Joy Harjo: Native American Poet, Playwright and Musician

Posted By BrittanyLCerny September 1st, 2021 Last Updated on: October 15th, 2021

Joy Harjo is so much more than a “triple threat.”

She represents Native Americans in the world of poetry and has been published numerous times (books, poetry, non-fiction, a screenplay, and children’s stories). Along with her love of poetry, she also tells stories through her gift for music. She is able to take important themes, symbols, and metaphors and paint them in words to depict topics she is passionate about, ones that are relevant to Native culture and society, and topics that express that humanity is all about. 

Education and activism are deeply important to Harjo and she strives to encourage young Native women to participate in the arts. 

There is so much to say about this talented, resilient, and incredible woman. 

Harjo’s years in poetry

Joy Harjo at the Academy of American Poets

Image Credit / Poets

Joy Harjo, Tulsa born and raised, came from a Muscogee Creek father and a mother who was Cherokee, Irish, and French. Harjo was not her father’s last name. In fact, she adopted the name from her grandmother after becoming an official member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. 

During high school, Harjo attended a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico called the Institute of American Indian Arts. This is where her love for art was nurtured. 

She began her college career as a pre-med student at the University of New Mexico; after a short year, she reconsidered and changed her major to art, then later to creative writing. 

After completing her undergraduate studies, Harjo continued to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and went on to take several filmmaking classes as well. 

Right out of college in 1975, Harjo published her first anthology of poems titled The Last Song. This project conveyed her observations and insights into the fragmented history of indigenous peoples. She went on to publish multiple books of poetry, which focused on the struggles and challenges of Native communities to gain sovereignty, the strength and power of the Native culture, and what it means to be a Native woman. 

In 1978, Harjo earned her first of many awards and recognitions–Outstanding Young Women of America. Throughout the late 1970s until 2021, where she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she has celebrated dozens of personal and professional achievements. 

A few other examples of Harjo’s accomplishments include:

  • The American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award (1990)

  • William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America (1991)

  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of The Americas (1995)

  • Storyteller of the Year Native Joy for Real by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. (2004)

  • Nammy Native American Music Award (2009)

  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2014)

  • Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2017)

  • United States Poet Laureate (2019)

To this day, Joy Harjo continues to produce beautiful work that inspires and delights. 

The Poet Laureate  

Image Credit /  Shawn Miller/AP via The Guardian

One of Joy Harjo’s most coveted accomplishments is her appointment as the 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; she is currently serving her third term and is the first Native woman to be appointed.

“Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry—”soul talk” as she calls it—for over four decades,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said. “To her, poems are ‘carriers of dreams, knowledge, and wisdom,’ and through them, she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making. Her work powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with a direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.”

The Library of Congress shares: 

Harjo’s second term began Sept. 1, 2020, and she launched her signature laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” on Nov. 19, 2020. This digital project gathers a sampling of work by 47 contemporary Native poets from across the nation. Developed in conjunction with the Library’s Geography and Map Division and American Folklife Center, “Living Nations, Living Words” features an ArcGIS Story Map and a newly developed audio collection.

Harjo’s goal for her current term is to focus on outreach. She intends on bringing Native poetry and art to communities and to hopefully spread joy and curiosity in this time of uncertainty and upheaval.

Harjo's other endeavors  

Image Credit/ Karen Kuehn via Arts.gov

Poetry isn’t her only muse. 

As a musician and performer, Harjo has produced seven award-winning music albums including her newest, “I Pray for My Enemies.”

Harjo comments on her new album:

“The concept for I Pray for My Enemies began,” says Harjo, “with an urgent need to deal with discord, opposition. It could have been on a tribal, national, or a personal level. I no longer remember. The urgency had a heartbeat and in any gathering of two or more, perhaps the whole planet, our hearts lean to entrainment – that is, to beat together.”

Listen to “I Pray for My Enemies” and hear what she has to say. 


In case you’re interested in hearing more from Joy Harjo, her discography includes:

  • “Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century” (2003)
  • “Native Joy for Real” (2004)
  • “She Had Some Horses” (2006)
  • “Winding Through the Milky Way” (2008)
  • “Red Dreams, A Trail Beyond Tears” (2010)
  • “I Pray for My Enemies” (2021)

Harjo has performed for many years with her band, Poetic Justice, and currently tours with Arrow Dynamics.

Harjo gives back

Image Credit / Smith College 

Joy Harjo is an avid activist and is outspoken on political issues that affect Native American affairs as well as women’s rights and equality. Through her storytelling, she is able to express her views and dreams regarding these topics. 

Harjo is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, where Native arts and culture are celebrated and shared. 

The goals of NACF are to: 

  • Bring a valuable perspective to contemporary life
  • Inspire healing within indigenous communities and among Native peoples and the general population
  • Provoke thought, spark discussion, explore solutions and add a vital contribution to our communities and world

Harjo continues to this day to work for her fellow Native people, bringing about awareness, educating on the past, and hoping for the future. 

Want to see Joy Harjo in person? Follow her events to stay up-to-date on where she’ll be.

Follow her on Facebook or Twitter and visit her official website.


Home » Native American Articles » Native Profiles » Joy Harjo: Native American Poet, Playwright and Musician

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