Introduction to "When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry"



This Introduction by Joy Harjo was reprinted from When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Copyright (c) 2020 by Joy Harjo. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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We begin with the land. We emerge from the earth of our mother, and our bodies will be returned to earth. We are the land. We cannot own it, no matter any proclamation by paper state. We are literally the land, a planet. Our spirits inhabit this place. We are not the only ones. We are creators of this place with each other. We mark our existence with our creations. It is poetry that holds the songs of becoming, of change, of dreaming, and it is poetry we turn to when we travel those places of transformation, like birth, coming of age, marriage, accomplishments, and death. We sing our children, grandchildren, great-​grandchildren: our human experience in time, into and through existence.

The anthology then is a way to pass on the poetry that has emerged from rich traditions of the very diverse cultures of indigenous peoples from these indigenous lands, to share it. Most readers will have no idea that there is or was a single Native poet, let alone the number included in this anthology. Our existence as sentient human beings in the establishment of this country was denied. Our presence is still an afterthought, and fraught with tension, because our continued presence means that the mythic storyline of the founding of this country is inaccurate. The United States is a very young country and has been in existence for only a few hundred years. Indigenous peoples have been here for thousands upon thousands of years and we are still here.

When the first colonizers from the European continent stepped into our tribal territories, we were assumed illiterate because we did not communicate primarily with written languages, nor did we store our memory in books and on papers. The equating of written languages to literacy came with an oppositional world view, a belief set in place as a tool for genocide. Yet our indigenous nations prized and continue to value the word. The ability to speak in metaphor, to bring people together, to set them free in imagination, to train and to teach, was and is considered valuable, more useful than gold, oil, or anything else the newcomers craved. Many of our known texts, though preserved in orality, stand next to the top world literary texts, oral or ­written. The Diné Blessingway Chant, or Hózhóóní, is a poetic song text that is remembered word for word and is central to a ceremony for setting a community in the direction of beauty, or healing. The Pele and Hi‘iaka saga of two sisters is an epic poem that carries profound cultural significance to this day in the practice and fresh creation of  ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. Like the Mahabharata of the Hindu religion or the Iliad of ancient Greece, every culture, every tradition has its literature that guides and defines it—​and the cultures indigenous to North America are no different.

What then distinguishes indigenous poetry from other world poetry traditions? Much depends on indigenous language constructs, which find their way into poems written in other languages, as in English here. My own poem “She Had Some Horses” would not have been written without stomp dance, or without my having heard Navajo horse songs. So many poetry techniques are available, whether it’s utilizing metaphor, syntactic patterning, or some other application of poetic tools; and those of us who read and listen to poetry want our ears and perception “bent” for unique insight and want to see how the impossible becomes momentarily possible in the arrangement of language and meaning. This is true of poetry in all languages. Each tribal entity and language group is different. English then has become a very useful trade language. We use it to speak across tribal nations, to people all over the world. Many of the poets here find a way to carry out established tribal form and content in English. Consider Louis Little Coon Oliver’s “The Sharp-​Breasted Snake” poem and its movement on the page. Some of the poets don’t want that at all, and instead they create and work within generational urban cultural aesthetics. What is shared with all tribal nations in North America is the knowledge that the earth is a living being, and a belief in the power of language to create, to transform, and to establish change. Words are living beings. Poetry in all its forms, including songs, oratory, and ceremony, both secular and sacred, is a useful tool for the community. Though it is performative there is no separation of audience and performer.

Even as we continue to create and perform our traditional forms of poetry, we have lost many of these canonical oral texts due to destruction throughout the Western Hemisphere of the indigenous literary field by the loss of our indigenous languages. We were forced to forsake our languages for English in the civilizing genocidal process. We are aware of the irony, for many of us, of our writing in English. But we also believe English can be another avenue through which to create poetry, and poetry in English and other languages can live alongside texts created and performed within our respective indigenous languages. It is the nature of the divided world in which we live.

Many who open the doors of this text arrive here with only stereotypes of indigenous peoples that keep indigenous peoples bound to a story in which none of us ever made it out alive. In that story we cannot be erudite poets, scholars, and innovative creative artists. It is the intent of the editors to challenge this: for you to open the door to each poem and hear a unique human voice speaking to you beyond, within, and alongside time. This collection represents the many voices of our peoples, voices that range through time, across many lands and waters. May all readers of this anthology bear a new respect for the unique contributions of these poets of our indigenous nations.

