I spoke to Joy Harjo, chair of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Board of Directors and the Poet Laureate of the United States, about the repatriation of the Yale Union building in Portland, Oregon to her organization, about her role as Poet Laureate in a toxic time in American politics, and how she found her voice through poetry and music.

Header image by Karen Kuehn.

About Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo. Image: Melissa Lukenbaugh

Joy Harjo is an internationally renowned performer and writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and was named the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019.

The author of nine books of poetry, several plays and children’s books, and a memoir, Crazy Brave, her many honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, a PEN USA Literary Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund Writers’ Award, a Rasmuson US Artist Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Harjo is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is a founding board member of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.

Episode Transcript

Douglas Detrick: Welcome to More Devotedly, a podcast for people who see the arts as a force for positive, progressive change. I’m Douglas Detrick. This is Volume IV, episode 5.


In July the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation announced that beginning in 2021 ownership of the Yale Union building, located in Portland, Oregon’s inner southeast, would be transferred to the Native Arts and Culture Foundation, and the Yale Union organization will dissolve.

At the heart of this transfer is the idea of repatriation, a reversal of the land theft that Indigenous Americans were systematically victimized by from first contact with European colonizers all the way to the present. Recognition of those transgressions is important, but the transfer shows that there are meaningful ways to heal some of those wounds that go beyond words. This land transfer will be an incredible investment in indigenous artists for years to come, and that will benefit all Portlanders.

As a nonprofit leader myself, I’m also struck by how this story shows that a nonprofit’s mission can be more important than its very existence. Nonprofits are so often chronically under-funded, but still burdened with high, often unreasonable expectations from funders. That fight just to exist becomes a mission all on its own. But it’s important to remember that’s not why we got into this work.

Sometimes there may be a very good reason for an organization to no longer exist. Yale Union, an organization that is “led by a desire to support artists, propose new modes of production, and stimulate the ongoing public discourse around art,” decided that it could best pursue that mission by giving its most central asset to a native-led organization. It’s a remarkable recognition that even a mission that an organization has held dear for more than years as Yale Union had in this case, isn’t necessarily the only mission that matters.

To learn more about the transfer and to talk about what it will mean for Native Arts and Culture Foundation, I spoke to Joy Harjo, who is the chair of the organization’s Board of Directors, and the Poet Laureate of the United States. We talked about this historic repatriation, about her role as Poet Laureate in a toxic time in American politics, and how she found her voice through poetry and music.


Douglas Detrick:  joy Harjo thank you so much for being on More Devotedly. There’s been some exciting news  the Yale union building in Portland, Oregon was transferred  to the native arts and cultures foundation. and you are the chair of the board of directors with that organization.  and I just wanted to start with the most important thing. In your view. why is this significant? 

Joy Harjo: I think it’s very significant on so many levels. I don’t know, in the, you know, even in US nonprofit history, if there’s ever been a building donated to an indigenous or native arts organization. I think this is the first. but it’s so exciting about what it means for local native arts, as well as national and maybe even international.

you know, there’s, there’s so much that can happen there in terms of, shows and, um, meetings, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s endless, you know, the possibilities of what, what could, what could have happened there, because I feel that a building it has quite a history, but you know, it’s it’s really become a kind of community arts place.

Douglas Detrick: Yeah, absolutely. And so that will, you know, that trajectory will kind of continue. the origination of Portland was, you know, there, there were native people that were living in that area of course. Um, and so this, this idea of repatriating, recognizing that debt and giving back, you know, in this way is like you said,  I can’t find another example of it happening in this way.  

Joy Harjo: I was just thinking of how this becomes an example of repatriation. And I wish I had thought of it the other night when I was asked a question about  repatriation for indigenous peoples. And this is a perfect example of how repatriation happens. 

Douglas Detrick: What is something to you that is particularly exciting about this opportunity, you know, maybe for the artists that might have access to this space or perhaps for the organization.

Joy Harjo:  I think of art is a coming together place, you know, even a work of art, whether it’s, uh, a performance or some kind of, you know, event, live event or music or painting or sculpture that  brings people together, you know, with ideas. And sometimes, you know, when, I mean the pandemic clears, you know, into a physical, a space to experience together. So this building certainly is emblematic, but it’s a very real space and with different kinds of spaces in it for all kinds of collaborations and events to take place.

