‘An American Sunrise’: A Living Memory

An American Sunrise: Poems” is a collection of poems by Native American musician, playwright, author, and US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. The pages weave and connect tribal history with Harjo’s personal and ancestral story, evoking earth, memory, and song. The lines are rich with joy and and an array of love, but they also show trauma embedded in generational memory and a culture stifled by colonial law — and yet, through these poems, Native memory and song persevere. Laying claim to being heard, Harjo writes for Natives to “call out even in a whisper” (Directions to You) while pointing to a tension within her medium itself: “there is no word in this trade language, no words with enough power / to hold all this we have become —” (Exile of Memory).

I’m a non Native American. As an experience, I feel as though “An American Sunrise” gave me an emotional understanding of this history, and maybe more accurately, an emotional understanding of contemporary reality. It made me think, why did my classes teach about the Trail of Tears as though it’s disconnected from our current experience? as though there aren’t any present day reverberations of a recent genocide followed by mass cultural erasure? We teach our difficult history like it happened in a vacuum.

I read Harjo’s work on the heels of finishing another book written by a Native author, Tommy Orange, titled, “There There.” In this multi-generational story, complex and diverse Native Americans exist and live in American cities with storylines seemingly unrelated, yet they ultimately coverage and connect on their shared cultural heritage. As context in “An American Sunrise,” Harjo shares an anecdote of a native Bolivian woman telling her, in reference to being from the United States, “we thought John Wayne had killed all of you.” Both “There there” and “An American Sunrise” hit me over the head: HEY! Native people exist outside your history books! In a powerful claim to heard existence, these Native stories, Harjo’s poetry, and especially her song on the audiobook, ring soft and then ring loud in my mind.

Listen: Joy Harjo: Poet Laureate of the United States | Beautiful Writers Podcast