the night.

It’s all here, and in a sense everywhere is here. We’re in the same story wherever we are, though the details might be different. I’ve even heard my children cry from heartbreak, though I have been a thousand miles away in physical distance, even as I have felt their joys. I’m convinced that the birth cord transcends time and distance, and that women are anchors and bearers of knowledge in a profound way, a way that scientists have not gotten around to study because most of their knowledge is pertinent only to the male body, and their knowledge is rooted in three-dimensional linear thinking. Most medical research is based on the male physiology. Most knee implants, for instance, are designed and manufactured for the male body, not the female.

I also think about how most of what we read or hear is through a European-male voice or point of view. Even when we go back and look over what we know to be Mvskoke history and story, as it appears in books or other accounts, nearly everything is filtered through this voice and point of view, and those who have been educated have learned to see through that lens. The first visitors skewed our story, or should I say, skewered? Our particular native female and male experience has no place here.

Years ago when I was in my fervent twenties I stood with Leslie Silko, the Laguna Pueblo novelist, outside her Tucson home while she tenderly watered a garden she had fortressed against predators. That morning I asked her why her protagonists, or main characters were mostly male. Tayo in her novel Ceremony was male, as were many of the characters in her short stories. Leslie responded thoughtfully. She has never been one short on words, yet her response stays with me all of these is years: “because males are more vulnerable”.

That our men are more vulnerable made sense to me, especially our native men. It’s difficult enough to be human, and hard being Indian within a world in which you are viewed either as history, entertainment, or victims. Our males are as sensitive as the women, and carry gifts forward that have difficulty finding a place in a world that does not honor them. It’s not an impossible test, but it wears away at the spirit. “Our men” is often a major topic of discussion among women. We must bear up with them, support them, and stand firm when they fail and want to take us down with them, yet continue to help raise them up. Without our brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers we are people without a rudder. Men are under immense pressure in this system to disrespect their mothers, sisters, aunts, and to disregard the gifts of women and female power. We need both male and female power to create anything in this realm. We need both the Sun and the Moon. We are earth and water, just as we are fire and breath. We are each evidence of male and female power, all the way back to the very beginning. I remember when growing up in Oklahoma that the worst thing one boy could call another was a “girl” or a “woman”. And why is that? To disrespect women you disrespect your mother, your own source of life.

I was told a story by a friend who was at a gathering at a Maori marai, which is a community/spiritual house, sort of like the ceremonial grounds square and the mound complex combined. A young Maori man had gone out into the world, graduated from the university, had a high-paying job and a new car. He came back home full of ideas and ripe with his own sense of power and prestige. (They aren’t always the same thing.). During a discussion an older woman stood up to speak. He admonished her and told her women were not allowed to speak. They had no power in this place. She rose up anyway, and lifted up her skirt. “Have you forgotten where you came from?” she demanded. She spoke. When she spoke, she addressed him as son.

We continue to be imagined by those who know nothing about us, or imagine us as quintessential Plains warriors in the Wild West shows. And worse yet, we start believing that’s who we are, that tradition means wearing and becoming these constructed images.

I didn’t watch Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on HBO last week. I knew I would be disappointed, even angry. Hollywood can’t seem to get past the Calvary rushing in to kill everybody. Hanay Geigomah did watch the show and though he has been part of Hollywood productions for years has realized the brutality of Hollywood. In a response he says: “A feature article on the making of Bury My Heart titled ‘The Last Stand’ in the May 27 Los Angeles Times gives a brief, perplexing account of how Hollywood came to the view that American Indians can now be justly and fairly seen as co-agents of their own destruction. As a two-hour condensation of the book, "The film didn't have time to dwell on the spiritual, Earth-friendly image of Native Americans," says the article's author, Graham Fuller. "Nor does it offer a politically correct perspective," he adds. The Sioux, we're told, were "as rapacious as their white conquerers."

This view is scaldingly laid out with the portrayal of Sitting Bull as a baby killer, as a coward who hid in his tipi at the height of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and as a greedy buffoon who lusts for the white man's money and approval.

