JOY HARJO. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975 – 2002. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Pp. xxviii, 242. $17.95. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0-393-32534-8.

LEANNE HOWE. Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005. Pp. 101. £9.99. Hardback. ISBN: 9781844710621.

In her poem “Song For The Deer and Myself to Return On,” of the compilation How We Became Human, Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek) narrates the story of a Native American person who is living “in a house near downtown Denver.” This character invokes a traditional, Native American hunting song in order to call deer into the house. When these animals arrive, as surely they do, they “wondered at finding themselves” crammed together in this strange and very modern setting. After their initial bewilderment subsided, the deer and the narrator came together and tried to “figure out a song…to get all of us back.” Because, although both parties had gathered together in this urban environment, neither of them actually wanted to remain there. Both the deer and the narrator desired to return to a more “traditional” space, perhaps the space of their ancestral hunting grounds, where they had once lived alongside one another, long before the city of Denver had ever existed. Similarly, in the piece “The Unknown Woman,” from LeAnne Howe’s (Choctaw) book of poems, Evidence of Red, a narrator who is identified only as “The Spirit” regrets that “Copper masks made by my children appear in the Field Museum’s case. They rest in the future—from the past.”[1]

In both of the above poems, as well as in each of the compilations of which they are a part, Harjo and Howe explore the idea of a Native American culture and ecology at odds with competing ideas of modernity. In this brief essay, I will draw upon the language of the “Culture & Ecologies” track of the Performance Studies major as a framework to help guide a relational analysis of Howe and Harjo’s poetry. Over the next six pages, I will focus upon how these authors use moments of their compilations to express a key challenge for native peoples—that of using their unique understandings of culture and ecology to find a “way back” to the traditional in the “contemporary new.”

The Culture & Ecologies track defines culture “as a learned collective process of becoming that engages the traditional past with the contemporary ‘new,’ augmented by the increasing awareness that global environmental interdependence can bind beyond cultural differences.” This active “process of becoming” is crucial to articulations of Native American cultures and ecologies in the poetry of both Harjo and Howe. To cite one example, we see evidence of this “becoming process” in the way that the deer and the unnamed narrator are actively striving to re-create themselves and their environment by finding “a way back” to a more “traditional” lifestyle. In this particular poem, we also encounter a distinct, cultural and ecological world. This world blends the human and the non-human into the same project—the project of becoming. Moreover, this collective project is staged within a global, interdependent world that can be identified as the “contemporary ‘new.’” For Harjo, the idea of the global interdependent and “contemporary new” is signified by her poignant choice of a setting—an urban landscape in downtown Denver—which complicates the process of trying to become something traditional. The narrator and the deer find themselves increasingly aware that they cannot return to their traditional world as easily as they may have hoped. To return to a “traditional world” means engaging with the “modern” one in which the characters are currently entangled. It means finding grace in the most unlikely of places, be them the streets of Iowa in Howe’s “A Duck’s Tune” or “a truck stop along Highway 80” in Harjo’s “Grace.”[2]

Howe explores these same tensions in the main example that I have chosen from her work, Evidence of Red. The Spirit in “The Unknown Woman” recognizes the strange juxtaposition of a traditional image stuck in an environment that is “contemporary ‘new.’” This juxtaposition is represented, for instance, by the jarring presence of ancestral and copper masks put on display for the public behind the glass case of the Field Museum. Here we see echoes of the rage that is articulated by the narrator of “The Red Wars.” This speaker defiantly protests that “Indians will not die” to “become part of a traveling museum exhibit…” In these two cases, we see Native American characters struggling against the challenges presented by competing cultures in the contemporary new.[3]

Likewise, the juxtapositions in “The Unknown Woman” are set within a complex, cultural and ecological world that seamlessly blends human and non-human characters into one single collaborative project. For example, the poem narrates the change of “The Spirit” into “Corn Woman.” Although Corn Woman is a non-human entity (indeed, she is literal corn personified), she is nonetheless capable of narrating her own story and reflecting back upon her interactions with humans throughout History. Using this conceit of a self-reflexive and storytelling food crop, Howe cleverly erodes the assumptions of artificial boundaries between humans and their ecological environments. “With my own hands/I slay all reason,” she says. “I become Corn Woman/And I am mercy in their mouths.” Like the herd of deer that are featured in Harjo’s “Song,” the “Corn Woman” is portrayed an as active, non-human participant. She is not a passive entity outside of the humans’ worldview.[4]