Douglas Detrick: Do you have any, any thoughts about perhaps why this moment?  it’s a very difficult time. It’s a time of change. It’s, there’s pain. There’s also rebirth kind of all of these things are happening right now and this thing among them. And I’m curious, does it take any, special significance for this to be happening right now, in this moment?

Joy Harjo: Well, in these kinds of moments of immense social transformation, we’re challenged, we’re being challenged. We’ve been challenged utterly on so many levels, you know, the earth changes, climate change, governmental shift and, and chaos the arts have always been those places. They’re almost like transformer stations think of a piece of art or even a art movements, or even places like black mountain Institute, you know, black mountain, for instance, as they become transformers of culture, transformers in times of shifts. So I see the building  has the potential to work like that, to be a place, almost like a transformer station to engender the production and the sharing of what is going to emerge from these times that we’re all in. Because fresh art blooms from  these times of great challenge, just like in a fire, then there’s these fires that have been going on too. Is that out of the ashes, we’ll see green emerge and in the ashes, will feed, you know, will feed the earth and feed the plants. 

Douglas Detrick: And you mentioned part of the excitement of this event is that it sets an example. And so I wanted to kind of follow up on that again. You know, this is what could be the first of, of, you know, more types of transfers of, of property of capital in the future.

And, What of this do you think is a model, you know, what do you think other organizations, or perhaps other folks that have a building that they, you know, that they might be able to give to an organization? what do you think there is to learn from this?

Joy Harjo: as you were speaking, I was thinking way back to the late sixties when. You know, the Alcatraz prison was just sitting there. And I think it had been written into that contract or there was something that had, you know, it’s, uh, I don’t recall right now it’s something in a federal law that, actually it was written in it.

Natives could use that or a takeover, you know, use it after, and then the government blocked that. But I like the idea of repatriation.  I mean, there’s so many different kinds of moves and shifts that can happen with repatriation. there’s so much could happen there. It’s ultimately about sharing, you know, or giving back. 

Douglas Detrick: as we’re talking a bit about what’s happening right now and  some people are struggling to make sense of the moment. Some people that are looking to see what they can do to pursue their, ideals and, and changes that they would like to see. Um, there are also people that are, opportunistically capitalizing on, on divisions and things that are becoming even more intense during this time.

And so you are the poet Laureate of the United States and, I wanted to ask you about, you know, how do you see your role as Poet Laureate in a moment like this? 

Joy Harjo:  my position, it’s an honorary position, I see it as a service position. So I represent poetry and make, um, you know, help make the public aware of poetry. And it’s certainly times like this that we need what poetry provides, you know, an inspiration. Um, ways to speak that are not, polarized and ways to speak and be, you know, past the rhetoric and the hate to bring people together and to celebrate, you know, to celebrate poetry and the contributions of poets.

So, you know, it certainly being a poet Laureate during this time has been, it’s been a little strange because one, we can’t go anywhere right. By, by video. We’re, we’re limited And even politically we become limited you know, it’s, it’s, it’s such a strange time. Um, so like any poet, like any artist, you know, we have a responsibility to be truth tellers.

And to keep our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our minds on a way to keep moving forward, to inspire. To inspire cohesion and connection in a time in which, there were attempts to divide us, to destroy and to steal. I mean, that’s, that’s at the core of what’s going on. What’s at the core is an immense greed and a disrespect and disregard for other people, for the earth  for the, sacredness of life. Mm. 

Douglas Detrick: this is a question you can answer or not, you mentioned, um, climate change while the president has disregarded climate change. as an artist, you. You speak your mind. And so I’m, I’m just curious how at Liberty do you feel in this position um, kind of in this moment and how does that relate to  that interest in trying to bring people together?

Joy Harjo: I was told that I can put anything in a poem. in during this pandemic. I have been writing a memoir, but ,it’s sort of like looking back and looking at, you know, Going through generations and seeing how indigenous people have been through pandemics. We’ve been to major, you know, land theft, attempts to destroy us in culture and sort of like with the, the whole world’s going through right now.

And so I’m able to comment and move in that, in that form and that format and that forum, the book will be out next fall. It’s called poet warrior, a call for love and justice.  So that’s how I’m maneuvering. Trying to keep eternity in mind because these things change. They will change. And, you know, it’s important that everyone, you know, that we all get out to vote.

