Joy Harjo’s heart has guided her from the depths of abuse to a life of art, writing, music and dancing in Oklahoma - the place her heart and the hearts of her people live.

On a snowy night in Albuquerque, she wraps the children in blankets and sneaks out the front door. She carries a toddler and a newborn through the cold blackness to a neighbor’s.

She remembers blood dripping on the clean white snow. And the cold. And the fear.

The baby’s father is by all accounts a man – like her ex-husband and father before him – of water. It’s around then she dreams of killing her boyfriend with a broken vodka bottle.

Joy Harjo won’t let it happen again.

I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear. I release you.

Joy, a 62-year-old Muscogee (Creek) poet and jazz musician, is a woman “born to earth,” her memoirs say, “of water and fire.” Blessed with her singing mother’s creativity and intuition, her sense of purpose. Cursed with the vulnerability of an alcoholic father. A father she adored and feared – a man who loved her very much, a man who couldn’t overcome a tragic flaw.

People of water “will always search for a vision that cannot be found on Earth,” Harjo says in her recent memoir “Crazy Brave” – brave being the Creek definition of her last name. As the book painfully reveals, the 62-year-old writer, teacher, saxophonist and mother spent a lifetime straddling the line between two worlds, between forces that are inspirational and destructive. When not engulfed in one, she often found herself submerged in the other.

“I think alcoholism is a need to find some kind of vision to supplant one that’s too painful,” she said. “It’s the same kind of paradox that can keep you with someone who is alcoholic but who is also brilliant, and who can cook a really good breakfast and sing – how do you put together the incongruities?”

Joy struggled with that question for years. Now, of course, she’s, at least professionally, a jack of all trades. She writes books, poetry and prose, both children and adult. She plays music, a saxophonist performing alongside a Grammy-winning guitarist in cities across the globe. Then, too, she’s also a recreational flutist, ukulele player, weight lifter, canoeist – and yeah, sometimes she’ll get bored and hammer out a quick multi-act play.

She picked up the saxophone at 40, when she saw someone’s tenor sax lying around and decided it could fill a void her singing voice couldn’t. Joy had always wanted to have the musical range of Aretha Franklin. Now, with a bad-ass brass sax in hand, she could.

This abnormal, somewhat inhuman spontaneity didn’t form overnight. As a child, Joy never quite fit in with the white students at public school in Oklahoma. Once, she decided to color a ghost green instead of leaving it white, igniting a classroom-wide debate. Students said ghosts could only be one color. Joy, who claims she had an encounter with one as a child, begged to differ.

As she grew older, she discovered the same intoxicants that had long destroyed her father. Some nights, she might find a ride home and pay for it “without money.” In her late teens, she was nearly driven insane by the time she moved to Tahlequah, Okla., to live with the father of her first-born. She’d long before abandoned any notion of a “dream.”

“I would lose [direction] when I wanted to do something that I knew I shouldn’t be doing.”

Joy Harjo

But during the early 1970s, as a college student at the University of New Mexico in the heat of the Pan-Indian movement, Joy rediscovered her outlet – her voice – in poetry. Or rather, she says, the art form found her.

“What I saw in the poetry was like my mother’s singing,” she said. “It was like singing on paper, you know, reading it. I like the singing elements of poetry and I also like the philosophical elements of poetry, the metaphorical language.”

Before long, writing took her to a place an abusive stepfather wouldn’t let her visit. A place where angry boyfriends couldn’t barge into at three in the morning. A place where a shy girl who never spoke up in class could sing, loudly and freely, like her mom did before turmoil silenced her voice, too.

“It takes me to a place that’s beyond words, maybe beyond the failings of humans.”

But if the men had their way, Joy would never have gotten there.

Joy Harjo plays a Native American flute. Her most recent album, “Red Dreams, a Trail Beyond Tears,” is a traditional flute album.

Joy Harjo plays a Native American flute. Her most recent album, “Red Dreams, a Trail Beyond Tears,” is a traditional flute album.