The scriptwriter, Daniel Giat, confidently tells The Times, "My primary objective was to fully dimensionalize these people. Sitting Bull was vain. He was desperate to hold onto the esteem of his people and win the esteem of the whites. But I think in depicting his desperation and the measures he took in acting on it, it makes it all the more sad and tragic, and I think we identify with him all the more for it."

To complete this grim, determined view, the film presents every Indian cliche imaginable in graphic, full-bodied images without context or explanation: brutal scalpings; stoic, saddened faces of Indian elders; sick, dying babies; herds of wild horses surging across open prairies; vast armies of Indian warriors mounted along high vistas; war ponies being ceremonially painted; desperate ghost dancers, and heartless Indian agents and schoolteachers. We've seen them all far too many times.”

Hanay goes on urge us to get out of Hollywood and get back home and work from our own communities. Hollywood will never get the story right.

This means we are going to have to get our own story right, and take charge of the direction in which we are headed. What kind of story are we making? Is it one in which the junk food corporations win and we all die of diabetes and other “food”-related illnesses? Is it one of name-calling and pulling each other down? Or is it a story of facing the challenges together, each of us? Are we telling the story in our own voices?

A cascade of military transport planes heads over my house on the way to kill in Iraq. In the predominant story coming from the country’s leadership, “we” are killing for peace, for democracy. It doesn’t work that way, for words without roots in honesty and respect can and will do things recklessly. Iraq is the new Indian country. The corporations want oil. Sound familiar?

Maybe if we take care of our own story of our people, and make a story of justice, honesty, with a vision of caring for all within the tribe, we might inspire the same in others. If I remember the story correctly, we had no need for jails, for institutions, for military transport jets. We had everything we needed. We took care of each other.

What a story.

Joy Harjo May 31, 2007 Honolulu


Another Voice on the Matter

"At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. "
- Lao Tzu

Over Tucson, Over, Under and Through all of Us

Leaving Tucson June 2007 c Joy Harjo

Who are we really?

I keep thinking of the story of a California attorney family's daughter in the 30’s who at four switched from a quiet, studious child to an active tomboy. Every four years the personality would switch. Each was distinct in style and manner. When the switch occurred clothes, habits, everything would change. The parents preferred the first daughter and were baffled by the transformation. They sought help from hypnotherapists who tried to merge the two personalities. It was not possible. They were distinct, two very different manifestations. Then they asked the second one to leave. They gave suggestion after suggestion until both personalities appeared to leave and the body lay quiet as a corpse. Then, after a time, a wise and all-knowing male voice spoke. This voice had the perspective of the galaxy and answered all questions posed logically and compassionately. In the end he refused to allow the assumption of the body by one personality. He was the higher self and he had the last call. He told them that either both personalities were allowed to switch or he would leave the body permanently as a corpse. It was his experiment, his prerogative. So they backed off, and the girl continued to switch personalities every four years through adulthood.

I believe most of us are fields of meaning, of combinations of time and space. Some are more complex and paradoxical than others. The conscious mind makes a coherence and focus into an earthly now. And if we widen the vision, we might see a family as one person (now that's frightening!!), or a culture as one person, or even an entity called Earth as one person. Or each person as a whole earth.

So, futile the efforts of those who would force us into one religion, one culture, one language, one customer. Or who prize the studious, quiet girl over those of us who were/are tomboys.

Compassion is what allows coherence of all.



As I'm packing (it doesn't appear to get any easier) I keep thinking about an account I just read late last night of a woman whose sister returned to her after her death. She told her sister: "Although you think of us over here as ghosts, to us it is the other way around. We look upon you as spooks and shadowy beings..." p.199

Another woman, Sherrana P. appeared to her husband Ronald and said" "Darling, if you can grasp the concept that thoughts are things, you'll be in a marvelous position to understand many of the essential mysteries of the universe..." p.199

And finally, or not so finally, a Tiffany told her husband Norman that the "...principal difference between life on Earth and the other side is the fact that we living humans exist in a material world wherein everything is governed by physical laws...

And primarily, she said:"...over there, love is the principal energy that controls every thought, every deed, every vibration."

Something to think about...I've often heard rejoicing on the other side when someone passes out of this world.
And I'm beginning to think that in the beginning of our teachings here, we understood that love was the principal energy. That thought characterizes what I know of indigenous thought, Mvskoke philosophy....

