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Living Nations, Living Words: A Guide for Educators

Themes and Touchpoints

Joy Harjo created the “Living Nations, Living Words” project with the goal of showing, through poetry, that Native people and poets are real, living, and have vital and unequivocal roots in the United States. When engaging poets for the project, she asked them to select poems on the overarching theme of place and displacement, and with four specific touchpoints in mind: visibility, persistence, resistance, and acknowledgement. In the following video, she shares what she means by these terms.

Harjo provides additional perspective and context for these themes and touchpoints in her own definitions below. After your students read these definitions, ask them to put them into their own words.

We all emerge from a place. Everyone does—whether you are a mineral, plant, animal, or winds. Our identity springs from place. Indigenous peoples of a land are deeply rooted. We are taught not to forget where we came from, and to know that we are related to the plants, elements and animals, to the very land itself of that place. Our languages, ideas, and bodies are shaped, fed and given meaning by place.
Native nations peoples have been uprooted by wars, massacres, unjust laws, greed for oil, uranium, gold and other resources, imposition of programs meant to assimilate us, to make us forget who we are and where we come from, usually for acquisition of property, children or our souls.
We are all human beings. To be Native is often to be seen as a warrior on the losing end of a story, or as casino Indians or acculturated persons who are stripped of identifiable cultural markers. To be visible would mean that we are seen as human beings with complicated and complex lives and stories. We belong everywhere in the American story, not relegated to a past. We want to be visible as distinct persons and tribal nations. We are your next-door neighbors. Some of us are U.S. Poets Laureate, some of us are teachers, some of us are bull riders or hold seats in Congress.
We as Nations have persisted. We are still here, nearly 600 federally recognized tribal nations with distinct cultures, languages, and histories. We have survived through the many efforts to destroy or disappear us. We have classical traditions. We have developed literature, astronomy, sciences, humanities and the arts.
We are living peoples with deep roots to the lands. We have an obligation to take care of these lands and each other, and when our ways of life are threatened, we stand up. There are many ways to stand up, be heard and make change. Poetry is one of them.
It is important to acknowledge the lands and the gifts of the lands, the plants, the animals, the elements which contribute to the physicality of living, thinking, and imagining. It is important to acknowledge that we are not here by our own efforts, rather we are here because of the persistence, resistance, and inspiration from our ancestors and each other, and that we will continue only if we acknowledge and care for the gift of life here on earth.