We are more than 573 federally recognized indigenous tribal nations in the mainland United States; 231 are located in Alaska alone. That number doesn’t include the indigenous peoples of Hawai‘i, the Kanaka Maoli, whose nation numbers over 500,000, and the indigenous peoples of Guåhan and Amerika Sāmoa. We speak more than 150 indigenous languages. At contact with European invaders we were estimated at over 112 million. By 1650 we were fewer than six million. Today we are one-​half of one percent of the total population of the United States. Imagine the African continent with one-​half of one percent of indigenous Africans and you might understand the immensity of the American holocaust.

There is no such thing as a Native American. Nor is there a Native American language. We call ourselves Mvskoke, Diné, or any of the other names of our tribal nations. In many cases these names often translate as “the people.” Within our communities we know each other as Bird, Wind, or Panther, or by other nomenclature determined by the particular tribal band, ceremonial ground, or family. Some of us grew up with the term American Indian, which came into use after the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed into the region that came to be called the West Indies on his heavily financed trip to discover a shorter route for trade to India. America is a derivative of the name of the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. He proved that the West Indies and Brazil were not India but what became known as the New World. Native American became ubiquitous in the 1990s, employed by academics to replace American Indian. Only the youngest generations of Natives have begun to use that term. None of the original treaties signed with the federal government use the term Native American. Native, or Indigenous, or Native Nations are where we have settled in the editing of this ­collection. Many tribal nations have reclaimed or are reclaiming their original names. One of the first was the Papago, who now use their original name Tohano O’odham. Many tribes’ names mean “enemy” in the language of their enemy. For example, Sioux is a French name adopted by the English that was derived from an Ojibwe name that meant “little snakes.”

Because we respect indigenous nations’ right to determine who is a tribal member, we have included only indigenous-​nations voices that are enrolled tribal members or are known and work directly within their respective communities. We understand that this decision may not be a popular one. We editors do not want to arbitrate identity, though in such a project we are confronted with the task. We felt we should leave this question to indigenous communities. And yet, indigenous communities are human communities, and ethics of identity are often compromised by civic and blood politics. The question “Who is Native?” has become more and more complex as culture lines and bloodlines have thinned and mixed in recent years. We also have had to contend with an onslaught of what we call “Pretendians,” that is, nonindigenous people assuming a Native identity. DNA tests are setting up other problems involving those who discover Native DNA in their bloodline. When individuals assert themselves as Native when they are not culturally indigenous, and if they do not understand their tribal nation’s history or participate in their tribal nation’s society, who benefits? Not the people or communities of the identity being claimed. It is hard to see this as anything other than an individual’s capitalist claim, just another version of a colonial offense. We note that there are some poets who have cycled through varying tribal claims from their first appearance in print. Some claim identity by tenuous family story and some are perpetrating outright fraud. We do not want to assist in identity crimes.

Within these pages you will find 161 poets. There were many more poets we wanted to include, but we were limited by the available number of pages. The poets span four centuries, from the seventeenth to the present. The earliest recorded written poem by a Native person was composed as an elegy by “Eleazar,” a senior at Harvard College in 1678, whose tribal identity remains unknown. He most likely died before graduating. We do not know anything about Eleazar’s life. All we have is his poem, “On the death of that truly venerable man D. Thomas Thacher, who moved on to the Lord from this life, 18 of August, 1678,” which is written in Latin. Three lines translated into English read:

 . . . ​With righteous tears, and with weighty grief.


The mind is senseless, the mind is silent, now the hand refuses this just


 ffice . . . ​

The Boston minister Cotton Mather published the elegy in his most famous book, Magnalia Cristi Americana (1702). Mather commented on Eleazar’s contribution:

And because the Nation and Quality of the Author, will make the Composure to become a Curiosity, I will here, for an Epitaph, insert an Elegy, which was composed upon this Occasion (Thacher’s death) by an Indian Youth, who was then a Student of Harvard College.

The most recent poems in the anthology center indigenous tribal traditions and knowing within contemporized oratorical forms, far from the confines of Puritanical constructions.

In this collection more than ninety nations are represented. This speaks to the powerful presence and practice of poetry within our communities. These poems range from ceremonial, like the opening to the anthology by the renowned Kiowa poet and writer N. Scott Momaday, to concrete constructions like Orlando White’s “Empty Set” and Wayne Kaumualii Westlake’s “Hawaiians Eat Fish.” These poets range in age from high school students whose poems appeared in tribal and community newspapers in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, to young spoken-​word artists, to the above-​mentioned poet Louis Little Coon Oliver, whose first book of poems was published after he turned eighty years old.

Just as we have familial ancestors, so we have poetry ancestors. We venture to claim that even poetry anthologies have ancestor anthologies. This collection of poetry has ancestors and would not be here without them. One of the oldest anthologies that set contemporary Native poetry into motion was The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary American Literature, edited by Geary Hobson, first published in 1979 by Red Earth Press, then picked up by the University of New Mexico Press and published in 1981.

