Thought Leadership Series
The Critical Role of Arts in Education: A Conversation with Joy Harjo
School Administrator, June 2021

Joy Harjo is the 23rd poet laureate of the United States and the first Native American to hold the prestigious post. PHOTO BY SHAWN MILLER/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
This seventh installment in School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series captures the thinking of Joy Harjo, the poet laureate of the United States, in a conversation with Maria Ott, professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and a former superintendent in California.

In Ott’s interview, the author talked about the essential role of arts and language in education, the importance of listening and the power of dedicated educators.

As witnessed during the inauguration of President Joe Biden, poetry has the power to teach about our history in ways that inspire us to envision a more just and equitable society. The nation’s first youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, stands on the shoulders of poets who speak their truth and challenge us to re-examine our past to build a better future.

Harjo, serving her second term as the nation’s 23rd poet laureate, is a playwright, musician and writer who speaks to educators through her beautiful and compelling poems and narratives. She is the author of nine books of poetry, including the highly acclaimed An American Sunrise, several plays and children’s books, and two memoirs, Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior: A Call for Love and Justice.

The first Native American to serve as poet laureate, Harjo is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and resides in Tulsa, Okla.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

MARIA OTT: In your memoir, Crazy Brave, you stress the importance of remembering and honoring the past. Your poetry shows appreciation for your personal history. Do you think our nation’s public schools have a responsibility to help students know their past? And what happens when the past is forgotten?

JOY HARJO: I think that probably the most important educational moments are at the younger ages. That’s where we experience time and story in a very different way. Because the child’s experience of a moment in time is tremendously deep compared to how time moves as we grow older, those in preschool, kindergarten and 1st grade are especially open and reactive to anything spoken and taught to them. 

There’s always an immense responsibility for anyone working in education. Teachers at whatever level must remember that we are doorways for knowledge, behavior and inspiration. We are wielding a kind of power that is meant for furthering human development, of mind, body and spirit.

Revising and opening up the American cultural and historic story to include Indigenous peoples is a major and necessary task. Without us, there is no integrity to the tale. I’ve noticed, as mother, grandmother and great grandmother, that our children in the public school system are being fed the same false narrative that was there in those classrooms when I was a child, one that falsely claims no civilized peoples lived here, that we were savage without culture or spirituality and that the explorers and settlers were at the top of a caste system they imposed and ruled.

Indigenous peoples have essentially disappeared from the story. We had and still have developed cultures and civilizations. If we were to be acknowledged as full human beings with developed cultures and languages, then that would mean there’s something deeply awry for the American story.

OTT: In your memoir, you talk about your personal experiences in school. Is there anything that you can share that perhaps shaped who you are and that would be words of advice — even criticisms?
Maria Ott is a co-author of A Culturally Proficient Society Begins in School: Leadership for Equity. PHOTO COURTESY OF USC ROSSIER SCHOOL OF EDUCATION

HARJO: Teachers truly made a difference. We always know, at whatever age, who cares about us. We know who is dedicated and will run the extra mile. Even the youngest children pick up on intent. Children will rise up to the level that you set for them, and this goes for college students, too. Leaders need to keep that in mind. People will rise to what you expect of them.

I remember many of my elementary school teachers by name. I loved my art and music classes. The arts are often the first to be considered non-essential when it comes to budget cuts, but they are just as important as the so-called basics or essentials. The spirit needs to be fed just as much as the mind or body needs nourishment. And it has been proven that cultivating arts practice and knowledge can have a physiological positive effect on learning. Arts practice assists in the development of mental acuity and in the overall quality of life.

In my new memoir, Poet Warrior, I wrote about my elementary school art teacher. She sharply kept classroom order with her glasses perched at the end of her thin nose. She gave us excellent instruction. Many were terrified of her, but I appreciated her class because she kept a standard. I loved art and always did well in art, but to have such a tough guide was so refreshing, and I learned so much in her classroom.

A 6th-grade teacher was a silent but concerned witness to the problems at home that were apparent in my posture and atmosphere. She never had to say much. She was just there and I knew she was looking after my best interests. Her name was Mrs. Robinson at Jackson Elementary School.

One of my most memorable teachers was by accident. I was on a track to become an artist, a painter like my grandmother, and had been picked for advanced art in 9th grade. I was accidentally slotted into a physics class and was advised to go to my assigned classes the first day and they would fix my schedule. I dragged myself into the class, prepared to drop out as soon as my schedule was fixed, but I stayed. Why was that? The physics teacher had a great love and knowledge of all aspects of physics. He knew how to tell a story and on that first day we were all hooked. He commandeered my respect and implanted a great regard for physics, especially space travel. I stayed.

I’ve noticed it’s all about leadership. We all need to be leaders of ourselves. And that’s what we need to teach. I used to think coming up as a kid that I didn’t have leadership potential. I’d sit in the back of the class and not say anything. But I’ve come to learn and understand that it’s about developing leadership in all of us.

