Juneau poetry event spotlights forced displacement of Native people

Free copies of “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum (Sheli DeLaney/KTOO)

Juneau Public Libraries has selected “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo for its Big Read program — a kind of community-wide book club.

The launch event at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum featured samples of Harjo’s poetry read out loud and one of the last chances to view the “Echoes of War” exhibit about the internment camp at Funter Bay.

A storm raged outside but it didn’t stop determined, dripping patrons from tromping into the City Museum to celebrate the poetry of Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate.

“I’ve read Joy Harjo before, I was really interested in her new book of poetry,” said Keira Koch, one of the first attendees to arrive at the event. “And I’ve never been to the City Museum because of COVID and the pandemic, so I thought this was a great way to get some Joy Harjo in but also visit a place I haven’t been.”

Because of the pandemic, the museum wanted to avoid gathering people inside to hear readings of Harjo’s poetry. Instead, they created a “soundscape” of her poems to play on a loop through the overhead speakers. The soundscape featured 22 recordings of poems from An American Sunrise, recited aloud by local writers, actors and artists.

Jared Olin, an actor who recorded a Joy Harjo poem for the event’s soundscape (Sheli DeLaney/KTOO)

Jared Olin is an actor who is currently doing an artistic apprenticeship at Perseverance Theater. He recorded a reading of the poem “Beyond” in Harjo’s native language of Mvskoke (Muscogee).

“I took a course on her native language,” Olin said. “My native language is Denaakk’e and that’s of the Koyukon-Athabascan people, and we have the same pronunciations, we have the same sounds in our languages.”

The soundscape of “An American Sunrise” was not only a celebration of Harjo’s poetry, it was also meant to augment the exhibit “Echoes of War: Unangax̂ Internment During WWII,” now in its final days at the City Museum.

“Echoes of War” told the largely ignored story of Unangax̂ people who were forcibly removed from the Pribilof islands and held at Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska from 1942-44.

The poems and the exhibit both spotlight the history of forced displacement of Native people.

Jonas Lamb teaches English at the University of Alaska Southeast.

“I just caught the tail end of a poem that was speaking to these green hills, which reminded me of our rainy landscape here, thinking about how foreign that could have been to the Unangax̂ people who were displaced here or relocated here.” he observed.

Lamb joined the libraries’ effort in order to introduce his first-year students to Harjo’s poetry as well as the history of the Unangax̂ internment.

“Harjo’s work really explores this idea of just being dispossessed of your land and of your culture and of the place where you draw strength,” he added.

Free copies of “An American Sunrise” are available at all three locations of Juneau Public Libraries. The audiobook can be checked out on the libraries’ mobile app — it’s read by the author herself.

The last day to view the “Echoes of War” exhibit is Saturday, Oct. 16.

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