Nonetheless, Howe also explores the notion of a “global environmental interdependence” in this world. Just as the narrator and the deer could not escape their modern reality—a reality that the urban landscape of Denver was somehow connected to their ancestral pinelands, and therefore preventing their return home—Corn Woman cannot escape her intimate connection to the outside world. As Howe narrates, “A small boy” comes into the Corn Woman’s physical world from outside, seeing only “metal and machinery.” Although Corn Woman openly declares, “I am here for everyone,” the boy has a competing idea of culture and ecology. Under his hands, the boy forces Corn Mother to undergo a dramatic change and become an “erotic disaster.” This change signifies a historic shift in humanity’s relationship to non-human beings during the industrial era. Yet it can also be interpreted much more broadly, as evidence of globalization, modernization, or the general cultural conflicts that accompanied encounters between native and non-native ecologies. As Corn Woman suggests, this event is the “eradication” of a traditional Native American way of life upon the arrival of the “contemporary new.” The boy’s appearance in “The Unknown Woman” parallels the appearance of a “stranger” in Howe’s “Evidence of Red.” This character warned Grandmother “that chaos was coming” after having already reached out and strangled the West.[5]

Perhaps no poem in these two compilations better explores this painful transition from the “traditional” and Native American ways of life to the “contemporary new,” American ways of life than Howe’s “The Unknown Woman.” Previously, before the arrival of “the boy” and “white man” who is “a kind of evolved-God himself,” we are told that Corn Mother had been a very loving host, capable of slaying all reason by giving mercy to the mouths of the people in the form of sustenance. Now, however, she is “tortured” in a cold and impersonal process that is “against [her] will.” Instead of bestowing mercy to the people in the form of food, she suckles them to death in the form of whisky. Conscious of her transformation, she cries “What has happened to my poetic vision?”[6]

As we can see, in pieces like “The Unknown Woman” and “Song For The Deer and Myself To Return On,” Howe and Harjo present their readers with Native American worlds that have been dramatically altered under the arrival of this “contemporary new” world. Moreover, this tension is a conflict between cultures and ecologies, and it lies at the heart of these compilations. The conflict is ever on the minds of the modern Native American characters and authors. Perhaps it is expressed most poignantly at the start of Howe’s second section labeled “Chaos.” As she writes, “Huksuba, or chaos occurs when Indians and Non-Indians bang their heads together in search of cross-cultural understanding.” On the one hand, this banging together of heads is harmful and “leaves us all with a headache.” On the other hand, it seems unavoidable in a global world that is increasingly interconnected. And so, readers observe throughout these poems native peoples who come into contact with non-natives in both History and modernity. These kinds of interactions are epitomized in two quite violent poems about New Orleans: “New Orleans” and “The Chaos of Angels”[7]

In How We Became Human and Evidence of Red, Native American peoples possess a concept of culture and ecology that is fundamentally different from non-native peoples invested in the contemporary new. This is demonstrated in the ubiquitous presence of either natural or non-human phenomenon throughout the collections, often sharing quiet moments of understanding with a presumed Native American narrator. In Harjo’s work, readers encounter a veritable panoply of recurring non-human characters like rabbits, horses, deer, blackbirds, and crows. In general, the intimate relationship between the human and the non-human can be summarized by the way in which narrators often observe the stars—here used as literary symbols for eternity, and as direct connections to the past and the native ancestors who live outside of, and therefore transcend, the contemporary new. Native characters often share moments with the stars in the waning light of the early morning hours, right before they fade away for another cycle. This relationship is neatly encapsulated in the title of a poem about a murdered native woman. The piece is called “FOR ANNA MAE PICTOU AQUASH, WHOSE SPIRIT IS PRESENT HERE AND IN THE DAPPLED STARS.”[8]

In Howe’s work, the role played by the stars might be taken by the role of “Grandmother.” Grandmother is a recurring character in Evidence of Red who also symbolizes a deep and intimate connection to an eternal past or a “traditional” world. This is why, in Howe’s title poem, “Evidence of Red,” we learn of Grandmother’s connection to eternal time, as she reminds the violent stranger upon his arrival that “you were born of water and women.” Grandmother is like the pre-dawn stars or the call of the deer in Harjo’s “Song.” She is one of the few characters that can access this deep past, the time before the arrival of the contemporary new. Most importantly, all of these phenomenon serve as a bridge between modern Natives and the time before the arrival of chaos.[9]

The idea of Native cultures and ecologies is also foregrounded in Harjo’s poem “Trickster.” In this piece, the narrator shares an interaction with a crow who is laughing because it knows “I’m a fool,/too, like you/skimming over the thin ice/to the war going on/all over the world.” If we can accept the assumption that the war referenced in the above line refers to a chaos or conflict between the traditional and the contemporary new, then this poem reveals the shared struggle of non-human and human entities in trying to navigate, or “skim over” as Harjo says, a conflicted world engrossed in perilous war. Just as the deer and the narrator came together in “Song,” the crow and the narrator in “Trickster” recognize their shared space in this interconnected and contemporary world. Finally, because native cultures and ecologies, as portrayed by both Howe and Harjo, interpret non-human entities as conscious beings, the crow and the narrator are able to acknowledgement one another.[10]

