Joy Harjo: “An American Sunrise”


An American Sunrise

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing
so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin
was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We
were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin
chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin
will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We
had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz.
I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die


From An American Sunrise: Poems by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2019 by Joy Harjo. Used with the permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Watch Joy Harjo read her poem and perform it along with musician Barrett Martin.


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. An American Sunrise, the most recent of her nine books of poetry, is available for order here.

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



Commentary by Amanda Moore

Today’s poem continues the Poetry Sunday series which, through November, will feature poems by women about voting and America. After an election that has demonstrated how deeply divided our country is, it’s difficult to define “American” anymore, especially considering our differences and a prevailing reluctance to work beyond them toward a common good. American values, American workers, American jobs, the American economy—these ideas were campaign fodder these last few months, sound bites signaling allegiance to the ideals and desires of conflicting factions. And, now that the election is over, there are forces working to keep us from uniting behind our fairly-elected American President so we can begin to work together to heal the rifts and indelible marks of the last four years.

The title of today’s poem, “An American Sunrise,” is not a concept likely to court controversy or stoke division, although of course, there is no single American sunrise. The vastness of our country means we experience dawn at different times. Moreover, times zones don’t even begin to account for the differences in location and in what we are doing, whether returning from a night’s revels or work, waking to start chores, or shivering under an insufficient blanket in an urban doorway or park. Our situation informs how we greet the sun and what we will be able to make of the day. What “American” means may be hard to pin down, but “sunrise” is easy to define and inevitable, something we all experience every day. Sunrise is, in short, a uniting factor.

Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise” is the title poem of a collection concerned with years of violence against and displacement of Native Americans at the hands of settler colonists. The poems in An American Sunrise excoriate policies implemented by the government we are watching splinter and devolve before our very eyes. The poem “An American Sunrise” centers the Native American experience by employing a first-person plural “We” speaker who is “running out of breath” with the effort of “surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights…ready to strike.” The collective voice sometimes modulates to “you” and “I,” but plurality and inclusiveness is its most significant feature.

After establishing a sense of struggle, the poem moves on to consider the large and small forces Native Americans have had to resist. Despite the “dark” —the way “we” were branded “heathens” or lost “days in the Indian bar”—there is light in the way we “made plans to be professional — and did,” “could sing,” and sometimes felt “like dancing.” Harjo celebrates that despite all her people have endured, they are still surviving, fighting, and seeking “justice.” The poem’s final lines refute any idea that Native Americans have been defeated. On the contrary, they assert, “We are still America.” This shift is empowering, and although the speakers know about “the rumors of [their] demise,” they are confident the sun has risen on a day when those rumors will “die soon.”

If the poem’s final words sound familiar, that’s because they echo the last line of Gwendolyn Brook’s famous poem “We Real Cool,” a poem that bears the epigraph “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel,” and also has a first-person plural speaker. [Read the Poetry Sunday column earlier this month featuring Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson” here.] Harjo’s poem is a “golden shovel,” a poetic form in which the end words of each line together comprise another already-existing poem, or a portion of a poem, in order to pay homage. Terrance Hayes invented the form as a way to honor Gwendolyn Brooks, and his poem “The Golden Shovel,” like all the early iterations of the form, also takes its end words from the text of Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” You can read more about the form’s genesis and evolution on The Poetry Foundation website.

Hayes’ golden shovel demonstrates the form’s flexibility, highlighting its subtlety in the first part, where Brooks’ words fit easily within his syntax. In the second part, words are broken over line breaks and shifted into unusual formations to incorporate Brooks’ text. Harjo’s usage lands somewhere in between these poles, and her line breaks emphasize the incorporated words without using complex or twisted syntax. The “we” in both the Brooks and Harjo poems forges a connection between their speakers, and in the Native Americans who “drank to remember to forget,” we recognize the pool players who “sing sin” and “thin gin.” Ultimately, though, Harjo’s poem ends with more hope as her speakers actively resist their own erasure. The use of the golden shovel form binds these poems in a conversation that transcends time and experience.

The golden shovel in general and Harjo’s version in particular resonate strongly in the wake of the election, which saw Joe Biden and Kamala Harris carried to victory largely through the organizing efforts and support of communities of color. Native Americans turned out in record number to help swing the election and are being hailed for their key role in news and social media. As a result of this support, our new administration moves forward with a mandate to create systems that support all citizens, especially those who have been pushed to the margins. Anything that honors—and honestly, anything that even recalls—America’s core values will be a welcome shift from the corrosive rhetoric of the last four years, and it’s that recognition and appreciation that is also the aim of the golden shovel. It is a collaborative form, a conversation, an expression of gratitude, and an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of poems and poets. Its very nature demands the inclusion of a more than a single voice; it invites multiplicity. In the foreword to The Golden Shovel Anthology, Hayes asks, “…where do poems come from if not other poems? Where do forms come from if not other forms?” As Trump tantrums and sabotages, and as Covid-19 rages, to acknowledge and honor the importance of others almost feels like a radical act, although it certainly shouldn’t.


Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.


Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.