By Kelly Wolfe
MIAMI — One week after the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LVII, three-time United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo spoke about combating indigenous stereotypes.
“We do not exist as human beings, we exist predominantly in the form of stereotypes as sports mascots … Super Bowl, case in point,” Harjo said.
For more than an hour, Harjo stood on the second floor of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami’s Design District wearing her trademark black hat and a medallion beaded by her daughter. Her lecture, “Dreaming in Color: Mvskoke Family Artists Post Trail of Tears to the Youngest Wave,” was part history lesson, part art history lesson and part open family album.
An example of mythic that misses the point, Harjo said, was the Crazy Horse Monument in South Dakota.
“He was a man who understood he was in relationship with the Earth,” she said. “A better tribute would have been to leave the mountain alone and use the money to foster the arts.”
Harjo offered up her own, family photos as evidence that “a true depiction of any warrior would include those in his or her family that mentored them or fought alongside.”
There is her great-grandfather Henry Marcy Harjo, a Baptist pastor with a home in the coastal town of Stuart, pictured with his wife and two Seminole men. There is an oil painting by her grandmother Naomi Harjo, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from Oklahoma City University and, in the early 1900s, learned to play the saxophone.
“Put that in your catalog of images of people,” Harjo said. “There are many images that can replace the stereotypes that crowd out real human beings in the collective imagination of American people.”
Also consider Harjo’s great-aunt Lois Harjo, pictured in the Dallas Journal when she was a visiting artist at Southern Methodist University.
Audience member Alejandra Mendez, co-founder of Voices of the River of Grass, a non-profit organization that supports and promotes indigenous artists, called the lecture beautiful.
“There is something inspiring about teaching history and art history directly from her family, Mendez said.
“That was epic, fabulous and sorely needed,” said the Rev. Houston Cypress, a poet, artist and environmental activist. “We need more and more and more and more of that please.”
As a teen, Harjo studied art at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. While pursuing a bachelor of fine arts at the University of New Mexico, Harjo worked on a series showcasing warriors as human beings.
Then poetry took her a different direction. She went on to study creative writing at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. She is now the author of 10 books of poetry, two memoirs and several plays and children’s books. She served three terms as the 23rd poet laureate of the United States from 2019-2022.
“I’m so grateful for your work,” audience member Beyssa Buil told Harjo during a question-and-answer session.
Toward the end of her lecture, Harjo showed off a medallion beaded by her daughter, Rainy Dawn. It’s a water spider, which is said to have given the world fire by carrying a burning ember on her back.
Then she showed the audience one last photo. It was of Harjo’s then-4-year-old granddaughter, sprawled on the floor, wearing a horse mask, already a conceptual artist.
“We are breaking in a new story,” Harjo said.