It’s important that we all have our voices that we speak and that we are heard and that we trust what we’re seeing, that we’re seeing, what we’re seeing. Yeah. Yeah. We know we trust that we’re here, what we’re hearing and not to be fooled by  fake news and the attempts to, to divide and to destroy.

Part 2

Douglas Detrick: hearing those things from you about, poetry and as well for you music, giving a voice, I’m getting an opportunity to express oneself.   I wanted to ask you about how you got into doing what you do as a poet and as a musician and, how did poetry and how did words and how did music create that opportunity for you to find a voice, to express that. And then to use that, to bring people together. 

Joy Harjo: I came to poetry through my mother’s song writing and she loved poetry. And, uh, but I walked away from music when I was in junior high and for a number of reasons that I talk about in my new memoir and, and, um, I started writing poetry when I was like in my mid twenties and I didn’t start playing music until I was in my almost 40.

I got my band Joy Harjo and poetic justice together. All of my band, they always native attorneys. So poetic justice. Was it good? Was it good name? It’s a good name for the band, but, and then I’ve had other bands and it’s like, I usually call it, uh, Aerodynamics a R R O w dynamics, band and play with, you know, whoever I pulled together, but I played a lot with Larry Mitchell and, and, um, a core group, Robert Mueller, Howard bass and so on. 

Douglas Detrick: so this was something that I read in an article with NPR, but you mentioned a story that I think that I believe is also in the memoir as well. So you mentioned a story about listening to miles Davis . my ears perked up a lot to that too, because I’m, I’m a jazz musician and a trumpet player kind of in my, well, almost a previous life, because now I’m producing a podcast and creating a lot of music kind of electronically and not playing the trumpet as much as I used to.

But, um, for me, it spoke to me a lot because of that experience with was very similar for me that listening to miles Davis and his, just his attitude towards music and the way he played the trumpet and the way he led his groups was really inspirational for me. Um, and you know, I was just, I was just curious about that inspiration in particular, or maybe if there are others that are, you know, feeling perhaps more significant right now?

Joy Harjo: Well, I remember getting to hear Gil Scott Heron years ago in Santa Fe,  and I thought, well, he’s doing kind of, what I want to do is poetry and music.

And I’ve been recording a new album with, Barrett Martin and, um, I finally, I feel like this album is in the pocket It’s like finally, you know, there’s the poetry, there’s the music. There’s, since they’re singing, I play sax. It’s very jazzy and yet very it’s just what I I’ve always done my own thing.

But miles. Of course, I, I have a little story. It’s at the beginning of my last memoir and crazy brave how I had a trans one of those transcendent moments when I was before I could really speak very well. And I was listening to the radio. We were driving somewhere in the car and it was miles Davis’s horn.

And it was, I don’t know, I say transcend that. Why talk about it? You know, I tried to describe it in that little piece I wrote, but I’ve always been deeply moved by jazz. I grew up with my mother is a singer and wrote songs and we had country swing musicians at our home and I heard her saying, so I grew up in that kind of atmosphere And then when I came to music later on and it was like, Oh my gosh, I’m too old, and it’s like, I couldn’t listen to them. It’s like becoming a poet, you know, people, I was not encouraged to become a poet at all. It’s like, you have kids, how are you going to make the, with all of that? And, um, you know, I started playing sax when I was  almost 40.

But I, love the music. What I love about jazz is that it enables me to travel in a way that, and there’s a way to travel and improv in it that it’s unlike any other kind of music that you can improv. I mean, country swing is the best of it is it is, um, you know, It’s thick with improv the same with a lot of middle Eastern music and so on. But I, you know, and I want to add that our Southeastern native people are part of the origin story of jazz and blues. 

Douglas Detrick: I would love to hear more about that. 

Joy Harjo: Congo Square was, uh, a Muskogeean village. Then you don’t know, you know, that stories left out. So after I get this memoir out and then this album, my project before I disappear to paint again, is a musical, had a musical that tells that story through a young band in Tulsa.

Douglas Detrick: Oh, wow. Has that been premiered yet? 

Joy Harjo: No. No. I kind of go into revisions as soon as I. Get all this other stuff in. 