And whom do I call my enemy? An enemy must be worthy of engagement.

The singing stops when the door slams shut.

Every day at 4 p.m., the 14-year-old girl knows, her stepdad arrives home. Tired. Grumpy. Demanding total silence. On this day, the young theatre student in suburban Tulsa has lost track of time. The next thing she knows: “The door is open and I am forbidden to sing.”

He reaches for his belt.

She watches the man who first charmed her with roller skates holding her 5-year-old sister aloft by one leg. He swings her around in the air, rips off his belt and whips her. Over. And over. And over.

“This is what will happen to you if you misbehave,” says the man 17 years older than her mother.

“He must have felt very threatened by what I was carrying,” Joy says.

Turns out, the young teen carried something the abuser despised. A gift.

And her internal compass, she calls it ‘the knowing,’ was going to protect that gift at all costs. The little girl who public school teachers assigned to string beads and sing Indian corn songs was sent to Earth, she says, for a greater purpose.

A strange man could break the lock on her hidden diary, he could read aloud her daily musings to family, but he could not suppress her destiny.

“I was very aware that I had signed a contract, if you will, to come here and do something that was much larger than me,” Joy says today in her Glenpool, Okla., home, sitting in a a red leather chair on the main floor of her ranch. “Even as an artist, you can be in service to the writing or to the poetry or to the music. And you have to follow it.”

Her home is its own reward for the often-frenetic travel schedule. Not far from the red leather chair hangs a life-size painting depicting Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee syllabary. The one-time Cherokee silversmith is an ancestor.

That destiny thing, she says quietly, is important.

“You have to take care of it.”


When we get together on the dance floor, all hell breaks loose. I’m serious, get us together — you wouldn’t think I have Parkinson’s Dana Tiger

She goes on to explain how her grandmother, Naomi Harjo, played saxophone in Indian Territory at the turn of the century, before Oklahoma became a state.

My heart is close enough to sing to you/in a language too clumsy/for human words.

Dana Tiger, a Creek painter renowned for her acrylic depictions of strong and determined Native women, is in attendance. She sits next to her friend Joy, who wears tall boots and a long skirt, striped orange and yellow at the bottom.

“When we get together on the dance floor, all hell breaks loose. I’m serious, get us together – you wouldn’t think I have Parkinson’s.”

On a recent afternoon in Tulsa, she joins fellow artists for a celebration of Native literature: the Festival of Words, at the city-county library.

The women spend the day with shell shakers tied to their ankles, performing impromptu stomp dances. Tiger, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, remarks on the apparent healing capacities of a friend she recently finished painting.

“Something happens and the Parkinson’s goes somewhere else when Joy and I get together on the dance floor.”

Tiger describes a recent YouTube video in which the two friends dance in the rain for hours on end following a book signing of Joy’s. She considers herself blessed to have seen a side of her friend that few know. The beauty in Joy, she said, existed from the beginning. But the world tried to take it from her.

“She’s still the youngest spirit I know,” Tiger says. “You know, she’s 10 years older than me and will dance me under the table. Well actually, we go head-to-head.”

I can still close my eyes and open them four floors up/looking south and west from the hospital/in the approximate direction of Acoma – /and farther on to the roofs of the houses of the gods who have/learned/there are no endings, only beginnings.

It was ‘the knowing’ that convinced her to move back.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo learned a long time ago there’s no fighting her subconscious. Her heart has always known what’s best for her.

Back in college, she says, the same force convinced her to change her major to poetry after she found herself flummoxed by the complex formulas of pre-med chemistry.

The same force told her it was time to leave her abusive ex-husband in Tahlequah, where she traversed local streets robotically to pass the time as a pregnant teenager.

In New Mexico, that same force taught her “how to fly” as she stood in the depths of her literary despair – devoid of a writing voice.

