Juneau Public Libraries selected Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise” for their 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 aloud and one of the last chances to see the “Echoes of War” exhibit at the Funter Bay internment camp.
A storm raged outside, but it didn’t stop determined, dripping patrons from entering the City Museum to celebrate the poetry of Joy Harjo, America’s first Native American 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 it was a great way to bring Joy Harjo in but also to visit a place I haven’t been to. . ”
Due to the pandemic, the museum wanted to avoid gathering people inside to hear readings of Harjo’s poetry. Instead, they created a “soundscape” of his poems to be played on a loop through the speakers. The soundscape included 22 recordings of poems from An American Sunrise, recited aloud by local writers, actors and artists.
Jared Olin is an actor currently doing an artistic apprenticeship at the Perseverance Theater. He recorded a reading of the poem “Beyond” in Harjo’s native language, Mvskoke (Muscogee).
“I took a class on his native language,” Olin said. “My mother tongue is Denaakk’e and it is that 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 intended to enrich the exhibition “Echoes of War: Unangax̂ Internment during WWII”, which is now in its final days. at the City Museum.
“Echoes of War” told the largely unknown story of the Unangax̂ who were forcibly evicted from the Pribilof Islands and detained at Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska from 1942 to 1944.
The poems and the exhibit both shed light on the history of forced displacement of Indigenous people.
Jonas Lamb teaches English at the University of Southeast Alaska.
“I just grabbed the end of a poem that was about those green hills, that reminded me of our rainy landscape here, thinking how foreign it could have been for the Unangax̂ people who have been moved here or relocated here. . ” he observed.
Lamb joined in the efforts of libraries to introduce his first year students to Harjo’s poetry as well as the story of the Unangax̂ internment.
“Harjo’s work really explores this idea of just being dispossessed of your land and your culture and where you draw your strength,” he added.
Free copies of “An American Sunrise” are available at all three branches of the Juneau public libraries. The audiobook can be viewed on the Libraries mobile app – it is read by the author herself.
The last day to see the “Echoes of War” exhibit is Saturday October 16th.