This title is no longer available for programming after the grant year. How We Became Human W. Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen. Drawing together "the brutalities of contemporary reservation life with the beauty and sensibility of Native American culture and mythology," writes Publishers Weekly, the book shows "the remarkable progression of a writer determined to reconnect with her past and make sense of her present. Reed Books,
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It is obvious a collection of selected poems from seven volumes plus an eighth section of more recent poems can only be slightly distorted and the vision we get of the author and her work is slightly warped. The only thing that comes up strong is the perspective this selection tries to put forward. And yet this perspective is like a second thought thirty years later. There is thus no beginning and no end. There is only a first page, then a succession of pages right through to the last page which is no end, and we know the author has published a lot since then.
This sort of timeless drift is slightly disappointing up to page because the Indian theme and the Indian culture or mythology are vastly absent up to this point. There is some, but the dominant images and impressions are universal and could concern any human being. Luckily in the second part of the book, the Indian theme comes back very strong. The author says somewhere she has been influenced by modern Navajo literature and poetry, which is probably true, but I expected more about the past, the Indian culture, particularly that before the arrival of the Spaniards and their horses.
The mythology is vastly absent apart from some rather blunt allusions. For example, there are a lot of twin brothers in the book but they are not related in any way to the famous twins of Indian mythology, for example the Hero Twins of the Mayas. But these are not the only twins. Then twins being extremely universal in most mythologies and religions these pairs of twins in the book are no longer Indian for a reader who does not connect the twins to what he or she knows of Indian mythology that he or she may project into the twins in the poems, but most readers do not know much about Indian mythology and culture.
Contradiction, antagonistic even, and yet I am not satisfied entirely because the book carries a third option: just enjoying things the way they are, the way they come, like we enjoy the image we can capture with a kaleidoscope, ever-changing, never-ending, never the same and only enjoyable in its instantaneous patterns, exploded gestalts, fugitive forms.
But more about this later. Let me go over some themes that are recurrent in this poetry. The first one is a vision of the family, and here she says, Indian family. The husband and father is often an alcoholic who spends the money of the family to get into regular binges and can even borrow money to do it. He may be violent and definitely promiscuous and unfaithful.
But at the same time she does not entirely consider the fact that the first person who is speaking in most cases is the one who falls for every man that comes along and has some charm or appeal, and there is no safe sex, and there is, nearly all the time, a child fast and after two or three years two or three children.
That modernized vision of the Christian God is so banal, and there is no other real elaboration on the concept of god that is most of the time in the plural. The second theme is just as surprising as the first one. She identifies Indians with horses and horses are part of the vague and distant mythology or culture of Indians.
But horses are not Americans by origin. Only one draught animal was actually domesticated in Peru by the Incas, and it was the lama. The Mayas had no draught animal and most Indians were in this situation.
Even if in the far distant north they used dogs on the snow and yet did they do it before the colonization or after? We can wonder why this horse is blue, knowing that blue was necessarily blue-green since the two colors were captured by the same word.
We would say today it is the color jade of the stone jade or color turquoise of the stone turquoise. This color reduced to blue, a shade of blue, in modern English is the symbol of wisdom and intuition for face paint and confidence for war paints. On the other hand, nowadays green is seen as the symbol of nature, harmony, and healing for face-paint, and endurance for war paint.
The stone and the color had spiritual and life-giving qualities for over years. It is the birthstone of December and signifies success. To Native Americans, turquoise is life.
Stones and crystals have unique attributes that support and heal us. Turquoise is known for its positive healing energy, an aid in mental functions, communication, and expression and as a protector. I was surprised by the order of the four colors representing the cardinal points since I generally, along with the Mayas, consider them as going from east red to north white to west black and to south yellow. The fifth color blue-green is at the center of these four cardinal directions.
We can note the normal order is counterclockwise, starting with east, and that there are two colors that do not fit with the traditional colors which are what I have just given.
