Reclaiming Culture through Literary Art



Joy Harjo, author of Crazy Brave, well establishes the theme that there is a near-tangible connection that trails through one's lineage to their ancestors. This eight-year-old memoir, through its intricate language, helps the reader to “feel” the narration themselves and build empathy for the author. A Native American with a degree in creative writing, Harjo generates introspective descriptions of her real-life pains and experiences to discuss from her childhood damage to her discovery of poetry with the point-of-view of her present, wiser self. Destruction of the path that carries her ancestors' desire, however, has presented a significant setback on Harjo’s development. Since Harjo’s birth, which she describes as a “passage [from spirit] into humanity” (Harjo 18), Harjo’s connection with her abstract ancestors has deteriorated. As a result, Harjo turned to artistic expression as an escape from her loss of contact with her ancestors. This expression is so significant to the narrator that she even includes some of her own works of literary art in her memoir. These fables and poems  serve as “breaks” from her main plot and convey diversity in Harjo’s thought, while artistically communicating her feelings and progress. Harjo alternates literary media to convey the progression of her development from overwhelming discomfort of cultural destruction to relief of personal reclamation.

Harjo begins her development with an understanding of the fundamental cause of her dissonance. This begins with Harjo’s birth, which she describes as a letdown: “I was born puny and female and Indian in lands that were stolen” (28). Directly following this quote, Harjo shares a fable she was told as a child by one of the few members of her culture who still carries the “fire” of their stories. Set in a prehistoric utopia where the world could sustain all life, the fable discusses how a tricky rabbit destroyed the balance. Out of his boredom, Rabbit made humans out of clay and taught him how to steal. What began with chickens became food, wives, and eventually land; a sacred asset owned by no human but Earth. The purpose of the fable is to   convey the nature of colonialism; man got a taste of dominance over others’ belongings and couldn’t contain his desire for more. The lines in the fable that read “Then it was land… soon it was countries, and then it was trade” (29) are a direct reference to the fact that Harjo’s childhood took place on land that was stolen from her ancestors. Furthermore, the association between the fable and the author’s life is strengthened by Harjo’s use of point-of-view. As the consequences of Rabbit’s actions are revealed, Harjo transitions from third-person pronouns that describe Rabbit’s foolish actions to first-person plural pronouns that describe their effects: “We lost track of the purpose and reason for life… we forgot our stories'' (29). This harsh transition from narrating about the story to narrating from the story forces the reader to consider the reality of this seemingly imaginary fable. Hope and innocence are two themes that steadily disappear as the fable develops. Harjo opens her story with Rabbit’s intention to overcome his boredom by creating something and gaining wealth. His ignorance to the potential consequences of his actions show his inexperience with suffering. However, soon Rabbit worries as he competes with his creation, and, by the end of the story, has lost all hope for success; Rabbit is guilty of burdening Earth with human nature. Through this fable, Harjo recognizes colonialism and cultural degradation as the source of the pain woven into her culture and ancestry, as well as her hopelessness towards it.

As her childhood progressed, so did Harjo’s understanding of her role in society. After hiding her relationship with her mother from her abusive stepfather, Harjo cuts to a prose poem which follows many plots and nonlinear timelines. Despite its being composed of fiction, Harjo uses the work to demonstrate her true perception of cultural issues. The poem includes two stories which overlap to convey one complex theme. The first involves the catastrophic tale of a Creek girl who runs away in pursuit of love. The second is Harjo’s interpretation of the Native American water snake myth, in which the disguised watersnake seduces and marries a woman underwater. The stories are both told in first person point-of-view; Harjo uses “I” to refer to both the woman from the myth and the teen, showing that she identifies with both characters. In the same way that the woman is in love with the water snake from the myth, the Creek teen is fascinated with her own culture and enamored by the myth of the watersnake. The teen claims that Native lore “seeped into [her] blood... like deer gravy,” (66) despite her society losing touch with Native lore. Both the woman from the myth and the teen from the tale ask the question “How could I resist?” (66) about the water snake and her culture, respectively. By tying the two stories together, Harjo conveys the importance of culture in upbringing. She uses complex, overlapping plots to make clear that this importance is universal, unbound by any specific scenario or person. However, the poem ends tragically for the runaway teen. In an effort to escape her culturally-numb parents, the teen lets a handsome man seduce her by the lake; to her, he is the watersnake in human form. Not long after, the teen crashes her car and dies, ending her life at the bottom of the lake just like the monster’s wife. In this prose poem, Harjo recognizes that colonialism isn’t the only threat to her culture; an internalized lack of Native appreciation harms her upbringing the same. More importantly, Harjo describes an active role to combat her oppression when the teen runs away; her death was the bittersweet manifestation of her cultural expression, which shows a clear development from the helplessness conveyed in the Rabbit fable. Although the water monster poem doesn’t demonstrate a complete cultural comfort, it does show an effort to achieve it.

Harjo concludes her memoir by conveying her powerful transcendence above human issues in the face of her past helplessness and disadvantage. This poem is placed in the memoir during a moment when Harjo’s abusive husband was away in California teaching poetry to students. In her silent house, Harjo had a moment of catharsis as she imagined herself as multiple characters from the same story instead of tethering herself to a single point-of-view. The author attributes writing her first poem to this catharsis. Titled “Eagle Poem,” the work radiates the theme of active spirituality, crying out, “breathe, knowing we are truly blessed / because we were born and die soon within a / true circle of motion” (155). Unlike the first two works, there is no plot or development as Eagle Poem progresses. From start to finish, the work conveys tranquility with the same magnitude. In contrast to the first alternate medium, the Rabbit fable, Harjo communicates complete hope throughout the work. The poem opens with a clarification on how to pray to the universe correctly. Harjo argues that by opening oneself completely, one can finally find the cycles that dominate life. Harjo slightly combats her hope in prayer with the idea that there may be no need for hope; the beauty of the present is so strong that there is simply no desire for more. Again, this idea contrasts with the constant need for more felt by Rabbit’s clay human. The development of Harjo’s outlook is conveyed clearly through “Eagle Poem”. By feeling content with the present and connected with the universe, Harjo is above temporary human issues. She is more in touch with herself than ever, regardless of her childhood’s lack of cultural value. Harjo’s absolute comfort comes from prayer; an act of cultural expression. In the final deviation from the memoir’s structure, Harjo portrays cultural spirituality as the ultimate solution to her lifelong discomfort.

By diverging from her life story in favor of artistic expressions of emotion and culture, Harjo is able to conceptualize her coming to terms with society’s views on her culture. Upon observation of her authorial background, it becomes clear that she utilizes the key concepts of creativity and identity to portray cultural expression as her defense in the face of cultural suppression from within and outside her community. As Harjo explores the applications of literary art and creativity, she overcomes her lifelong anxiety that her true self may never be recognized or discovered. The self-awareness and fulfillness Harjo gains by using this new method of expression teaches her that an identity is defined by the worth one finds in themselves rather than the quantity of appreciation they receive from society. Creativity and identity are often found together in Crazy Brave because Joy Harjo develops the expression of her identity, conveyed through literary art, as the remedy to the cultural degradation imposed on her by society.

Work Cited

Harjo, Joy. Crazy Brave. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.