OTT: In terms of the classroom, you were always educated in English. And with our Native American students, there’s always been this issue around language policy, and part of it is that your language is who you are. Any thoughts on Native Americans who are taught only in English and who lost that connection to their past in terms of the stories and all that they might acquire from their ancestors?

HARJO: Language diversity is absolutely crucial to the development of the whole human field of perception and knowledge. And as each language is basically an encyclopedia of knowledge — not just of two-legged human beings but also the relationship with the world we’re in — it places us in a relationship. And, usually, it’s related to place, to the plants, to history, to stories.

That’s why, when I sit with the language speakers, I learn how every word has a deep story, a genealogy. I love hearing our Muscogee language. And as old as I am, I am working to know our language much better than I do.

I think one of the worst things that could happen or that’s happened in this country is this English-only attitude. For one, it’s preposterous. What it tells me is that there is an agenda to close down knowledge. And, it also feeds into a hierarchy that says English and people from Europe are worth more than anyone from any other language.

So, what’s at the bottom of all of this is that this is Indigenous people’s country. There are many living Indigenous languages here. People of my father’s, my grandparents’, even my great grandparents’ generation often knew several languages. Because we negotiated with France, Spain, England and then the United States as well as many other tribal nations, we often knew three or four or five languages. With the use of many languages, knowledge and perception expands. Every child should be schooled in more than one language. What a gift that would be.

OTT: You painted a beautiful story that I don’t think often gets told, in terms of the language diversity that was here for our Indigenous peoples — that they valued and appreciated knowing one another’s languages.

You’re a musician, you’re an artist, you have written a play. Can you share your perspective on the role of the arts in educating our students? Do you see ways that the arts can help heal our students who are struggling during this pandemic?

Indigenous peoples have largely disappeared from the version of American history taught to students, says Joy Harjo, the U.S. poet laureate. PHOTO BY SHAWN MILLER/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
HARJO: Where do I start? All education should include the arts. The arts should be considered basic, and as important as sports and sports competitions. We need a balance to develop fully as human beings. The arts develop other parts of a human structure, a human being.

Humanities in education are also essential. In an institution I taught in recently, all the humanities lines that opened due to retirement were being confiscated by the university’s STEM programs. We lost crucial faculty positions in humanities to the sciences.

I have traveled through the years to countries on every continent. In every place but here I experienced that poetry is essential in daily living. I assumed that the place of poetry was lost in this country. Then the pandemic hit and we turned to poetry. Poetry can hold that which cannot be spoken in ordinary language. It is an intimate art and can do its work in a crowd or in the most intimate spaces. You can hold it in your hands, your heart. We always turn to poetry during moments of great transformation and ceremony, like birth, death, marriage or falling in love. Poems can hold grief, sorrow or joy in a way that almost nothing else can. And, of course, the other arts like music and painting and pottery have similar functions.

To write a poem can be complex. There is architecture, uses of craft and a kind of questioning that can be similar to math equations. As with numbers, we use words to get across very similar kinds of concepts.

A gift of the pandemic is time. We artists primarily create alone. In this time, I’ve recorded a new music album, completed a memoir and, with the Library of Congress, I’m releasing a Norton anthology of contemporary Native poetry. I’m not traveling constantly as I would have been during this time.

We have been given a time to go inward and to listen. The arts bring us back to what it means to be human.

I’ve come to realize my first memoir Crazy Brave is really a memoir about creativity and about the importance of arts and the power of arts to heal. 

The story is not just mine. It’s the story of many Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women who have answered the call to following a creative path, something not so supported in this culture.

OTT: Sometimes, during tight budget times, education leaders are forced to reduce programs, and sometimes they go to the arts because they can be perceived as additional. But the arts are clearly at the core and a priority that leaders should fight to keep.

HARJO: I think the general public has no idea what artists do. In a Puritan-based culture we have the bad rap of being reckless, wild and full of dangerous ideas.

An artist is just like a scientist. We have a similar urgency to know, to understand, to discover what and how this world makes meaning, to answer the so far unanswerable. Generally, artists are very disciplined. We study, develop craft and move into new territory to uncover fresh thought. I think of what it takes to become an accomplished jazz musician. The music is quite complicated and it’s very mathematical. There’s architecture, aesthetics and the constant attention to mastering your instrument(s).
Maria Ott (left) spent 14 years as a superintendent in Southern California before joining the faculty at University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE USC ROSSIER SCHOOL OF EDUCATION

OTT: Can I go back to talking about your advocacy role for Native American youth and the challenges that they face in our public schools? The issues around punitive discipline and, perhaps, inadequate curriculum. The impact of declining funding and the fact that so many of them live in poverty. Any advice for our educators who want to remove the barriers to their success?

HARJO: That is such a deep question. It’s made me think about what a Muscogee educational school would look like. It would include not just the usual math and English. Our language would always be part of it. And, not just one language. How much better to know two languages or even three languages. Also, physical and spiritual well-being would be components, as would community service, helping other people, which would include passing on what you learn.