All quoted spirits from: Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits and Haunted Places, Brad Steiger, Visible Ink Press Detroit 2003


This Unknowing

c Joy Harjo and the blue flower in front of the NM place

Last night when I looked at you, as I have millions upon millions of stares and glances I did not know you. How foolish, I thought, that I should think I know everything about you. My mystery comprehended your mystery. It is unending, this unknowing.


Sunday Race at Kailua

c Joy Harjo 2007


Duck Poem Without Words

Last night before sundown, as I drive into the shopping center, three mallard ducks sitting on the clipped cushion of grass in front of McDonald's, watching the human show.


June Rainbow

c Joy Harjo 2007

Do we see straight or round?

Delete and FYI

The spirit of my voice, of my poetry has boundaries and rules. (This is the voice of poetry, lyrics, singing, saxophone-ing.) This voice sets me free yet freedom has strictures. It demands care and honor, even as it takes care. I am warned when I cross over and offend the gift. Yesterday when the barbs of the edge cut into my back, I had to stop and pay attention. A detractor has been attacking me in the comments section of my blog. I have control, can either post or delete the comments. Twice he’s written and each time my li’li’i (small, in Hawaiian) self has responded. Then I delete his nasty note and my response. I delete because I have been using words: the breath behind them, the spirit, in a wasteful manner. My breath, which carries life, essentially, is then being given over to someone who wants to only to hurt me. (And his breath is being given over to something that will conversely hurt him.) Yes, it’s important to speak up for oneself, for justice. The feminist edict of the seventies from Audre Lorde remains planted in my gut: “Your silence will not protect you.” No, it will not. Yet there’s more to this: you must use your words wisely, as a warrior, so they contain power. I wasn’t using my words wisely here, my spirit warned me. I was giving over my power to someone who has made a choice to harass. So I used the delete button, on the screen and within.

FYI I have published all comments except for those containing personal information, and have deleted three. The deleted comments were derogatory.


