What if you could build a holographic map, in which all America’s Indigenous poets, from the beginning of time until now, were mapped, linking out to their works and their words? Joy Harjo, 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States and the first Native Nations member to hold the position (she’s a member of the Mvskoke Nation), dreams of such a map, and has made mapping words her Poet Laureate project.
In a Chicago Humanities Festival event with Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier, Harjo spoke of her passion for mapping, and of the ways in which maps and mapping can move beyond the limits imposed by our settler colonialist societies to, as Long Soldier noted, enable us to see geography and space in whole new ways, unencumbered by political borders.
Harjo’s map is not yet holographic, but it’s there. Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry is available on the Library of Congress’s website, an interactive map without geopolitical demarcations, allowing visitors to move through North America, listening to poets as they read their own work and much more. Harjo has also edited the forthcoming Living Nations, Living Words, a companion to the interactive map.
Both the map—which Harjo hopes will one day inspire a holographic one—and the anthology are oriented toward following Mvskoke tradition: East, North, West, and South. Long Soldier and Harjo discussed the ways in which this method of organizing follows cultural traditions and steps outside colonial norms. The orientation, and its links to the earth, spun into a conversation about traditions, spiritual and otherwise, as Harjo and Long Soldier discussed similarities and differences in their peoples’ beliefs, and considered the ways in which Living Nations, Living Words orients itself against settler colonialism.
Technology and the wind both managed to get a starring role in the conversation, though not always for good reasons: Harjo’s internet cut out due to high winds in Tulsa, and she finished out her conversation as Long Soldier held her cell phone up to the screen so viewers could still see Harjo as well as hear her words. A new kind of mapping, Harjo called it, with the technologies available to us.
Harjo and Long Soldier’s conversation was warm and wide-ranging; the wind not only failed to end it but didn’t even phase Harjo. And, while tech glitches marred its original presentation on Wednesday, Harjo and Long Soldier’s warmth and mutual excitement shone through.
Living Nations, Living Words the interactive map is available now on the Library of Congress’s website; the holographic one may yet come, but isn’t yet here. Meanwhile, Living Nations, Living Words the companion anthology, including poems by Long Soldier and Chicago’s own Elise Paschen, among others, is forthcoming in May.
More information on the panel, meanwhile, is available at the Chicago Humanities Festival.