Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”: An Indigenous Woman’s Voice in American Poetry

Since March 8 is International Women’s Day, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the female US poet laureate, Joy Harjo, and her poetry collection, She Had Some Horses. As a member of the Mvskoke nation, in it, she exposes her feminine wisdom to deal with post-colonial issues, responding to forgotten history and disidentification with sustainable memories and a powerful womanhood. The following are selected lines from three of my favorite pieces in She Had Some Horses, within which one can encounter a native American woman’s voice that gives her people stories, braveness and solace with a loving spirit.


“I Release Fear”

I take myself back, fear.

You are not my shadow any longer.

I won’t hold you in my hands.

You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice

my belly, or in my heart my heart

my heart my heart

But come here, fear

I am alive and you are so afraid

of dying.

For the poem, ‘I Give You Back’ on the fear of ‘the soldiers who burned down my home and beheaded my children’, I strongly recommend reading it while watching Harjo’s special reading of it, which you can find on YouTube by searching the title ‘Joy Harjo: A Poem to Get Rid of Fear’. I was impressed by the way she delivered it as a musician, a singer! For Harjo emphasizes poetry as a direct experience that one must have by listening to other’s voice, this poem is enchanted by beautiful rhythm from Harjo’s inheritance of indigenous oral tradition. And, artfully, at the close of the poem, she uses a binary relation to show how vulnerable the fear is and how strong an alive voice. 


“What Do Horses Mean?”

She had horses who danced in their mothers’ arms.

She had horses who thought they were sun and their

bodies shone and burned like stars.

She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.


With different kinds of horse images, an inclusive feminine pronoun and the extensive anaphora, Harjo’s ‘She Had Some Horses’ carries over her tribal horse stories and transforms them into a powerful indigenous spiritual tie. ‘I am the seventh generation from Monahwee, who is still a beloved person for the Mvskoke people, my tribal nation. I was told how he had a way with horses. He can speak to them.’ Similarly, her cousin is also a hippophile. ‘She had to live close to horses or not live at all. They were her people as much as any of the rest of us.’ With ‘an ancient and familiar smell’, the horses open door to memory by Harjo and her people, carrying them into the space ‘that is always around and through us, a space not defined or bound by linear time or perception’.


“My Memory is Alive”

There are voices buried in the Mississippi mud.

There are ancestors and future children

Buried beneath the currents stirred up by

pleasure boats going up and down.

There are stories here made of memories


For all aboriginal cultures, the most painful thing is not to recall the bloody atrocities the people had suffered in the colonial past, or to resist the imperial cultural invasion or assimilation, nor even to watch helplessly their myths and lands become alien and strange. The pain, the true torment is the fear of forgetting, for it is getting harder and harder to return to the past pure land from clouded memories and historical distance. And that time, awareness is truly excruciating. By reading her poem New Orleans’, her memory, her song, I suddenly realize that Harjo is trying to soothe the pain she senses in her people or other people by humming past stories, as a mother would do when enfolding and rocking her stressed child gently back and forth. By this, Harjo keeps reminding us that native Americans are alive and keep singing. And it is from her alive and sustainable memory that people regain their lost place as real. 



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