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Joy Harjo's Letter to Tulsa

Famous poet, author and musician, Joy Harjo, was born in Tulsa in 1951 and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, with partial Cherokee descent. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Praised for the depth and thematic concerns in her writings, Harjo has emerged as a major figure in contemporary American poetry. Her work is often set in the Southwest, emphasizing the plight of the individual, and reflects Creek values, myths, and beliefs.

c Joy Harjo Glenpool, OK August 16, 2013

Dear Tulsa—
You are my mother town, the place where I took my first breath. When I entered the human story here in the early fifties I took it all in: the skyline of skyscrapers built with oil money, the Arkansas River up which blues and jazz traveled, set up and jammed; the winds coming off the plains and their relatives the wily tornadoes; the swing capitol of Cain’s Ballroom and the honky-tonk down the road where my parents met, not far from the bootleggers, drive-in’s, the thick of sheared green parks, football fields, and so many churches it has inspired visitors to ask if there is a lot of sinning going on here?

I took my place with all the other Tulsans, most who came here in waves of migrations from the east supplanting the local plains tribes. We were Creek, or Mvskoke Indians and the other four of the Five Civilized Tribes. We were many other tribes moved west by the U.S. government, European settlers who followed behind them carrying whiskey, bibles and fiddles, and the African and African-Americans who came with everyone, enslaved, and often on their own. Tulsa, you are part of the grand experiment of a trickster god to see what will happen with such a mix of humanity.

I was your difficult child, like one of S.E. Hinton’s “Outsiders” who fought it out in a Tulsa high school at the borders between the socs: the children of families who appeared to have it all, and the greasers: those who had nothing and consequently nothing to lose. When I came of age, I fled you and didn’t look back. I could not reconcile the theft of lands, the largest race riot in the country, the inequities of economics and religious rigidity. I was an angry self-righteous daughter. I left for Indian school, and for higher education. I raised a family and have traveled every continent in the world and visited hundreds of cities, from Paris, France to Townsville, Australia, all far from your arms.

Eventually, as the story goes, the prodigal child returns. I have come home, Tulsa. I returned to the city of country and country swing, square dance, round dance, stomp dance, gospel, hymn, powwow, rock and roll, blues and jazz and rhythm and blues. Food, laughter, crying, and deep mythic roots accompany every story of music, and each carries the story of humanity. Every city has a story. We humans bump up against each other in the dance of creation and destruction, and though nothing appears to change much at all, it is always changing. We just have to remember to treat each other like beloved family, for no matter what road we travel we will all wind up at the same place.

I will always hear “Take Me Back To Tulsa” by Bob Wills spinning on the jukebox at Cotton’s Drive In when I consider our Tulsa family story. The way it looks now I most likely will leave my last breath here, Tulsa, in your leafy, Indian town arms.