Someone said that they were nominating me for some kind of [award] here in Oklahoma and I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t waste your nomination because I’m Native, for one. I don’t belong to a church. I stomp dance. That’s enough right there. Joy Harjo

And now it was telling her to move back to Oklahoma, to the place where her father used to drive her around in a black Cadillac sedan he bought with royalty checks from a local oil company. She could barely see over the back seat, but she quickly became attuned to the jazz she heard on the radio. Jazz she’d later associate with Miles Davis.

And now she was once again listening to her heart.

“I said, ‘what?’ ”

“Yes, you need to move there.”

Within a month she was back. Back in the state where a cop once wrote “Indian” on a police report she’d filed, indicating that local authorities would promptly disregard it. Back in a land where people used to call her dad “chief,” where being Indian was basically outlawed until the 1970s.

Back in Oklahoma, she moved into her ailing mother’s sewing room in October 2011, finally finding the time to finish her memoirs – a venture that took 14 years to complete. She’d struggled during the preceding decade to pare down the memories most important to her, to determine why such a venture was necessary. She calls “Crazy Brave” the book she never wanted to write.

Today, she lives in her sister’s cozy blue ranch in a Tulsa suburb, where a metal vase issued to her grandmother during the Trail of Tears guards her front porch.

“Someone said that they were nominating me for some kind of [award] here in Oklahoma and I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t waste your nomination because I’m Native, for one. I don’t belong to a church. I stomp dance. That’s enough right there. I have a great love for this place even though it’s full of conflict.”

The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun. It sees and knows everything.

When a budding Native actress from California recently joined her friend Joy for a show in Sante Fe, the actress expected a crazy show, deep conversation and some good ol’ fashioned pallin’ around.

But Arigon Starr didn’t expect Joy, the artist she’d long admired, to be so interested in her own trade.

“We talked about actor stuff, like how is it that you can memorize a 45-page script?” Starr said. “I said, ‘It’s possible. Joy, you can do this.’ I felt weird encouraging her. At the same time I was goin’ ‘Daaaaang, she’s askin’ me for advice.’ That’s pretty cool.”

It’s like this with all Joy’s friends. They’re intrigued by her persona, the perception her thousands of adoring fans hold, and yet once they come to know her, they find a whole new dimension to her personality.

Dana Tiger remembers the way her nerves knotted when the two first met, back in the late 1980s.

“She was amazing to me, she just spoke in poetry,” Tiger says. “I didn’t know how she was or what she was like. I just knew her poetry was so strong, and you know, powerful. I didn’t really talk to her much cause I was just in awe of her.”

Now, the two are peas in a pod. Tiger knows things – “I can’t tell you those things!” – about Joy that the public would never hear.

She knows about Joy’s vicious workout regimen. How the angular 62-year-old mother lifts weights every day and practically walks the whole Glenpool neighborhood.

Joy Harjo

“Maybe I’m learning about how to be brave, but I would not call myself brave. I might be crazy.”

Her father always told her she wasn’t brave enough. She didn’t think so either.

Bravery, to Joy, was something different. To stand in a place of calm. To stand in your heart and listen.
She’d taken him back so many times. Not this time.

There was the time, after she’d forced him to move out, that he tried to break in after a long night at the bars.

He knocks, calls her name, yells “I’m going to kill you!” The police arrive as he crawls into the house.

As they drive him away, he calls out from the back seat of the squad car “I love you, Joy. I love you.”

But come here, fear/ I am alive and you are so afraid/of dying.

The last time Joy Harjo left her mother’s house, she says, she’d left a place of turmoil, disempowerment, shame, terror.

“Going back meant that I had … to go back,” she said. “It was like all these demons were still there.”

Joy had no choice. Her mother was leaving. She had always told her she’d take her final steps with her.

One night, Joy remembers, her mother can’t sleep. Cancer has rendered her too weak to move on her own. She cries from the next room over, steps away from the sewing room where Joy toils away on her memoirs at night.

Immediately, Joy runs over. She grabs her mother’s hand. She lifts her out of bed and plants her feet on the floor, clutching her shoulders. She looks into her mother’s eyes.

And then they dance.



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Wilma Mankiller