This morning I’m in Anchorage, Alaska, and at 7:15AM it’s dark as night and will be until close to 9AM. I was invited up for the first Native Playwrights Festival at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The playwrights are from native villages around Alaska, and from here in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Some of us performed on Saturday, and the workweek began Saturday evening with meetings. We’ve been meeting every day from 8:30 to 5. Then we have work assignments at night. So I’m scrambling to get my column in (as usual!).
I first came up to Alaska in the early eighties to go to the jails and prisons and help prisoners with poetry. Rent-A-Wreck was the only car rental company that would rent without a credit card. And guess what kind of car they loaned me…a refurbished police car! It was just what I needed to drive up and gain confidence of the prisoners! I went to four different penal institutions in the Anchorage area, four, with a population half the size of Tulsa. One was a women’s prison. About ninety percent of the prisoners in the men’s units were native. Black men were next in population size, then the poor white guys who’d come up to work on the pipeline. Most were in primarily for being native, black and/or poor with no money for attorneys, and/or doing something stupid in the wrong place at the wrong time. I did not pick up malevolence, but neither was I placed in high security. I met the brother of a friend of mine, who is now a shaman. He’d been riding around with a party and got picked up. The women were mostly in for taking the rap for their boyfriends, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’ll never forget being led into a room of male prisoners by the jail keep at the Fourth Avenue jail, and hearing him say “I’ll be back in two hours” as he locked the door shut behind me. The prisoners were hungry to speak and sing. Most of them knew poems by heart. There were tears and laughter as they wrote and spoke. All of them responded to poetry because they needed a way to hear and speak their souls. They took to writing with a hungry fervor. I’m convinced that most waywardness is creativity turned backwards.
There's a young moose who has been roaming the grounds of the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Tourists who don't know moose think they're cute with the personality of deer. They are more dangerous than bears. Bears are predictable. Moose will charge, kick, and then dance on you, and not think about it. One woman's cousin just had her scalp pulled loose by a dancing moose. So we had to navigate the young one as we walked out to use the Inupiak village site for a classroom. (There are several kinds of traditional houses in the on-site village.)
My brother has been having a hard time getting his citizenship card. He used to have one. He was turned away because our father’s name had “Jr.” on one document, and not on the other. All the rest of us in the family have our cards. Even his son has his enrollment card. My brother needs the card for health care. He’s been having stroke tremors. But the receptionist kept telling me: “He’s not in our system.” We were here before there was a system. We have been Creek for thousands of years, before cards. I know my brother isn’t the only one who’s been having a problem. I'm afraid he might not live along to get his card.
And finally, don’t forget, be kind to all you meet along the way.
Posted by Joy Harjo at 5:27 PM
We are in times of strange weather and unpredictable earth events everywhere on beloved Earth. Because we are of the Earth’s body, we feel unsettled and strange. We are being challenged to grow our minds and spirits to encompass immense changes. We came here to gain understanding that will bring forth compassion. As human beings in a postcolonial world, we can no longer forget our part in the story.
Posted by Joy Harjo at 8:03 AM