Ancestor anthologies include Songs From This Earth on Turtle’s Back, edited by Joseph Bruchac, Greenfield Review Press, 1983; That’s What She Said, Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women, edited by Rayna Green, Indiana University Press, 1984; Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth Century Native American Poetry, edited by Duane Niatum, HarperOne, 1988; Voices of the Rainbow: Contemporary Poetry by Native Americans, edited by Kenneth Rosen, Arcade Publishing, 1993; Returning the Gift: Poetry and Prose from the First North American Native Writers’ Festival, edited by Joseph Bruchac, University of Arizona Press, 1994; Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America, edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird, W.W. Norton, 1998; and Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, edited by Allison Hedge Coke, University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Recent relatives of this Norton anthology are New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich (Anishinaabe–​Turtle Mountain) and published in 2018 by Graywolf Press, which presents twenty-​one Native poets first published in the twenty-​first century; and Native Voices: Indigenous Nations Poetry, Craft, and Conversations, edited by Cmarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader and published by Tupelo Press in 2019.

Despite the contributions of the previously published Native poetry anthologies there are no other anthologies that attempt to address the historical arc of time and place of indigenous nations’ poetry. There has never been a Norton anthology solely of Native poetry, though Gloria Bird and I previously edited the Norton anthology of contemporary Native women’s literature noted above. One of the contributing editors of this book remarked during the process of editing that to have a Norton anthology of Native poetry means that finally we have a place in American poetry. We have always been here, beneath the surface of American poetic consciousness, and have questioned how there can be an American poetry without our voices.

I realized that the only way I could take on an historic comprehensive poetry anthology would be to recruit a circle of contributing editors and advisors. As a faculty member, then, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I taught two courses of students who were enthused about learning more about Native poetry and appreciated the experience of assisting in all the tasks that go into assembling a Norton anthology. The first class of students came on at the beginning of the project and were helpful as the concept was developed, the contributing editing team was assembled, and the extensive evaluation of other Native literary texts and the development of the concept and shape of the anthology took place. The second class came on when most of the hard editing was completed. They assisted with gathering biographical information, making tribal lists, and other tasks. These invaluable assistants are listed as assistant editors. The university provided me with an assistant, Jeremy Michael Reed. His efforts in organization and research led to his being named a managing editor of the anthology. Allison Davis, a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, gave assistance in assembling, editing, and typing up the manuscript and was also named a managing editor. James Matthew Kliewer, LeAnne Howe’s assistant at the University of Georgia, gave excellent service in editing, copying, and researching for the anthology.

LeAnne Howe, Choctaw, joined me as executive associate editor. We decided that the core selection and editing team would be made up of indigenous poets. When American Indian literature began as a recognized field of academic endeavor in the early 1970s, most if not nearly all the scholars in attendance were non-​Native. We wanted to show how this field has developed. We had five teams of editors, a team for each geographical section featured, comprised of poets indigenous to that region. One of our contributing editors, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Mvskoke, proved invaluable in setting up and organizing the different stages of editing and assembling the anthology. We named her our associate editor.

Because land is central to culture and identity, we have organized this collection into five geographical regions. We employed the Muscogean directional path, which begins East to North and continues to the West and then to the South. Each tribal nation is very different in orientation, ritual, and practices.

The first section then is “Northeast and Midwest,” which includes the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, and Iowa. This geographical area is characterized by rivers and lakes carved by glaciers. The first colonizers were the English. The Puritanical influence from the early beginnings of countryhood have continued to mark American culture and law.

The poems from this region begin with a timeless dream song of the Anishinaabeg translated into English in the early 1900s and close with a poem by b: william bearhart, born in 1979, that references an Andy Warhol painting of Geronimo he saw in a gallery in Las Vegas.

We continue on the circle to “Plains and Mountains,” which include the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and parts of Utah and Colorado. These lands contain the heart of the Northern Hemisphere (excluding Canada, of course), vast plains rimmed by lakes and mountains. These lands bore many road and railroad paths crossing indigenous territories as European immigrants moved west. The poems of Elsie Fuller, born in 1870, and Zitkála-​Ša (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), born in 1876, open this section. It closes with a poem by Duckwater Shoshone, Southern Ute, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nation citizen Tanaya Winder, born in 1985, that is informed by the tragic loss of a beloved by suicide—​which is epidemic among our tribal nations.

“Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Pacific Islands” includes, of course, Alaska and Hawai‘i, along with western Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. It comprises the largest geographical area and has been the most challenging to represent. These lands veer from the Arctic Circle, to islands in the Pacific—Guåhan and Amerika Sāmoa—that are more than two thousand miles from any large land base, to the northwestern mainland jutting out into the Pacific. Portions of these lands were explored by Captain James Cook, or were colonized by Christian missionaries and by the larger fur-​trapping companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company. The poems in this section begin with the first wā (epoch) in the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian Creation chant, translated by Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1897. She was dethroned by U.S. businessmen who wanted the lands for commerce. There are also excerpts from a speech by Chief Seattle made in 1854, translated by the beloved Vi Hilbert, and “Prayer Song Asking for a Whale,” told in St. Lawrence Island Yup´ik by Lincoln Blassi, who was born in 1892. The last poems are by spoken-​word poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, Native Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli born in 1991; Michael Wasson, born in 1990, of the Nimíipuu, Nez Perce, whose “A Poem for the Háawtnin & Héwlekipx [The Holy Ghost of You, The Space & Thin Air]” is a kind of prayer before prayer; and Ishmael Hope, 1981, Tlingit and Iñupiaq, whose “Canoe Launching Into The Gaslit Sea” emerges directly from the oral traditions to entreat the people to come together.

“Southwest and West” includes the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, along with southwestern Colorado. The lands include the bones and arches of muscle in all its mineral color, high pines and desert, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish were some of the first European colonizers. These poems open with “The Indian Requiem” by Arsenius Chaleco, Yuma, born in 1889. Many poems of this time fell into the “vanishing Indian” trope. His poem makes a turn to include the vanishing white man. This section closes with a poem by Diné poet Jake Skeets, born in 1991, called “Drunktown,” which ventures into the painful territory of a border town that slinks violently alongside Native lands. The inhabitants live off Native art and image while treating Native citizens with utmost contempt.

We come around to the final section, “Southeast,” which includes Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. This area suffered from the exploration of the Spaniard Hernando de Soto and his party in 1539–​1543, and from other Spanish explorers, then from the encroachments and wars waged among the English, the French, and the Americans. Because these lands were rich in resources and strategically located for trade and national expansion, the land grabs were ferocious. Andrew Jackson and his predecessors removed most of the indigenous populations to Indian Territory: land west of the Mississippi, primarily present-​day Oklahoma, that was deemed by the U.S. government as land “reserved” for relocation. Despite the long history of written literature among many of the Southeastern nations, we noticed we had the fewest poems from this region. One of the first poems presented for the Southeast is “Sequoyah” by Joshua Ross, Cherokee Nation of Alabama, born in 1833. The poem honors the man who invented the Cherokee syllabary. The section closes with a poem by Lara Mann, Choctaw, born in 1983, who returns us to the Nanih Waiya cave of our rebirth: “We had to come/ to our Source, go in, come back out renewed.”

This makes a circle, and we once again face East, which is the direction of beginning. And it will begin again, with the next generations of poets, the children, grandchildren, and great-​grandchildren of those poets speaking here within these pages. We note that the tribal nations of the states bordering Canada and Mexico often extend beyond those political borders, just as the borders of the states themselves as they are known do not contain or adequately define tribal areas. Because of the limitations of the size of this anthology we could not include our Canadian and Mexican relatives. Many tribal nations had winter and summer homes across what are now state lines or country borders. Many are now located far from their original homelands.

Each of these tribal nations has its own rich literary traditions. There are many more poets of tribal nations than are represented in this anthology, but we are limited by space, resources, and language. When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is only a slivered opening into a vast literary field.

Within this anthology are many inconsistencies in the spelling and naming in tribal languages and in English native-​related terms. The lack of uniformity is generally due to geographical location in tribal areas, shifting dialects, education, generation, and personal preference.

We apologize to specific oral texts with their roots in deep culture for their placement in English in a collection that will find its way into many hands, many places. We ask permission for your presence here, to teach, to show that you are a part of a massive cultural literature that still exists, in the tongues, minds, hearts, and memory of the people, of these lands. We ask your forgiveness if we have inadvertently caused any harm in this transmission.

We give thanks to those who kept culture going, kept the arts and poetry going. Until 1978, cultural tribal-​nation expression was outlawed. It wasn’t until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that we were free to practice our indigenous cultures in the United States. This act included but did not limit access to sacred sites, freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites, and use and possession of sacred objects. We did not have organized religion, per se; rather the whole earth is a sacred site. A poem can be considered a sacred site, in which so much of our culture is stored, made into form to be acknowledged, given a place, even a place to hide. Many of our oldest and most traditional poems and songs contain maps of the stars, road maps, or precepts of spiritual knowledge.

We acknowledge the source of poetry, those who agreed to create the poetry in which to hold meaning with words, and those poets who kept and keep it going, despite history.

Mvto, Yakoke, thank you to all who brought this collection together, from far back in time, to the present.