On the Reclamation of Australian Aboriginal and Native American Identity
Reading Women Discuss Joy Harjo's An American Sunrise and Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia
For September’s theme, Reading Women are discussing books by Indigenous women from around the world. Today, Kendra and Jaclyn are discussing An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo and Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia edited by Dr. Anita Heiss.
From the episode:
Kendra Winchester: Like last time we would like to first acknowledge the land on which we are, and so we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Catawba Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the Sana Nation, the Atakaba Ishak Nation and pay respect to Elders past and present.
Jaclyn Masters: And in my case I’m acknowledging the land I lived on while I was in Australia and I wish to respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
KW: So today we have our discussion episode and I feel like with both of the books that we’ve chosen today there’s just so much to talk about.
JM: Yeah, I think we chose really well. Not biased at all.
KW: Yeah, and with the anthology Growing Up Aboriginal we thought we could talk a little bit about Aboriginal people in Australia and some of the terminology and background of that. Because as an American, I hadn’t heard any of this history or terminology before reading the anthology and talking with you about it.
JM: Yeah, and to be honest there’ll be a lot of Australians that haven’t heard it because it’s not the history that I was taught very well at school. I think I mentioned before I think the first time that I was learning about Indigenous history was when I was at university and it was a subject that I’d chosen to study. So I think no matter where you’re at with your understanding of Australian history, I think this collection has something to teach everyone. So one of the things that I became aware of when I was reading this was I read it in July which in Australia is Blak History Month. So it works a lot like Black History Month in February in the US if you have ever followed that. It’s really a celebration and showcasing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, heritage, and cultures and it’s acknowledging and celebrating First Australians achievements and contributions.
The spelling of Blak as well I should note it’s b-l-a-k. So they drop off the “c.” So the way it’s described on a website celebrating Blak History Month is that the re-spelling of that name without the “c” in it is about empowering the part of the community that uses the word to identify. So it’s a way to reclaim possession of a word that hasn’t always meant the most positive things for people.
KW: And I think you can definitely see that in action in the anthology Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia when they talk about being called these derogatory things and how that made them feel and how accepting their Aboriginal heritage and embracing that and celebrating that really just changed how they saw themselves. And I feel like you can see that enacted and in a story like format. So for me, as an American, who wasn’t familiar with this, I was like Oh, OK it now makes sense. Now that I’ve read dozens of these people’s stories and it just really fit. I feel like it’s just, you know also a recommendation, you know for people to go read that. Because it is a definitely life experience here in America. But I think and so it’s important for us here in America to also understand that around the world people are celebrating their own identities in different ways.
JM: Yeah and I think a lot of the essays do speak to how words have not been used in a positive sense and how that’s affected the individual person’s ability to connect to their own identity as an Aboriginal person. And seeing the contributors to this collection reclaim the use of those words in a way that positively affirmed how they do connect to their identity is a really powerful way that language is used in this collection.
KW: So, we will be talking a little bit about that in a second. But we also wanted to touch on the kind of news, I guess is kind of old news at this point, but we’re still all very excited about it that Joy Harjo, who is the writer of our second discussion book, is our new Poet Laureate here in the United States. And I was reading up on her and while this article in The Smithsonian says, “Seeing Joy Harjo perform live is a transformational experience.” And Joy Harjo loves the saxophone. That’s actually part of her collection.
JM: Wow. She loves playing or listening?
KW: She loves the saxophone that’s a part of the collection and also in her author photo in the back of the collection and she’s with her saxophone.
JM: She is too.
