Joy Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States. She started this project before she took on the office. (She has since edited a second such anthology.) She was ably assisted by associate editors, contributing editors, and regional advisors. It is a huge undertaking, gathering together the work of 161 poets, representing 100 indigenous nations (out of 573 federally recognized tribal nations), containing more than more than 240 poems. But there is so much more—commentary about native culture and history; bios of the individual poets. It took me a long time (eight months) to read the 425 pages, and I fully intend to reread it several more times.
The book is full of pain, but also tradition, spirituality, beauty, wonder, diversity, respect for nature, and even some humor. I learned a lot. The book deserves pondering. North American indigenous peoples have a long literary history. “The earliest recorded written by a Native person was composed as an elegy by ‘Eleazar,’ a senior at Harvard College in 1678,” but there was a rich oral tradition before then.
I didn’t obtain permissions to reprint any of these poems, but I have located online some of the ones that moved me. I include these links and videos below so you can determine if you might want to read this book yourself.
Jim Northrup, “Shrinking Away”:
M. Scott Momady, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee”
Layli Long Soldier, “38”
Tanaya Winder, “The Milky Way Escapes My Mouth”
Dian Million, “The Housing Poem”
Joe Balaz, “Charlene”
Sherman Alexie, “The Summer of Black Widows”
Anita Endrezze, “The Wall”
Gladys Cardiff, “To Frighten a Storm”
Imaikalani Kalahele, “Make Rope”
Nora Marks Dauenhauer, “How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River,” introduced and read by Joy Harjo:
This book is an excellent resource for white people like me who want to explore the culture and history of the First Nations.