Tanaya Winder is a poet, writer, artist and educator who was raised on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio, Colorado. An enrolled member of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, her background includes Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Diné, and Black heritages. Tanaya writes and teaches about different expressions of love (self love, intimate love, social love, community love, and universal love). In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Tanaya wrote the following piece about discovering, learning from, and eventually working with Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States.
I remember the first time I felt seen in poetry. During my senior year at Stanford, I was taking a class by the ever-amazing Cherrie Moraga. It was the first time I’d taken a class where all of the readings were by Black, Brown, and Indigenous women. I’d finally felt sustenance.
I didn’t realize that the past 3.5 years I spent as an English major were catered to writers not representative of the world I knew and felt safe in. Sure the department had one course each for Chicano and Chicana, African American, and Native American literature, but due to scheduling I was only able to take the Chicano and Chicana literature class. Stanford taught me that the world of higher education deemed only certain voices worthy of sharing, worthy of the canon.
“How did I not realize I was suffocating in whiteness? How did I not realize I’d grown accustomed to being silenced by the privileged voices in the room?”
When I read the syllabus for Cherrie’s class, I wondered “Why isn’t this class cross listed with the English Department? Why do I have to go outside of my department to be nourished in this way?” Looking back at my undergraduate years, I recall Cherrie’s class as the first time I ever felt belonging in a classroom. Before those moments, I was unaware of the anxiety, the tightness in my chest I’d experienced in every other classroom I’d been in at Stanford. How did I not realize I was suffocating in whiteness? How did I not realize I’d grown accustomed to being silenced by the privileged voices in the room? In Cherrie’s class, I didn’t have to sacrifice any part of myself. She created that space for so many of us. Surrounded by words I could relate to; I could finally breathe. I could feel my tongue relax in my mouth. I could speak again.
It was in the solace of Cherrie’s classroom that I literally and figuratively found Joy.
Joy Harjo’s poetic entrance into my life was through her How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems. Page after page, I found words I didn’t even know I needed. I lovingly ran my fingers across the pages as if words were sacred gifts because they were indeed, connected to all living things. I never knew this kind of writing was possible. My favorite poem in that collection is the “Fear Poem, or I Give You Back.”
The poem is a heart beating itself into living again. It was then I realized poetry could be just like the stories I heard growing up, that just like oral history / traditions, a poem could be a living entity. The poem’s repetition “I release you I release you. I release you. I release you,” and the proclamations “I am not afraid to be loved. / to be loved, to be loved, fear,” brought me back to life. I could hear a heart pulsing in “to be loved, to be loved.” Again and again, this poem continues to reignite me when I need to reconnect with my fire.
Cherrie brought each of the authors we read to campus. I got to meet Joy Harjo in person and her presence forever changed my life. After reading her work, hearing her speak, and witnessing her power with words, I decided I was going to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico where she was teaching at the time. It was honestly one of the best decisions I ever made.
The more I walk this earth and the more circles and spaces I enter, I have come to realize that your heroes don’t always turn out to be who you think they are. I’ve heard people say it’s better not to even have heroes because they will eventually let you down. From the moment I met Joy she has been someone I have looked up to. And, I can say without hesitation, she’s one of the only people I’ve met who is exactly who she says she is and who she carries herself to be. In this way, Joy continues to be an example for me of how to be a good relative who walks her talk.
“As a playwright, singer, and saxophonist, Joy shows that anything is possible – poetry is meant to sing.”
Joy’s classes were almost like ceremony. Her exercises and assignments asked us to look at our poetry ancestors to see who we were influenced by, how we fit in, and how we were adding to the poetry’s tapestry. We were allowed (and encouraged) to use multiple mediums, bring in music with our work, and imagine what was possible beyond the page. As a playwright, singer, and saxophonist, Joy shows that anything is possible – poetry is meant to sing.
When compared to other professors or writers, what surprised me most about Joy was her willingness to share her knowledge of the literary world by actively teaching. I say “surprised” not because Joy ever presented herself as anything other than giving and kind, but more that up until that point, most of the people I’d worked with weren’t as generous with their knowledge. An example of what I mean can be found in this story.
Joy took me under her wing and asked if I would co-edit a collection of interviews with her. What is now Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo taught me so much about the literary world I was entering. Joy gave me a lot of control in the project and a lot of feedback. I felt like I was being guided instead of simply being told what to do. I look back at that project and really remember Joy’s lack of ego. By this I mean, at this point in my life I know so many artists who have huge egos. It can make it difficult to work with people like that, but Joy really approached everything with an Indigenous mindset. Once the book was finished and we sat down with the publisher, I distinctly remember Joy advocating for my headshot and bio to be on the flap with her, for my name to be the same size of font as hers on the cover, for the advance to be split 50/50. I remember the surprise on the publisher’s face as Joy was adamant about this.
I’ve encountered numerous structures of privilege and power dynamics in my time as a writer, performer, musician, Director and administrator. I have never come across a situation where a mentor (where someone in a position of power) share things equally. Joy’s grace and generosity has always stayed a part of me; those qualities are something I strive to hold again and again whenever I am sharing space with those who ask me to help them on their paths. Part of the reason I share as many opportunities as I can, is in part because of Joy. From her memoir Crazy Brave to all the projects she has put into the world and all she continues to work on, I am forever inspired by Joy.
Today, I consider Joy both a mentor and a friend. I would not be the writer I am today without her.
Thank you Joy for helping me re-member that words are medicine.
Thank you Joy for helping in giving myself back to my spirit.
For more from Tanaya Winder, check out her Native American Heritage Month Reading Recommendations for books written by Indigenous authors, as well as Tanaya’s Writing Tips for sage advice on writing and life.