Native American narrators and their non-human allies find themselves like “survivors” in this contemporary world, and so they must recapture their shared culture and ecology as a healing tool, or as a “way back” to a more traditional life. Moreover, this greater concept of using Native American cultures and ecologies to find a way back to a traditional world in the contemporary new is a recurring theme in the compilations Evidence of Red and How We Became Human. In Harjo’s poem “Deer Dancer,” for example, the main characters are Native Americans who also find themselves trapped inside of a “contemporary new” environment that is culturally destructive. On this occasion, the environment is signified not by a “house near downtown Denver,” but by an alcoholic “bar of broken survivors.” These “survivors” are suffering from physical injuries such as “the club of the shotgun” or a “knife wound.” Yet they are also suffering from some cultural and ecological injuries that stem from the “contemporary new.” This is what Harjo calls “poison by culture.”[11]

In “Deer Dancer,” Harjo stages a quite depressing scene of a few “hardcore” Native American drinkers huddled in a dark bar. The bar is compared to a “dingy envelope” and it is “the coldest night of the year.” Regardless, these characters are resilient people, as “every place [is] shut down, but not us.” This resilience is a concurrent motif in Harjo and Howe’s poetry. On this note, we can recall that, although the human and the non-human characters could not find a “way back” to the traditional world in Harjo’s “Song,” the old call of the deer had still worked as a way of bringing them together. Likewise, in Howe’s work, the Corn Woman undergoes painful changes, but she remains conscious throughout the transition. These are moments of resilience that serve as reminders to the reader that native lifeways are not entirely destroyed by the contemporary new. Rather, they remain alive in the present, often “Secretive and silent,” as Howe says in her work “The Red Wars.” “No one guesses,” Howe tells us, “what does on with Indians when they’re alone.”[12]

This is the final piece of the puzzle for establishing the link between “Culture & Ecologies” and what the Performance Studies track calls “Ethnographic and ecological approaches to performance.” Howe and Harjo have presented their readers with a main problem: that Native American peoples, like the Corn Mother, are living in a “contemporary new” environment that is hostile to their traditional way of being. In order to preserve or recapture one’s humanity in this environment, they must undergo a process of becoming traditional. Crucial to this process is either re-discovering or re-claiming a trampled sense of culture and ecology through the deliberate act of performance. As Harjo explains, natives are now engaged in an “epic search for grace.” They are struggling to find peace, and the regular performance of their stories may be the answer. “The way back,” Harjo concludes, “is deer breath on icy windows.” It is remembering those beautiful, eternal images that once attested to human and non-human ways of being. It is coming together, sharing, and laughing, so that the pain will “go down easy as honey.” Sadly, there are still moments of pain, but there are also many moments of healing. Howe shares a glimpse of this optimism in her poem “Who Owns the Past? Who Owns the Future? Who Owns Grandmother?” “But on that last day,/the Indian/did not speak of our dead,” she writes. Instead, “On this morning we are laughing…”[13]

Notes: 

[1] Joy Harjo, How We Became Human (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 78; LeAnne Howe, Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005), 10.

[2] Inés Hernández-Avila, “Syllabus for ‘NAS 202_SPRING 2016 Graduate Seminar: Indigenous Poetics and Performativities,’” 2; Harjo, How We Became Human, 65, 78; Howe, Evidence of Red, 61-63.

[3] Ibid. 10, 42-43.

[4] Howe, Evidence of Red, 10-13.

[5] Ibid. 5, 12-13.

[6] Ibid. 11-14.

[7] Ibid. 23-33; Harjo, How We Became Human, 43-46.

[8] Ibid. 70-71.

[9] Ibid. 70-71; Howe, Evidence of Red, 5-6.

[10] Ibid. 72.

[11] Harjo, How We Became Human, 67.

[12] Ibid. 67-69, 78; Howe, Evidence of Red, 38.

[13] Inés Hernández-Avila, “Syllabus for ‘NAS 202_SPRING 2016 Graduate Seminar: Indigenous Poetics and Performativities,’” 2; Harjo, How We Became Human, 69; Howe, Evidence of Red, 66.

*This piece was written as a relational essay for a graduate seminar, “NAS 202: Indigenous Poetics and Performativities,” with Professor Inés Hernández-Avila.