KW: Which is pretty cool. And so she talks a lot about in this article, which I will link in our show notes, about her experience writing An American Sunrise, which is the collection we’re talking about today, and her perspective on unwriting that. And there’s this quote that the writer uses to close out the piece and it says “Harjo’s wisdom teaches that poetry and music are inseparable. And she acknowledges poetry and activism also have a kinship.” And it says, “That Joy Harjo says, ‘A poem, a real poem will still stir the heart and break through to make an opening for justice.'” And I feel like that is a great introduction to Joy Harjo and her mission as a Poet Laureate. And how she uses An American Sunrise in a lot of different ways to kind of make an opening for justice and illustrate how America as a nation has mistreated the Native Nations that were originally here and what that has meant for them, and for her as a person who is part of the Muscogee Creek Nation. And it’s a beautiful collection. So we’re very excited to talk about both of these, this anthology collection and this poetry collection today. Jaclyn, should we start with Growing Up In Australia?
JM: Yes, so Growing Up In Australia is edited by Dr. Anita Heiss. And before I talk about the collection, it’s probably just worth noting that there are three or four other of these “Growing Up in Australia” titles available at the moment. So there is a title Growing Up Asian in Australia, Growing Up Muslim in Australia, Growing Up African in Australia, and the newest release in the last few weeks in Australia has been Growing Up Queer In Australia. I understand there’s also a Growing Up Disabled In Australia anthology coming out soon too. I think it’s really wonderful that there are these really focused collections looking at how different people have found growing up in Australia specifically for them.
So this was no exception, this was a really wonderful anthology. And I think in the introduction Dr. Heiss talks about how there was something like 120 original submissions, and I think there’s about 50 that get covered in this book. So, I mean there’s a lot of perspectives and one of the things we mentioned on our last episode was that they come from all geographic places across Australia, different Indigenous nation groups. So you’re getting a very diverse range of voices in terms of age, different nations, different life experiences, professions. You know what I really enjoyed was that there were know ordinary people there were opera singers, there were writers, there were professional sports players—there were so many from people that added to this collection and really just contributed their voice. And one of the things I should mention as well is Kendra and I both listened to this one as an audiobook and the audiobook is narrated by six actors and they do such a great job. They make each of the essays sound like they’re like the individual contributors writing them. So I thought that was a really unique feature of the audiobook.
Some of the common themes that come up in the essay—I think it’s hard to sort of talk about this book when there’s so many different contributions—but I guess one of the ways that I started thinking about it was I was going through are what are some of the common themes that are coming up around this search for identity? And how do some of these commonalities start to speak to issues like how people have been impacted by the Stolen Generation in different senses of inherited and intergenerational traumas from having their family members who were removed or from being removed as children themselves.
KW: So as an American I’d never heard of the Stolen Generation before. So would you explain that for our listeners who may not be familiar with it.
JM: Yeah, so the Stolen Generations refers to this forcible removal by institutions that were the government in Australia where Indigenous children were removed and placed into missions or other homes. But essentially removed from their family. And the trauma that had is something that is so well explored in the collection both in a very literal sense, people recounting their experiences of their parents being removed, or them being removed, or searching for family members that they couldn’t keep track of because they had been impacted.
JM: I think for readers not familiar with that term, I think this collection does a really great job of helping you understand that in more than just an abstract historical sense. It really personalizes something that for so long history is written written out of the history books.
KW: There were so many different perspectives on it, how a lot of the stories in this anthology of these people writing the essays about their family and their history as an Aboriginal person. A lot of them were, “We didn’t know we were Aboriginal until we finally traced back our family.” And how this Stolen Generation really is also stealing these people’s heritages because a lot of them don’t know what nations that their families belong to because they were stolen. And that is like a stolen history, as it were. And they really explore that and how that’s been so detrimental to their knowledge of themselves as a person and how that really affected their lives. And there wasn’t just one story. There were dozens of stories like this and how it had such a great impact. And I think it’s important that we remember this that, you know, that we remember that this happened. And I think that’s why these people are also telling their stories is that, one, they’re speaking up as Aboriginal people but also reminding like “Hey, this is what happened. We shouldn’t forget so this doesn’t happen again.”
JM: Yeah. And I think it did, the collection did a really good job both in individual pieces but also collectively to give people reading it that haven’t experienced it or haven’t lived in Australia and experienced Australian society. Interesting snapshots at different points too because the contributors are all different ages. I think you say in many ways how things change over time but then also how some things don’t particularly when it comes to racism and that institutionalized and inherited trauma that people, people suffered.