Douglas Detrick: Great. I would love to hear more about that. It sounds like a fascinating connection. I find that, um, you know, and, and jazz history, just like in most, you know, most views of history that people have, and I’m sure poetry is similar, that there is kind of a, you know, there becomes like a prevailing narrative that most people just kind of accept without thinking about it.

And. And there’s almost always more to the story. So you know, just revealing that part of history. Um, you know, both for jazz, but also, you know, with indigenous people is, is, is great to hear. 

Part 3

As you were talking about your mother, there was just one last thing that I wanted to ask you before we go. And that was, just this idea of standing on the shoulders of giants.  this lineage that we all, you know, you might have it by blood, like you have with your mother and you might have it just by an experience like you have with miles Davis, I would say. was really curious about your mother and about how, how did she pave the way for you? Do you feel that she did,  how did that happen? And you know, what, what do you feel? Is there. 

Joy Harjo: Well, she gave up a lot of that. She wound up, she was writing when I was really small, she was in, there were just two children. She wound up with four children. She was recording demos. Ernie fields, who was, um, you know, he had a big jazz band. He took one of her songs and did a cover of it. You know, she was thick in the business and then, one of her songs got stolen and. I don’t know which one it was, but it became a Johnny Mathis hit.  I’m not saying he stole it. It’s just that somebody stole it and people would get songs and, you know, shop ’em to people.

Douglas Detrick: yeah. 

Joy Harjo: So, she had children, she had two more children. She wound up in a divorce and you know, her music or music fell away. 

I have an, I have a folder of songs that she wrote on, on the backs of envelopes and she always said, I can always recognize a hit. 

Douglas Detrick: Hmm. Yeah. It must’ve been devastating for her to hear it. I’m sure she heard it on the radio or eventually, you know.

Joy Harjo: I think about that though. And I think about, um, yeah, because she was sending out to music, Publishers that, you know, in the backs of magazines. So sending, just sending her work out like that, which is not a good idea for anybody out there.

Keep that in mind. Yeah. Two 

I’m even saying yes, keep it, you know, because without getting it without copywriting, I didn’t even then, you know, it gets tricky. 

Douglas Detrick: well, joy, I have really appreciated talking to you. that idea of, passing on a legacy and, building for the future finding ways for more people to find their voice.

and especially for indigenous folks, um, you know, and, and your mother did that for you and in some ways, and, and, and ACF native arts and cultures foundation. We’ll be doing that even more in Portland. And I’m, I’m really looking forward to that.  I run a arts, nonprofit in Portland as well, Portland jazz composers ensemble.

And so, yeah. So I’m looking forward to seeing. Kind of the growth with NACF in Portland and just excited for them to be, I mean, I guess they’re coming across the river from Vancouver, but, uh, you know, to come a little closer to us here. So I appreciate that. And I’m excited, very excited for it and very inspired to hear about this news and, and yeah. 

Joy Harjo: Well, I look forward to seeing you at the opening whenever, you know, the physical opening, whenever that might be. 

Douglas Detrick: Yeah, absolutely. I’m on the email list with NACS, so I’m sure I’ll hear about it and hopefully it can be there in person and maybe we can meet in person someday when the apocalypse is over and, and all that.

So. Okay. Great. But, well, thank you joy. I really appreciate your time and thank you so much. 

Okay. Thank you. Thank you. 

Bye. Bye .


Douglas Detrick: Thanks so much, Joy. 

Folks, we’re just about one month away from the 2020 elections. Are you registered to vote? Do you have a plan to vote so you’re safe and your vote is counted? It’s time to cast your vote in the most important election ever for every issue that progressives care about. Please vote Biden/Harris, and Democrats up and down the ticket so we can restore our democracy and make this country work for everyone. 

Make sure you are subscribed to this podcast on your podcast app to hear the next episode, an interview with Joni Renee Whitworth, a poet and Executive Director of the queer arts organization Future Prairie. We’re on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google podcasts and anywhere that fine podcasts are distributed. You can hear from me a little bit more often via social media, search for more devotedly in facebook, instagram and twitter, and you can join my email list at moredevotedly.com.

I’m Douglas Detrick and I produced this episode and composed and performed the music right here in Portland, Oregon. 

What you’re doing is beautiful. Can you do it More Devotedly?

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