Muscogee Nation News Column for May 2007

This last month has truly been a time of coming and going. I traveled across the Atlantic to Stuttgart, Germany for the Indianer Inuit: Das Nordamerika Filmfestival. The film festival featured videos and movies from all over Indian country, from full-length feature to short documentaries. Tantoo Cardinal a well-known actress from Canada appeared in several of the films. She was at the festival to introduce one of her films, Unnatural and Accidental, based on a true story of a series of deaths of Indian women on Vancouver’s east side in the 1980’s due to alcohol poisoning. The deaths weren’t taken seriously because the women lived on skid row, until a common acquaintance was found. He had killed them by pouring alcohol down their throats. The images still disturb me. Did the retelling of the story bring about a healing? Can testimony bring peace? Or did it unnecessarily recreate the destruction?
Years ago I was hired by the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona to write a one-hour drama that would incorporate the healing story of the Gaan, the mountain spirit dancers. I was taken in and told the story and the meaning of the story. There are as many versions as storytellers, though the core elements are the same. I witnessed a beautiful ceremony in which the Gaan appeared from the mountains and danced. In the screenplay the protagonist (lead character) was a teenage Apache boy at Indian school in Phoenix. He got caught up in a gang, began drinking, and started getting into trouble. The family brought him home. A ceremony was done for him. He literally and metaphorically became a part of the story; as he healed he became the boy who was the central character in the traditional story. And as in the traditional story, the Gaan appeared to teach the people in a time when they had forgotten their origins, a time when strange crimes were being committed, a time of unusual weather and natural disasters, when the people had forgotten to take care of each other.
(These times sound awfully familiar, don’t they?)
Each draft of the screenplay went to the tribal cultural board. One of the older women objected to a scene that depicted drinking and fighting. The images were disturbing, and thus the images had power to cause disturbance to the viewer. This was not something we need to see, she said. We need positive images for our people. The next meeting she had changed her mind. Her granddaughter read the script and convinced her that the drinking and fighting scene provided an important part of the story, though it was difficult to watch. The scene might help others in trouble see themselves, could act as a warning, and present the challenge faced by the young man. We included a scaled back version of the scene in the final screenplay. (I hear the video is still very popular there, and is copied and passed around the community.)
Since then I have carefully considered the power of images and how they affect us. I used to be a huge fan of all the various CSI and Law and Order shows. The stories are dramatic, well written and each hinges around the solving of a crime. I began to notice that in almost all in the shows the crimes were perpetrated against beautiful young women and children. And the crimes became more and more heinous and creative as the season went on, (just as the crimes we see and hear reported in the newspaper, television, and the Internet these days). The brutal images were haunting and were beginning to instill a fear, a distrust of life in me. I checked every corner and closet in my house before sleeping. I worried about the safety of my family. When I stopped for sleep, those terrible images would play about my mind. I quit watching.
Ratings go up commensurate with sensationalistic images, which usually involve fast sex, violence and drugs. And with ratings come sponsors who will pay more for their commercials, advertisements for food that isn’t really food, for more goofy or violent TV shows, happy drugs, or a myriad of clothes, cars and gadgets that we don’t really need. And we get hooked, because nothing is required from us but our complacent, exhausted minds, which are complacent and exhausted because we’re eating the food that isn’t really food, watching stupid shows, taking all those happy drugs, and working eight or more hours a day to buy all those things dancing across the television screen. This, I guess, is what they always meant by civilization, or progress.
Still I am opposed to censorship. If you don’t like these images, or the turn the story is taking, then turn off the television, make your own stories (even for television!), pull out your paints, your poems, get to work on those ribbon dresses you promised two years ago for your nieces, cook your own dinner and take some to your neighbor. Start visiting each other again. And take the kids with you. You’d be surprised at the gifts we are carrying in this nation. Share them.
Images of Indians, most of them not created by us, have defined us in the world. Germany has a great fascination with Indians. To understand this obsession you have to know about Karl May, a German writer who at the turn of the last century wrote a series of extremely popular Wild West stories inspired by the a stilted, stereotypical novel The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Winnetou, whose adventures are captured in the stories, makes his appearance in the first chapter with these words: “His bronze-coloured face bore the imprint of special nobility.” May vividly imagined fantasy Indians and the Wild West. He never met a real Indian. I guess everyone wanted and still wants that “imprint of special nobility”. Now there are over 200 Indian clubs in Germany. In these clubs people make authentic costumes, take on Indian names, dress up, dance and live as Indians for the weekend.
Once during a visit to Griefswald, a city on the North Sea, near Poland, I was taken to an “Indian Museum”. The first floor was framed images from magazines and books. The second floor was displays of exquisite, perfect Plains Indian beadwork made by Germans. This is why a real native man who looks Plains Indian, has long hair, wears lots of leather with fringes, a few feathers, and can pose stoic, can make a living being Indian in Germany, by making appearances and sharing “culture”. Run that by the next high school career day in Okmulgee. We do need ambassadors who can show that real Indians are all kinds of Indians: long, short, funny, sad, male, female, child, old man, skinny, fat, human being….some of us dress up for powwow, some of us dress down for life.
After the last film the organizers, who were some of the most thoughtful and organized organizers I’ve met on my travels, closed with a ceremony of thank you’s and acknowledgements. At the end, an elderly German gentleman who many of us had noticed on the front row of all the screenings jumped up and enthusiastically asked: “What about a thank-you for the audience”? We all smiled and clapped. Later over dinner I heard his story. The old man came to all the Indianer film festivals because when he was in the war, a Lakota man, who was part of the U.S. forces, captured him. That Lakota man took really looked after him and he was convinced that’s why he was still alive. He carried around an image of an Indian as a kind soldier.
It’s the small kindnesses that will be remembered.

Respectfully submitted, JH May 2, 2007



We have bigger houses but smaller families:
More conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees, but less sense;
More knowledge, but less judgement;
More experts, but more problems;
More medicines, but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
But have trouble crossing the street
To meet the new neighbor.
We build more computers
To hold more information,
To produce more copies than ever.
But have less communication.
We have become long on quantity,
But short on quality
These are times of fast foods,
But slow digestion;
Tall men, but short character;
Steep profits, but shallow relationships.
It is a time when there is much in the window
But nothing in the room.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

(Thanks to the poet Pam Uschuk for this post.)