KW: Yeah, I think there’s also another theme of feeling Aboriginal enough. And how there are a lot of people who are Aboriginal but maybe you know one parent was an Aboriginal or maybe they have a grandparent who is Aboriginal and just the idea of being Aboriginal enough. And there’s a beautiful moment in one of the essays where this girl feels such conflicts and trying to come to terms with her Aboriginal identity. Her dad who is Aboriginal takes a cup of coffee and he says, “What is this?” And she’s like, “It’s a cup of coffee.” And then he pours milk onto it and he says, “Now what is this?” She’s like, “It’s a cup of coffee.” And he’s like, “Yes, this will always be a cup of coffee no matter how much milk you pour into it.” And he says, “You are Aboriginal.” And it was just a big moment for her. She talks about that in the essay and it was such a beautiful illustration of a lot of the writer’s journey in this anthology and coming to terms with their identity and just exploring that.
KW: And I don’t know, it just stuck in my mind because it was so well written and important for a lot of the voices in this anthology.
JM: And it’s so embracing of having an identity that you can outwardly identify with and say that you are Aboriginal. So many of the essays spoke about how the person felt like they couldn’t identify a certain way because their skin color was different or they just didn’t know enough about their family history to identify in a particular nation or things like that. So you really start to see the personal impact that the Stolen Generation and racism and all of these sorts of issues have on everyday lives. And I think the fact that that keeps happening time and time again in each of these essays really hammers the point home to the reader and just cumulatively makes it so effective to read.
KW: Yeah, just how repeated the theme of being Aboriginal enough is throughout the entire anthology made it a huge impact on the reading experience.
KW: There was one collection of guy and as a boy he would say you know I’m half Aboriginal. And his family, Aboriginal family is like no you’re Aboriginal you’re also Irish. And how you’re not half Aboriginal, you’re Aboriginal. Cementing that in his mind for him and how the families you know discuss with the children who are trying to come to terms with their identity was also a big deal. And reading one essay on this on their own would be incredibly impactful but this chorus of voices kind of repeating these themes just emphasizes that for the reader that we are Aboriginal people. We come in all different shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities and classes, but we are all Aboriginal people.
JM: Oh, absolutely, and I think one of the things that was really effective in doing that was that discussion about language and the way that language has been misused through history as a way to sort of separate people and make them feel lesser because they’re not a whole of something or they’re only part of something. And I feel like a lot of the essays in the collection really spoke to reclaiming that and just being like No, I’m Aboriginal. There’s nothing that I need to qualify that with and I thought that was really powerful. So that was Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia edited by Dr. Anita Heiss, and that’s out from Black Inc.Language is used as this oppressive colonial force in itself in the way that history is written.
KW: And we’ll be back to discuss our second discussion pick, An American Sunrise, after a word from our sponsor.
JM: So, Kendra, did you want to talk about our second discussion pick?
KW: Yes. So our second discussion pick is An American Sunrise poems by Joy Harjo and this is out from W.W. Norton. And I picked this collection in particular because I’d never read Joy Harjo before and she was just named our Poet Laureate here in the United States and I thought this would be an opportune time. And so I was looking forward to reading this collection. And so I took it with me on a trip recently and I opened it up and I want to read one of the lines in the first poem which is “Break My Heart.” And at the very end of this poem it says, “History will always find you and wrap you in its thousand arms.”
And I feel like that is such a concrete image for an abstract subject of history. And that’s really a theme that runs through this collection, An American Sunrise, is history and how it relates to Native peoples in the context of Joy Harjo’s family. Joy Harjo is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and she talks a lot about her family’s experience and her early memories of living with her family. And just a lot of the laws and the history that the American government has had with her particular Native nation. And I found that incredibly informative but also appreciate her sharing her own experience. Especially since she also gives historical context to a lot of her poems by talking about different laws that came in to being such as in 1978 Native American people were for the first time allowed to practice their own spiritual traditions and religion in that way and the cultural parts of their identity which were illegal until that point. So she’s able to use all of these different things in poetry to communicate her experience as a woman from the Muscogee Creek Nation.
