Reflection on Harjo Poem

How to Write a Poem in a Time of War by Joy Harjo is a rather emotionally charged piece about the genocide and erasure of indigenous peoples and their cultures. The title itself implies she is trying to teach the reader (insert title). However, throughout the poem she prefaces memories with comments in italics saying, “No, start here” or “No. Not Here. You can’t begin here.” This was a little confusing for me at first, because I couldn’t tell which stanza she was referencing each time. I assume that each italic sentence refers to the next section we’re about to read, because she starts the piece off with “You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck” and then goes on to describe a gruesome scene. This includes very blunt observations of what this “war” looks like, and exactly what’s going on. I didn’t understand the line, “There’s a rat scrambling from light with fleshy trash in its mouth,” but on the third or fourth read I realized the light was likely a house burning, and “fleshy trash” could be the flesh of a dead person. The next line, “A baby strapped to its mother’s back” is followed by “Cut loose.” A large space is left between that and “soldiers crawl the city,” which gives the impression that the phrase not only refers to the baby but also to the soldiers, who are running “loose” in the village, leaving a trail of destruction behind as they do so.

The narrator only refers to the antagonists as “they”, which is very telling of how truly horrifying the situation was. Strangers ransacked their homes, ate, raped, and took what they could then burned it all to the ground. I was very moved by the lines about rumors and how they “fall like rain. Like bombs… Like a train blown free of its destination…” etcetera. The train line really gets me, because some indigenous people were literally stolen away from their homes/families with no clue as to what awaited them. We now know, of course, that they were stripped of their native culture, attire, and language, and taught how to be more “civilized.” However, they weren’t really teaching them how to be more civilized, they were teaching them how to be white/European. The narrator wrote, “they started teaching our children their god’s story, A story in which we’d always be slaves.” It’s really sickening how Europeans used their religion to justify these monstrous actions.  The phrase “God-given” in any context has always made me uncomfortable, as someone who doesn’t really identify with any specific religion. When someone says it is their God-given right to do x, y, or z, I want to ask them if it’s the same God that gave the colonists permission to terrorize and wipe out almost an entire race of people. In my opinion, religion should never be used as a justification for despicable actions. I’m sure a lot of people would agree, but I’m also sure there are others who still believe it’s their God-given right to protect all the unborn “babies” from the possibility of abortion. There will always be people in the world who want to control others or force them to “conform” to their own ideals, whether they use religion as a justification or not, it’s wrong.


Why weren’t pieces like How to Write a Poem in a Time of War included in my high school curriculum and what does that say about our education system as an institution that should support people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities?

How can we better support the integration of more diverse topics, such as colonization from the perspective of indigenous peoples, into our classrooms?

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