Joy Harjo, the acclaimed poet, writer, and musician from Muscogee Creek Nation, has been named the next U.S. Poet Laureate. She is the first Indigenous woman to hold the title, succeeding Tracy K. Smith as the country’s 23rd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, the official title. The news was confirmed today by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.
As the nation’s official poet, Harjo will “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,” reports NPR. She will begin her post in the fall. “It’s such an honoring for Native people in this country, when we’ve been so disappeared and disregarded,” said Harjo of her new role. “And yet we’re the root cultures, over 500-something tribes and I don’t know how many at first contact. But it’s quite an honor...I bear that honor on behalf of the people and my ancestors. So that’s really exciting for me.”
The historic appointment continues last year’s momentum for Indigenous women in positions of power. Two Native American women won seats in the House of Representatives in November: Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas. In December, Ruth Buffalo was also sworn in as the first Native American Democratic woman to be elected to the state legislature in North Dakota.
Harjo—who is 68 and lives in Oklahoma, where she was born—began publishing in the 1970s with her first acclaimed book of poems, She Had Some Horses. She has since written seven more books of poetry, including In Mad Love and War, for which she received the American Book Award in 1990, and the 2013 memoir Crazy Brave. She is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and recently was elected a Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her newest collection of poetry, An American Sunrise, will be published in September.
“Since I started writing in 1973, I’ve almost always been on the road with poetry, and meeting people and communities...every state in the union, small and large communities, for years on behalf of poetry—and the gift that poetry brings to all of us,” she says. In addition to her written work, she has also released four albums, including her most recent, Red Dreams: A Trail Beyond Tears.
Though she has not yet announced concrete plans for her new role as Poet Laureate, Harjo hopes to use her platform to educate others about Indigenous culture and the impact her ancestors have had on the country. “I don’t have a defined project right now, but I want to bring the contribution of poetry of the tribal nations to the forefront and include it in the discussion of poetry,” she says. “This country is in need of deep healing. We’re in a transformational moment in national history and Earth history, so whichever way we move is going to absolutely define us.”