Years ago when I taught at the Institute of the American Indian Arts in Santa Fe when it was a two-year program under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, one of my first teaching jobs, I’d take my writing students to Albuquerque to the Albuquerque Indian School. They would teach younger students, passing on what they learned. Along with Jennifer Foerster, I founded an arts mentorship program for my tribal nation, which is basically a kind of apprenticeship program between elder artists and youth. The tribe has taken up the program, and it is being successfully run through the Youth Services program. We are planning the next steps, which would include training the graduating students to teach others, to pass along what they know, so that you have this ongoing circle of teaching and learning.

What I’ve seen happen in reservation schools is that education is imposed rather than giving students an education that is responsive to their culture, to the reality of the lifeways that sustain them. There’s a history of Indian education in this country of children being taken away from their parents to rid them of their indigenous ways, to destroy their selfhood, their spirit. We need to question a hierarchy or caste system in which English or European American culture and arts are the basis of education for everyone. Every culture has music, poetry, classics of every cultural expression.

There are many Native writers, yet, in curriculums all across the country and in Native schools and non-Native schools, our books are not included. My Poet Laureate project, Living Nations, Living Words, includes a digital map of the country in which there are no political demarcations of states, borders between countries or names on any geographical features. You see blue and green, the suggestion of beautiful lands that have everything to do with who we are, our expressions. Contemporary Native poets emerge from these lands. The poets read poems about place, talk about the importance of place. We see that indigenous voices or human beings are still here, still alive, and we are poets. The map becomes a tool for educators to assist students in thinking about place, voice and how a place can be divided by politics and history. The book of the project, Living Nations, Living Words, an Anthology of First Peoples Poetry is being published in May. We are at work on a teachers’ toolkit. The digital map is available on the Library of Congress website.

The arts allow students to speak their truths, says Joy Harjo, who taught poetry in schools during her undergraduate years. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
OTT: It seems through your poetry that you see listening as a way to help resolve conflicts. Do you see listening as a bridge between the current conflict that we’re living through as a society? And, where we might be able to, as you said, co-exist on Mother Earth and value our differences? Is listening part of the answer?

HARJO: I have to believe so or I could not continue with the light of hope that continues to inspire me. When we see what happened at the Capitol, I despair. Yet I imagine some of those who bore down on the Capitol to overtake it had genuine concerns. They wanted to be heard, yet they were not listening.

That goes to heart of it. Poetry teaches us to listen. Poetry slows us down and reminds us to stop and listen. It is constructed of language that demands listening.

Right now, society feels so task-oriented. Anyone can reach out and contact you and immediately interrupt your personal space if you let them. You click on the internet and immediately you are caught up in this kind of rat wheel of constant response to constantly changing images and stories.

This stream of information locks you into a kind of addiction. Any kind of addiction keeps you from listening. We run from listening because it can be painful. It can be difficult to face personal, familial, generational truth. When you deeply listen, you can hear the clatter of history, you can hear plants growing. You can hear a storm coming from miles away.

OTT: As we come to the end, just a couple of more thoughts. In your memoir, you talk about how you were turned out from home at an early age because you spoke the truth. Sometimes, in our schools, our students are speaking their truth to us, and it may get them suspended or have a discipline mark against them for speaking their truth. How do you advise us, as leaders, to listen to what we are hearing? And, what is sometimes being manifested by a student that is part of their story, their pain, their struggles?

Generally, I found that youth speak the truth. Sometimes it’s not an easy truth. And that’s why, again, the arts become very important, because they’re a way for students to be able to speak, sing or be their truth.

I used to teach poetry in schools when I was an undergrad. One of my poetry teachers took me with him to teach poetry and mentored me in teaching. I noted that the teachers who were very dedicated usually stayed in the room and worked with the students or watched and listened. They participated in some manner. Then there were those who would just leave immediately, relieved to get away from their class, sometimes without even introducing us.

I always paid attention when a teacher would say “This is my worst class. I can’t do anything with these students” because I learned these were the best classes for poetry. The students wrote the best because they finally had a way to express their truth.

And so often, it would be the students who had never written anything, couldn’t complete assignments, and now they were creating and lit up with their ability to create, to find a place in which they fit.

OTT: One final question. I know you’ve been asked about what America is — the challenges our leaders are facing in their school districts as they try to deal with this pandemic, but also with the societal pandemic that is more about getting along and bringing people together. Any final words of advice?

HARJO: I feel deeply for teachers and parents and what they have had to manage through this pandemic. This has been a tremendous challenge for everyone. I mean, how do you teach the early elementary grades online? Or teenagers who are in the midst of the greatest social experiments in their lives? We have to be patient with ourselves. And, ultimately, we have to understand that we are in a changing society, that we’ve been changed by this and from these changes we will learn more about ourselves, more about the art of teaching, of being. We are learning to be so much more appreciative of the small things. And maybe we are learning how to listen.

OTT: That’s a beautiful way to end. Our superintendents will learn so much from your authentic story and advice.
Next in Line:

Thought Leadership Series resumes in August with an interview of Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and four other books, by Charles Dupre, superintendent of Fort Bend Independent School District in Fort Bend, Texas.