JM: Yeah, and I feel like that date isn’t that far back in time either and to contextualize that historical moment with her own personal take and what that’s meant for her, I thought that was a really apt comparison and just read really powerfully.
KW: Yes, and throughout the poem she travels back to the traditional lands of her ancestors in Alabama. And she also has this poem about washing her mother’s body and how this practice was something they were not allowed to do for so long. And it was such a such a vital part of her culture. And in just talking a lot of different facets about her culture as a Native person and those experiences in poetry. So we talked a little bit about last time but this would be a great poetry collection if you were setting this time period in history to go with that. Because it does talk a lot about the history of her people and what that was like for her grandparents and for her parents.
JM: So I think just one of the things you mentioned before, Kendra, about the story about her washing her mother, I think one of the things that I remembered was one of the, I think it was one of the historical stories, that she was recounting where she talks about a horse quote unquote theft and she was talking about the way that it it’s been written in history is this theft. But that really wasn’t the case because the alleged incident occurred on stolen land. So the idea that someone could be using their own livestock, you know it’s just not possible that it can be stolen in that sense.Joy Harjo writes, “Until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for Native citizens to practice our cultures.”
JM: So I thought it was interesting the way that she used language and interrogated the way that language has been used throughout history to convey that. I thought that was really powerful. And she actually expressly uses the expression “trade language” and saying, “That there’s no words with enough power to hold all this we have become.” I thought that was really interesting because it’s something that I know I’ve read in a lot of other Indigenous collections that look at the way that language is used as almost this oppressive colonial force in itself in the way that history is written. So I think that she tackles this head on in the way that language is used and how she chooses to use it in her poetry was really effective for me.
KW: Sometimes people will say, “What’s the big deal about language?” “It’s just a word.” “Why get technical?” Or you know, being the know-it-all and correcting someone. But language, no, language is powerful and I feel like we definitely need to be conscious of this language. And that’s something that she reinforces, like you said. How language is used and how it seems like not a big deal or very subtle but actually you know it’s very powerful. And I actually also underlined the lines you just mentioned and just the idea that “no words with enough power to hold all this we have become.” It just makes you sit and think. She’s able to write these lines, or two lines, and you just sit and you think about what she just said. It’s like you’re ruminating over something and I keep thinking about how when we were taught literary criticism about the cow chewing the cud. You just keep thinking about those same words and the more you think about and ruminate on them, the more complex you realize they are. And that really is Joy Harjo’s poetry collection. The more you think about these words in the language the more you realize how complex they are.
JM: And how much depth she has in so few words as well.
JM: I think that’s probably something I’ve certainly took when I read the whole collection. I just felt like she says so much in such a short space of words.
KW: And we talked about the poem “Washing My Mother’s Body.” I wanted to read the section on page 29. She talks a little bit about why she’d be washing her mother’s body. So she kind of contextualizes poems, which I love because she knows her audience, one, but also she is saying this is why this is important and kind of giving us a reminder as readers. And she says, “Until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, it was illegal for Native citizens to practice our cultures. This included the making and sharing of songs and stories. Songs and stories in one culture are poetry and prose in another. They are intrinsic to cultural sovereignty. To write or create as a Native person was essentially illegal.” And the fact that she’s writing this is illustrating that if it were another time, this poetry collection would have been illegal.
JM: It really makes you pause.
KW: Yeah, and it follows that by the poem “Washing My Mother’s Body.” And the beginning starts out,
“I never got to wash my mother’s body when she died or returned to take care of her memory. That’s how I make peace when things are left undone. I go back and open the door. I step in to make my ritual to do what should have been done or needs to be fixed so that my spirit can move on. So that the children and grandchildren are not caught in a knot of regret they do not understand.”
