An American Sunrise Poem Summary, Notes And Line By Line Analysis In English By Laureate Joy Harjo


Joy Harjo’s poem “An American Sunrise” explores Native American culture and the constant battle to preserve it in the face of modern life.

About The Poet

Author, musician, and current American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is a Muskogee (Creek) Nation citizen who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her seventh collection of poems, An American Sunrise, revisits the native country that the Indian Removal Act forcibly removed her ancestors from in 1830. 

Lines 1-5

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
made plans to be professional?—?and did.

The speaker describes a group of individuals going back to their “ancestors fights” metaphorically in the opening sentence. The speaker is emphasizing how difficult it is for Native American tribes to blend maintaining their ties to the past with dealing with the problems of the present. The speaker makes the point that it was crucial to remain “straight” in order to avoid “losing days in the Indian bar.”

She is implying that many people use alcohol as a comfort and an escape because of the nature of their hardship. In the Native American culture, professional plans were made and carried out.  This is because  cause they worked as harder than anyone else and they were successful in what they set out to do.

Lines 6-11

And some of us could sing
so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin
was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We
were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them?—?thin
chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin
will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing.

The speaker combines the celebration of the group’s ancestry in the next line with “success” in the modern world in the lines that follow. They performed musical pieces and beat on drums “a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars.” Here, the poet introduces a phrase concerning “sin” and how Christians created it. There is a lot of suffering in the Native American culture because of Christian ideas about sin and “the devil.”

They accept the label of “heathens” that has been applied to them historically and even in some modern contexts. They wish to distinguish themselves from people who have in the past attempted to “rescue” them by converting to Christianity. Now, according to the speaker, they must be rescued from Christians or anybody else wishing to alter or expel them from their culture.

Although the speaker is very passionate about this, she is aware that there is just a “thin chance” that they can be saved from those around them. Everyone in the community, including the speaker, is aware of their role in the story. We’ll “feel like dancing” when a “little gin” clears out the “dark.”

The speaker and the other people in the community are aware of the evil that surrounds their daily lives and the dread that haunts their pasts. In an effort to release their fear and rage and do something they can control when they are reminded of it, they dance.

Lines 12-15

We had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz
I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

The following lines contain a discussion from the speaker. She is conversing with a “Pueblo.” She says that “we,” the Native American population, played a role in “the blues and jazz’s origins.” We still desire justice; the speaker says in the poem’s closing lines. The Native American community has not and will not forget the past. They are aware of the “rumours of our demise.”

She recognizes that some people do believe in Native American culture in this passage, but someday their languages, legends, and other aspects of their culture will be destroyed as a result of previous wrongdoings and unfair laws throughout history.