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Words from a wisdom keeper

Words from a wisdom keeper

Joy Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She is “Native,” “Indigenous,” of the Muscogee/Creek (Mvskoke) “Native Nations” as she likes to identify herself. I have followed her and her work — as a poet in the literary tradition and warrior in the tribal, indigenous tradition — for a long time. Long enough to watch her grow from a budding young poet to the wisdom-keeper she has now become in her early seventies. 

Author of many books of poetry and memoirs, her latest, “Poet Warrior” (Norton, 2021), in many ways is a culmination of all of these and given to us as a gift of her arduous yet blessed life as an artist and storyteller who has, as Joseph Campbell says, “followed her bliss;” or in the words of the poet Robert Frost “taken the road less traveled.” And in Joy Harjo’s case this certainly has, as you will see, “made all the difference.” 

In “Poet Warrior,” Harjo is an open book and takes us behind the scenes in her life to show us the roots to her compassion (given the history of native peoples on this continent) and wisdom — beginning with infancy, through the hardship and pain, the joy and the love, that led her home to her cultural identity and her spiritual status amongst not only her own people but to women and to peoples all across the planet through her poems and her stature, now, as America’s premiere poet. 

Special books deserve special treatment. Being as this book is so unique in its vulnerability and its giving grace, I have decided that the only real way to share my impressions and the contents of this cultural classic with you is to let it speak for itself. This way, Joy Harjo’s humility and wisdom — her gift to us — will become evident and my job will have been better done with regard to and respect for this precious tome. 

So, here, from the book’s autobiographical notes and associative poems, are some of the starred passages I have marked as I was reading “Poet Warrior.” “Enjoy.”

“In indigenous territory/Silence is ancient wisdom/We learn from the elders/To listen more than to speak.”

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“Perception is always growing if you feed it, like a plant.”

“We are being brought to a place where we will once again remember how to speak with animals, plants, and life forms. We will once again know our humble place. Humans are not the only ones with a spirit, nor are we more important than everyone else. We are related to all life, all beings.”

“When I fail to trust what my deepest knowing tells me, then I suffer.”

“The Twenty-third Psalm is a poem from people who knew the earth. From people who, much like the Navajo, tend sheep and in doing so learn respect for the plants, animals, and elements with whom we live.”

“There is no one way to God, no one correct spiritual path, no one way to write poetry. There is no one roadway, no one-way Bering Strait, no one kind of flowering plant, no one kind of tiger, no one way to knowledge. Diversity characterizes this planet, this galaxy, this universe.”

“Cut the ties you have to failure and shame. I cut the cord [to the sexism and the violence] and now I am free.”

“In these times and until we understand and act as if we are the earth, then each of us will experience the pain of separation from sacred knowledge, from ourselves.”

“Community is those with whom you live, from home to school, to your tribal nation, city, or state. You must remember to place community interest and benefits ahead of individual and personal gain.”

“We need to keep up strong women’s councils to work in tandem with the men’s circles. We need both female and male to make balanced posts for the doorway of life.”

“Ritual is how we make a community, how we open the door for respect for the source of life. Ritual nourishes our young men and women with the resources they need to spiritual growth for development.”

“Those roles in society filled by women and mothers, positions like teachers and childcare workers, became the least respected and valued even though they are the most crucial.”

“I came to see that all is spiritual and either we move about respectfully within it, or we are lost.”

“Fiction writers interact with their characters. Poets ride time. Painters open perceptual doors with line or color. Musicians hear what can’t be heard.”

“[For healing] raise your vibration. Make it faster. We keep our vibration higher by prayer, by kindness, by taking care of what we are given to do, by cleaning ourselves of negative thoughts that originate within or come from others, by humility, by being in the real world, away from concrete and square buildings, by speaking only that which holds truth.”

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and author of  the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”) 

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