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'Crazy Brave' Joy Harjo on Oklahoma, Life as a Dog and Learning Ocean

An interview with Joy Harjo, author of Crazy Brave, which has just won the PEN Center USA's award for Creative Nonfiction
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Poet, musician, memoirist, screenwriter, these are just a few of the hats worn by the Muskogee Creek creative force that is Joy Harjo, whose 2012 memoir Crazy Brave has just won the PEN Center USA's award for Creative Nonfiction. Her effect and importance on the second wave of the Native American literary renaissance is without argument. This Mvskoke artist has contributed important work to Indian country and beyond, and continues to create, now from her home base in Oklahoma.

Can you talk about your recent move back to Oklahoma?

I knew I would return more permanently. Like many who move away from their native communities I returned frequently for family and tribal events. I just assumed it would be in a few more years on family allotment land somewhere between Henryetta and Eufaula. There’s a sense, beyond any word I have in the English language of being exactly where I need to be, and within the direct connection of history and ancestors. There’s work I came back to do in my community. I have begun it with gatherings, which are demonstrations of what I’m working on combined with food and dancing at the Glenpool Creek Indian Community Center.

TJ Young painting

People must ask you who your favorite writers and musicians are all the time…what are some of your favorite films and why?

I think you’re the first person to ask this question! My favorite films of all time are Farewell My Concubine and My Life as a Dog. I would love to do a film with the depth and scope of Farewell, which was directed by Chen Kaige, but based on the Red Stick War and tribal removal years. (By the way, I want to give credit to the writer whose novel the film was adapted from, Lilian Lee, who was also one of the screenwriters. I learned when the film I co-wrote went to Sundance that all story credit goes to the director. In theater, the work of the writer is given due place.) My Life As A Dog is a Swedish film from the point of view of a boy whose mother is dying. It’s poetic, beautiful, funny and sad. One of my just discovered favorite filmmakers in Indian country is Melissa Henry. She’s Navajo and her work is exquisite. Her "Horse You See" was part of the PBS Online Film Festival.

They Ride Colorful Horses, by Dana Tiger. Source:

Favorite painters?

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I have to mention Dana Tiger of my Mvskoke Nation. Her recent series of ceremonial ground paintings are brilliant. She’s someone I admire most in this world for her art, vision, and care for the youth in the community. And three native painters I follow are Emmi Whitehorse, Navajo, for her thoughtful, intuitive color fields, Ruthe Blalock Jones, Shawnee-Delaware-Peoria for her cultural depictions, and Ben Harjo, Seminole, for his color design and humor.

You have spent a significant amount of time in Hawaii. Can you tell us how it affected you, and how it inspires your creativity?

I always see a close connection between Hawaiian and Mvskoke people, culturally and philosophically. The predominant element of the world shifts when you go from a landlocked place in which earth is predominant to an island surrounded by ocean with the closest continent over two thousand miles away. I learned ocean. I became an outrigger canoe paddler, and raced. One of the most profound teachers is my life is the Pacific. As to how it directly affected me—I was inspired by how the Hawaiians had and continue to strengthen cultural structures, especially artistically. They brought back Hawaiian language. The arts are thriving. This is something many of us want in our community.

New Mexico has also been very significant to your life and work. Can you speak to us about that?

New Mexico is a kind of heartland for me. I first came when I was a teenager and was dropped off for Indian school on Cerrillos Road, the old IAIA campus. Being there literally saved my life. Later I attended the University of New Mexico where I began to learn poetry. As I learned poetry I was learning the Navajo language. I feel that language sense entwined in my early poems. I was part of an indigenous rights movement there, beginning with the historic Kiva Club, the Indian student club at UNM, where I came to understand that the university community, from a native point of view, was not an ivory tower, rather a central point of connection and meeting for the surrounding communities.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a musical with the working title “We Were There When Jazz Was Invented.” I’m also at work on new poetry, a music album, and implementing arts programs in the community, one workshop at a time. I’m beginning with a blues class/jam with Selby Minner.

They Ride Colorful Horses, by Dana Tiger. Source:

Jason Asenap (Comanche/Muskogee Creek) is a writer and filmmaker from Walters, OK now based in Albuquerque, NM. Asenap was selected to the 2011 Sundance Institute Nativelab fellowship and his short film, Rugged Guy, is currently screening at film festivals around the country. He will begin graduate studies in Art History in the fall of 2013 at the University of New Mexico, where is also is employed at the Fine Arts and Design Library.