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Haaland, Harjo share stories about longtime friendship

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, right, and U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, center, participate in a Library of Congress program Nov. 1 hosted by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, left. (Courtesy image)

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., kicked off Native American Heritage Month on Nov. 1 with a historic conversation between two prominent Native American women. U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo spoke in a program hosted by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden that was available to view online.

The intimate conversation between longtime friends Haaland and Harjo covered poetry, their history together and the importance of helping other Native Americans.

Hayden opened the conversation with a land acknowledgement. She said they were present on the ancestral homeland of the Piscataway Tribe and paid respects to them as the traditional custodians of the land on which the Library of Congress sits.

Haaland, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress and the first to serve as a cabinet secretary, has known Harjo since her senior year as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico.

“I was a big fan of hers for a long time,” said Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). “I needed an elective and was so lucky to take her class.”

Harjo, who is serving her third term as poet laureate, remembered the day Haaland walked into her classroom.

“You came in wearing a motorcycle helmet,” said Harjo (Muscogee Nation). “You didn’t look like the usual motorcycle
person. You told me it had to do with fossil fuels and not wasting gas.”

After the class was over, Harjo invited Haaland to the first Native American writers conference in Norman, Oklahoma.

“We went on that road trip and I was inspired during that entire weekend,” Haaland said. “It was the first gathering of its kind with Native writers from the continental U.S., Hawaii and people from South America came up,” Harjo said. “People still talk about it; it was quite a historic gathering.”

Hayden, the first African American Librarian of Congress as well as the first female to serve the position, asked the women how it felt to be there as secretary of the Interior and poet laureate.

“There are a lot of people in my life who keep me truly humble, my child is one and the folks back home will always keep you humble,” Haaland said. “It’s almost like [Harjo and I] have the same relationship we had back then. Things haven’t changed between us, we are trusted friends.”

In addition to friendship, Haaland and Harjo share a love of poetry.

“Words have power and they move through us,” Harjo said. “They come from the creative force within us. I got into poetry because I could see words could change things.”

One of Haaland’s poems, “For Water,” is included in an anthology of Native American poems edited by Harjo. Harjo read the poem. Haaland read Harjo’s poem “My Man’s Feet,” from Harjo’s book “American Sunrise.”

“A fight for water, for land, begins at home, at the kitchen table, in the bath before bed, while your mother recites a story from her childhood. Our family traditions, to watch out for land, water, animals. To pray to and for them, so they will always be there,” read Harjo from “For Water.”

Haaland, from“My Man’s Feet,” read: “They are heroic: roots You cannot mistake them For any other six-foot walker I could find them in a sea of feet A planet or universe of feet.”

Harjo’s latest project is an anthology of Native American poetry, “Living Nations, Living Words.” Hayden wanted to know what poetry means to Haaland and Harjo as they progress in their work and move through life.

“Words matter and when you think about poetry, it’s to the point,” Haaland said. “You don’t generally waste words in poetry, you say what you mean and mean what you say. In my business there is a lot of reading going on; some reports are 30 to 40 pages long. Picking up a book like this that is packed full of meaning and love and history is refreshing and just fills you up.”

Poet laureate is the only federally funded literary position in the U.S. Hayden asked Harjo if she feels the civic aspect of
the position.

“Even before I was poet laureate I felt like we all have service positions,” Harjo said. “We are all here to help, to contribute something and take care of each other. I think it gave me an opportunity to give back a project, something that could be useful for the community. There are so many Native poets, I’m not the only one. There’s a diversity and diversity needs to be honored in any healthy system or community.”

Haaland gave Harjo credit for being a wonderful mentor to her and to hundreds of Native students through the years and believes her class at the University of New Mexico helped Haaland find her voice.

“It’s all about us leaving the ladder down so other people can climb it,” Haaland said. “It’s inspiring people so they too can add their voice. It isn’t easy to sit down and start writing.”

Harjo’s new memoir “Poet Warrior” helped Hayden understand what Harjo stands for.

“We’re here because someone made a ladder so we could come up, familial and poetry ancestors,” Harjo explained. “The memoir is about them and learning how to listen. It’s hard to sit down and listen, especially now there is so much racket going on and not just traffic, but the internet. It’s constant. It’s important to take care of your spirit, your soul. Poetry feeds that.”

Haaland doesn’t have much time to read for pleasure lately, but knows it is important to read what sustains you. She said poetry is one of those things.

“I’m here in this role as secretary of the Interior not because of anything I did, but because of opportunities people gave me, because I decided to say yes to those opportunities,” Haaland said. “I’m here because of the hard work my grandmother and grandfather did to preserve our culture and traditions through the worst assimilation policies of the United States. I’m here because my ancestors fought through famine and drought because they believed very strongly that they were there to provide a future for our people. I am that future.”

Along with Harjo, Haaland recognizes the obligation to give back and help as many people as possible.

“I’m fully immersed in all of this,” she said. “I’m the first Native cabinet secretary and hope I am not the last. We open these doors, we are all here to help each other.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at