And so she continues this, and she kind of like imagines washing her body, her mother’s body and all these different things and just the practice of it and what it reminds her of and she’s kind of like imagining herself ruminating on different things. And to me it’s it’s one of the most powerful poems in the entire collection because of all that she accomplishes in this short amount of space, while also illustrating what she had just talked about and contextualizing the poem that this practice was illegal for so long. That people were not allowed to help their loved ones’ spirits come to rest and thus the spiritual practices and how they were important to a culture and uniting a culture and just a lot of the different things that they weren’t allowed to celebrate and practice.
JM: Yeah, especially because it comes straight after that paragraph, that historical excerpt too, I think she had that connection was really, really well drawn.
KW: So we’ve talked a little bit about how Joy Harjo uses history as kind of this narrative thread and then will contextualize poems on what was going on at the time and how she’s kind of reflecting on that in the including that in the themes of her poetry. There’s this one poem on page 61; it’s called “Bourbon and Blues,” and it starts out,
“We were wild then, as we emerge from bloody history into the white clothes of pious religion and rules. They send off to Indian schools to learn how to forget our mothers, fathers, and grandparents who loved and love us. We were still in the embrace of the God of the plains, horses of where sky and earth meet. Every day was a praise song every word or act as important into meaning of why we were here as spirits dressed in colored earth.”
And that goes back to practicing, you know, your own culture and your own religious practices and not being able to do that. And here in America we also had schools that Native children were taken to. And that is part of what she’s referring to is that they were taught to abandon their own culture and assimilate. And how their own cultures were devalued, not only because they were, one, illegal but also because they were taught they weren’t as good as white culture and how that affected her and her family. And in this poem it continues to talk about the history of her people and the atrocities that they lived through and coming out on the other side and being a Native person.
JM: I love that line. It’s in that same poem but it’s the next stanza down where she says, “And though tried they could not ever remake us no matter how hard they drilled and forced us. We died over and over again in those stiff desks as our hearts walked home.” I mean that’s an amazing kind of prose and really connected to that theme of erasure and trying to forcibly just eliminate a cultural history.
KW: The emotion that she also communicates in the poems is just incredibly skillful in how she does it. And you know as we were preparing for this, Jaclyn and I were talking about how many tabs we have and how many things that we have underlined.
Because there is something on every page of this poetry collection and it’s almost impossible to try to choose what to talk about. Because this is a poetry collection you really need to read and reread and study. I think it’s going to be a very important poetry collection in the future. I mean obviously Joy Harjo is already a very important poet,but how impactful and layered this collection is. I didn’t know what to expect going into it because I’d never read her before. She’s so skillful. She’s really a master poet at her craft and I just don’t have words.
JM: Yeah I think looking at that emotion you talking about, Kendra, one of the things that I really liked reading was her balance between this weariness and feeling the weight of history but also the simultaneous tenacity to persevere. And one of the early poems has this line, “I grow tired of the heartache of every small and large bore passed from generation to generation but it is not in me to give up.” And I thought that having that set the pace for so many of the other reflections that she draws on from her life and through history in the collection. I just thought that was . . . you could just feel like the weight in the words and just how much was loaded into those few words—just very incredible.
KW: So, I will link to that article that I was talking about in the Smithsonian so you all can go check out more about Joy Harjo, but we absolutely love this collection and are just speechless by how beautiful and talented this is. So definitely go check out An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo which is out now from W.W. Norton.
KW: And that’s our show. If you haven’t yet, please leave us a review in your podcast app of choice. And thanks to all of you who have already done that. Many thanks to our patrons who support makes this podcast possible. To subscribe to our newsletter or to learn more about becoming one of our patrons, visit us at readingwomenpodcast.com.
JM: And join us next time where Kendra and Sumaiyya we’ll be looking at multicultural stories for October’s theme and in the meantime you can find Reading Women on Instagram and Twitter (@thereadingwomen). You can find Kendra (@kdwinchester) and me on Instagram (@sixminutesforme). Thanks again for listening to Reading Women.