32 pages 1 hour read

Joy Harjo

An American Sunrise

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2017

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Cultural Context

“An American Sunrise” explores themes of cultural and political identity, and Harjo’s poem became even more popular during the events of Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s easy to understand how and why the poem reads like commentary on the cultural and political divisions that came to light across the US as a result of divisive leadership and controversial public relations. In the poem, Harjo asks readers to redefine what it means to be American, which is something that many Americans felt lead to do during riots, protests, and the uncertainty that arose from a global pandemic. Though poems mean different things to different people, it is important to remember that “An American Sunrise” addresses the plight of Native Americans whose cultural identity continues to face erasure at the hands of American nationalism. It’s important not to engage in erasure by sidelining the poem’s subject matter in favor of a broader, more general message.

Despite the poem’s specific subject matter, Harjo herself connects Native American struggle and resistance to other oppressed cultures in America. This struggle—and survival in the face of struggles—is at the heart of the poem, and it takes on many forms. One of the impacts of land grabs and the systemic destruction of Native American communities in the push westward is the reservation system currently in place.