Black is associated with west because the sun goes down there and enters the underworld, Xibalba for the Maya, and it will stay in the dark and lightless underworld till the next sunrise in the east. There is a strange assumption that the underworld is the world of perpetual night and yet there is no complete darkness because there is some light there which is not always clearly identified.
But the most surprising in this poem is the direct parallel it contains with the four horses of the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. The parallel of the four horses of different colors is so strong that we could have expected the use of this classic Christian reference, and at the same time the four horses are not fully embodying the American Indian mythology and culture.
In a way it is uncomfortable. The introduction of horses in America in the 15th century by the Spaniards transformed this continent and its population. Horses should have been a scourge and they were not because they multiplied so fast that American Indians were able to capture wild ones and break them and use them.
It changed their life for the better. But the confrontation with the horse-riding Spaniards, and later English or French people and their cavalries, meant the story we know and the poetess here from time to time alludes to. The famous picture of the Trail of Tears has a defeated Indian warrior riding on a horse, and one of the most famous Indian chiefs was named Crazy Horse and the Sioux are building a monument to him, carving the mountain to his effigy and developing a cultural center, a university and many other things around it.
That recalls the first volume I reviewed, Crazy Brave. There would be so much to say on the openly crossed theme and topic of these four horses, but as it stands there I am rather disappointed. It is more than beautiful at the center of the world. But this time she has Christianized the cardinal points corresponding to the colors: scarlet East , jet West , ochre South , and white North. And of course, the center is defined by this cross though Indians believed that at this center of the cardinal plane a special tree of life was growing pushing its roots into the underworld, erecting its trunk in the human middle world, and projecting its branches and foliage into the upperworld, into the sky.
But this brings me to a very common image, that of circles. This figure of circles is definitely central with North American Indians, not with Mesoamerican and South American Indians where squares and pyramids are dominant. But that circle is associated systematically with dancing, and dancing is an essential activity of the night. Is the poetess projecting a trip to Europe into her poem? And if we take prehistoric in its classic meaning of before writing existed, that pushes the horses very far, since The Maya could write, and the Olmec before them probably had experienced the very first steps of this emergence of a writing system that has only survived carved in stone, painted on the walls of palaces and in four miraculously preserved codices.
We can estimate that this writing system was in the process of being devised something like 3, years BCE, at about the same time as the Sumerian Cuneiform writing was reaching its mature form slightly before 3, BCE, and the first elements were found as far as Romania some 6, BCE. Of course, North American Native Americans did not write and the first to write were the Iroquois in the 18th century. If that is the meaning of Prehistoric, we are living in another universe.
And human history started in Black Africa something like , years ago. Human history and I should even say Hominin history, started as soon as these Hominins developed from their heritage of calls a threefold articulated language, and the first steps were made by several known Hominin species from Homo Erectus onward, even though only Homo Sapiens developed three articulations.
That is the real invention of civilization because without this articulated language no other evolution was possible in the field of intellectual, spiritual and cognitive activities. The concept of prehistory is typical of a euro-centered intellectual vision from the 19th century that does not correspond to the reality of the emergence of Homo Sapiens , years ago.
Then the poem shifts to the first person and yet ends up in the third person, a mysterious third person. It also explains her approach to poetry. I particularly liked this line, "To make art is to replicate the purpose of original creation. The earlier poems are more raw, as if she is finding her voice. They speak often to the experience of Native Americans or of women. They grapple with issues of colonialism and how to create an identity when the larger society is working against you.
The collection was finished in September , and the final poem is written about September 11, It is entitled "When the world as we knew it ended.
How We Became Human
Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts. Harjo draws on First Nation storytelling and histories, as well as feminist and social justice poetic traditions, and frequently incorporates indigenous myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry inhabits landscapes—the Southwest, Southeast, but also Alaska and Hawaii—and centers around the need for remembrance and transcendence. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival. She was named U. In she was awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry. In addition to writing poetry, Harjo is a noted teacher, saxophonist, and vocalist.
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Life[ edit ] Harjo was born on May 9, , in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She enrolled at the University of New Mexico and started in pre-med. Harjo changed her major to art after her first year.
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How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2002