Dancing Like Joy Harjo | An Essay by Anna Cotton

The situation in the poem “Talking with the Sun” by Joy Harjo is simple enough: Harjo, a Native American woman poet, feels a close kinship with the sun. She is in New York on the fourth day after the birth of her fourth granddaughter. Traditionally, this is the day the child would be presented to the sun as a relative. Harjo wakes early and walks outside at dawn to find the sun so she can make the presentation. 

But Harjo’s heartfelt, thoughtful, poetic reflections preceding and describing that simple act are anything but simple. Harjo covers a lot of ground in her poem, starting when European explorers first encountered her people. She wastes no time in reminding me Native Americans were originally perceived by Europeans as heathens. The problem she says in her poem is “They didn’t understand that the sun is a relative…” It saddens and hurts me that those European ancestors completely missed everything about this deep connection to nature, but today the close connection to nature strikes me as positive, meaningful and valuable. 

Thankfully, some European holy men and women of past centuries did recognize and honor the nature/spirit connection. One of the most famous was St. Francis Assisi (born October 4, 1182) who wrote the hauntingly beautiful Canticle of Brother Sun. “…Brother Sun, who makes the day and illumines us by his light.”

But to get back to the poem, it was Harjo’s idea and experience of deep connections throughout the poem that was particularly meaningful to me. I identify with Harjo as a woman who cares passionately about the care of our earth, as a woman who wants to embody her spirituality, and as a loving grandmother who wants to bless her granddaughter.  

Perhaps that is why I am predisposed to see with her eyes: “…stars and planets dancing with us…no mistaking this connection.”

Listen with her ears: “I hear from my Inuit and Yupik relatives…It’s so hot; there’s not enough winter…Ice is melting.” 

Think with her mind: “quantum physicists . . . are beginning to think like Indians: everything is connected . . .”  

Celebrate with her soul: “this connection, this promise, . . . the sacredness of life.”

“I believe in the sun,” Harjo announces in the first line of the poem, and I am right there with her. I value her bold declaration. Without appropriating her statement of belief for my own religious tradition, when I read, “I believe in the sun,” I note that Jesus’s words in John 12:36 immediately sprang to mind: “believe in the light so that you may become children of the light.” Of course, I don’t want to get distracted in creating a false equivalency, but I think I can still cheer for the power of the sun/light images in these two texts that I love and value—and appreciate the parallels between them, the points of connection. 

But metaphor can work against me, too. Harjo’s line, “After dancing all night in a circle we realize that we are a part of a larger sense of stars and planets dancing with us overhead,” called to mind a time when I once danced outside in an open field with my friends who were at that time my church family. In fact, our whole congregation gathered and danced on that fall and sunny day. Like Harjo, we too danced in a circle. We listened to music and followed easy instructions, “Join hands . . . turn . . . bow . . . swing your partner.” All that touching and moving together was simple, joyous, and immensely fun.  But, unlike Harjo’s experience, we never got to the part about sensing the stars and planets dancing with us. We never got to the part about being renewed, about recognizing and valuing connection. I suspect it was lost to us because we stopped so soon and because we never danced together again. Never. After that one glorious day, my church community became content with dance as metaphor.

Odd, isn’t it, how hearing truth repeated in familiar phrases can get in the way and keep us from accepting it. I think Harjo’s straight forward line, “Our earth is shifting. We can all see it,” is clear enough, but the strength and power come to me in the next few lines when she lets her relatives speak from their own experiences, in their own voices: “It’s so hot; there’s not enough winter. Animals are confused. Ice is melting.” My relatives up north are my brother and his wife on traditional Indigenous land that was occupied by white settlers in White Plains, New York. They are urban dwellers, and even they are expressing concerns about the changing weather. Here in Florida I can speak from my own experience. The current drought is troublesome. Saltwater creeping into fresh drinking sources is troublesome. Springs literally drying up from over pumping is troublesome. By speaking in her relatives’ voices, Harjo reminds me to pay attention, listen to others, and yes, be willing to speak and write about these troublesome concerns, which, if we are honest, are really crises in disguise. 

Harjo’s willingness to speak up reminds me of the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. When she joined the multitude of women outside of a Russian prison waiting for word about her imprisoned husband and then son, she was recognized by another woman who knew she was a writer. The stranger asked Akhmatova if she could write “this,” and she said yes. She later added that event to her famous poem “Requiem” and went on to write countless other poems about the atrocities she and most of Russia’s peoples suffered during Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. Harjo like Akhnatova, keeps writing the truth. I’d like to do more of that in my poems.  

Knowing truth needs all the supportive voices it can get, Harjo adds humor and weight with her line, “The quantum physicists have it right; they are beginning to think like Indians: everything is connected dynamically at an intimate level.” I’m not confused by this; in fact, I am laughing with happy recognition because I am reading the same thing in several spiritual writers I follow, like Joan Chittister at Monastery of the Heart and Richard Rohr at the Center for Contemplation and Action. Their writing often reads something like those words by Harjo. It seems to me thoughtful, sensitive folks across a wide range of areas are exploring creative connections and talking about it to each other. And, if you ask me, it’s a seriously good thing.

After reading the first four stanzas of “Talking with the Sun,” where the serious work of laying the foundation for accepting and understanding the dedication occurs, I’m more than ready to engage Harjo’s enacting it in what follows of the poem. After waking early in a room just off Times Square, she goes for a walk to find the sun: “This was the morning I was to present her [fourth granddaughter] to the sun, as a relative, as one of us.”  The difficulty occurs when the sun rose and she couldn’t see it through the rain. In addition, it turns out she doesn’t even have the baby with her. I’m sad for her, but the power of her heart and head connection to the tradition carries the weight of the act. It is at this point I understand the real meaning of intention, and it is enough. Harjo tenderly tells me, “I carried this newborn girl within the cradleboard of my heart.” From her heart, she presents her to the sun: “So that she won’t forget this connection . . . the sacredness of life.” 

I pause remembering I wrote a poem to my baby granddaughter after I had spent an entire day with her alone. The poem was about teaching her to fly, not literally of course, but the mystery of connection is powerful. Here the meaning of Harjo’s title, “Talking with the Sun,” seeps into me. I don’t hear a conversation. I don’t have to. I’m sharing the holy moment in the silence with her. Amen! 


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