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Joy Harjo Makes History As First Native American to be Named U.S. Poet Laureate

"I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible."

Poet Joy Harjo has been named America's 23rd Poet Laureate — making her the first Native American person to hold the prestigious position! "Joy Harjo has championed the art of poetry — 'soul talk' as she calls it — for over four decades," Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a press release announcing Harjo's selection. "To her, poems are 'carriers of dreams, knowledge and wisdom,' and through them she tells an American story of tradition and loss, reckoning and myth-making." The 68-year-old, who is also the first poet laureate from Oklahoma, called it a "tremendous honor," saying, "I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem."

Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951 with the given name Joy Foster, but she took her paternal grandfather's last name when she joined the Muscogee Creek Nation at age 19. As a child and a young adult, she faced alcoholism and abuse within her family, life as a teen mother, and struggles with poverty. However, she also discovered a love of artistic expression, and particularly for drawing symbolism and traditions from Native American oral storytelling culture into her work.

Harjo published her first book of poetry in 1975; since then, she's written multiple acclaimed volumes, including her most recent book, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems, which was a finalist for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, and an upcoming book, An American Sunrise, which releases in August. She's also the author of a memoir, Crazy Brave, as well as a picture book, For a Girl Becoming, about a girl's journey from birth through adulthood.  Poetry, she says, has "the ability to transform experiences that could potentially destroy a people, a family, a person to experiences that build connection and community.... I needed to find my voice, I think, in order to live."

The position of poet laureate is intended "to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." Harjo has often explored challenging issues in her work such as violence against women and the relationship between modernization and traditionalism, and she believes that the written and spoken word has tremendous power to bring people together. "Since I started writing in 1973, I've almost always been on the road with poetry, and meeting people and communities... [in] 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," says Harjo.  "Communities that normally would not sit with each other, I would love to see... interchanges with poetry. I really believe if people sit together and hear their deepest feelings and thoughts beyond political divisiveness, it makes connections."

Books About Groundbreaking Female Poets

For a Girl Becoming

For a Girl Becoming

Written by: Joy Harjo
Illustrated by: Mercedes McDonald
Recommended Age: 6 and up

Rich art and symbolic poetry evoke the lessons of a girl’s life: birth, youth, and adulthood are all captured with text full of a sense of myth and wonder. Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek poet and writer, tells a story of a family and community gathered together to celebrate the girl’s arrival with love and adoration, but also advice and guidance. Mercedes McDonald’s colorful illustrations create a vivid environment full of meaning to be deciphered, and also evoke a connection to the cycles of the natural world. This beautiful book will speak to anyone standing at the threshold of becoming something new.

A Voice of Her Own: A Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet

A Voice of Her Own: A Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet

Written by: Kathryn Lasky
Illustrated by: Paul Lee
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Phillis was kidnapped from her home as a girl, and everything was taken from her; the people who enslaved her even changed her name, picking the name of the slave schooner that had carried her to America. But they could not take her brilliant mind. Phillis Wheatley would become the first African American woman poet to publish a book in America. Her poetry may have seemed like a party trick for some white slave owners, but for Phillis, it gave her back her voice. This book explores the power of poetry to express a person's humanity, despite the prejudice of our society.

Native Women of Courage

Native Women of Courage

Written by: Kelly Fournel
Recommended Age: 8 and up

This wide-ranging book features ten Native American women, both past and present, who have broken new ground and raised awareness about North American indigenous cultures. Profiles include Wilma Mankiller, the first woman Chief of the Cherokee Nation; Susan Aglukark, the Inuit singer/songwriter; Winona LaDuke, the Anishinaabeg author, environmentalist, and vice presidential candidate; and Susan Rochon-Burnett, the Metis woman who became the first Canadian woman granted an FM broadcast license. Their stories remind young readers of the determination that trailblazing Native American and First Nations Canadian women have demonstrated throughout history.

Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson

Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson

Illustrated by: Chi Chung
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

It's a rare person whose heart doesn't stir at the lines "Hope is the thing with feathers" or "I dwell in Possibility." Emily Dickinson is considered one of the founders of the American poetic voice, and her poetry has been adored by generations of readers. Now, in this volume from the Poetry for Young People series, middle grade readers can learn about this groundbreaking poet and enjoy some of her most beloved poems. With vibrant illustrations and a brief biography that explores Dickinson's unique place in American history, this is an elegant tribute to Dickinson's life and work.

Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou

Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou

Illustrated by: Jerome Lagarrigue
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Dr. Maya Angelou was many things: an author, a historian, a civil rights activist, and so much more. But for many, it's her remarkable words of poetry that they will remember forever. In this volume from the Poetry for Young People series, middle grade readers get an introduction to Angelou's life and work. Then, they can read 25 of her best-loved poems, including the exquisite A Brave and Startling Truth, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. With evocative artwork and a broad sampling of Angelou's most important work, this book is a stunning introduction to one of the most important women artists of the 20th century.

A Girl Called Vincent: The Life of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay

A Girl Called Vincent: The Life of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay

Written by: Krystyna Poray Goddu
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From a childhood in poverty in rural Maine, the rebellious, creative Edna — known as Vincent — became an acclaimed poet and the embodiment of the liberated Jazz Age woman. By young adulthood, she was bewitching audiences with her performances and dreaming of life beyond her small community. Despite the challenges of a life in the public eye in both New York and Paris, she still wrote bestselling volumes of poetry, plays, translations, and even antiwar propaganda and an opera. This fascinating biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, packed with photos, poems, diary excerpts, and more, perfectly captures this remarkable, Pulitzer Prize-winning author's dedication, creativity, and passion.

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women

Recommended Age: 14 and up

Too many people still hold the stereotype of the docile tribal "princess" — but Native American women deserve to have their voices heard. In this powerful collection, editors Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale collect stories from a wide variety of indigenous perspectives, capturing both the challenges that they face — like reclaiming Indigenous rights and overcoming the epidemic of violence against Native American women — and their passion and power to change the world. This vital addition to the literature celebrates Native American identities and the determination of those who refuse to let themselves be defined by others.

Magnetic Poetry Kids - Story Maker

Magnetic Poetry Kids - Story Maker

Manufacturer: Magnetic Poetry
Recommended Age: 5 - 12

Inspire her poetic voice with this collection of over 150 word and phrase magnets from Magnetic Poetry! In this set, color-coded tiles help kids create stories and learn language skills as they identify nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, and more. They're the perfect open-ended tool to encourage kids to get their creative juices flowing! Fans of this set will also like the Magnetic Poetry: Kids' Kit for ages 4 to 8, and the Magnetic Poetry: Really Big Words set for kids ages 3 to 8, or for classroom use.

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