Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Reinventing the Enemy's Intentions: Native Identity and the City in the Poetry of Joy Harjo

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Reinventing the Enemy's Intentions: Native Identity and the City in the Poetry of Joy Harjo

Article excerpt

Abstract "Reinventing the Enemy's Intentions: Native Identity and the City in the Poetry of Joy Harjo" The late-1940s and 1950s, in terms of federal Indian policy, have been termed both the relocation era and the termination era. Public policy created in this time pushed American Indians off their reservations and into cities across America for hopes of better jobs and living conditions. However, at the core, this period of federal Indian policy was centered around dispossessing Natives of their land and assimilating them into the American mainstream. Joy Harjo, a Muskogee Creek poet, engages with the issues of dispossession, assimilation, identity, and the city as an outgrowth of the 40s and 50s federal relocation policies. Yet, I argue, the story Harjo's poetry tells, subtly, is one of resistance to American assimilation. Rather than depicting Natives that forget their culturally-based identity, Harjo tells stories of American Indian individuals that cling to their culture even though they remain dislocated from their tribal homelands. The American city, because it is both heterogeneous and dynamic, cannot guarantee the assimilation of American Indians. It is this facet of the city on which the American Indians in Harjo's poetry cling.


Michel de Certeau, as he gazed over the man-made wonder of New York City from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, called the city an "urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea" where "lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sings down at Greenwich Village, then rises again to the crests of midtown, quietly pass[ing] over Central Park and final[ly] undulat[ing] off into the distance beyond Harlem." (1) From 110 stories above, the landscape of the city is laid bare to the visual scope of the human eye. Yet, as de Certeau further notes, the "walkers, Wandersmanner" the individuals on the ground, their "bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban 'text' they write without being able to read it." (2) This is one way in which we can view the city: it remains a space written by the large number of bodies therein, while those bodies have no concurrent ability to "see" ("read") the whole city ("text"). And the bodies within the city continually cause that entity to change, de Certeau writes "Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future." (3) Cities, especially those in America, are in a constant state of change and development, whether architecturally, culturally, or socially. The bodies of those within the city and the changes they inflict on the city (building and demolishing buildings, forming communities, developing high/medium/low socioeconomic areas of habitation) affect both the materiality of the city as well as its social and cultural makeup. It is the latter changes that interest me.

Beginning just after World War II, though not officially until 1952, the American Government began producing legislation to assimilate Native people into American society. They used, as their primary tools, the American city and American citizenship. In August of 1953 the House and Senate passed the House Concurrent Resolution 108, which began:

   Whereas it is the policy of Congress, as rapidly as possible, to
   make the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States
   subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and
   responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United
   States, to end their status as wards of the United States, and to
   grant them all the right and prerogatives pertaining to American
   citizenship. (4)

This resolution, with ties to federal Indian policy dating back to Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, (5) led to the termination of the Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Pottawatomie, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa communities through what the government termed a federal relocation program. …

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