Crossing the Border Poem by Joy Harjo Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “Crossing the Border ” also known as “I am A Dangerous Woman” is a poem written by the poet Joy Harjo in the 20th century. The poem takes about the struggles faced by the indigenous people of North America. The poem talks about the movement of Native Indian across the border of America into Canada. The poem is narrated as a story of an Indian group traveling across the Detroit-Windsor border in America. They plan to settle and live a safe life in Canada but are stopped by the border patrol. The group is questioned insultingly and demeaned. The poem explores the obstacles faced by the Indians during immigration.

About the poet

Joy Harjo is a renowned American poet, musician, and author. Born on May 9, 1951, in Oklahoma. She is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She became the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States in 2019, a position she held for an extended term until 2021. Harjo’s poetry is celebrated for its lyrical depth and powerful storytelling, weaving together the threads of history. She has published numerous poems including “She Had Some Horses” and “Remember”.


The poem is a long narrative poem. It is divided into 5 uneven stanzas. The first stanza is the longest and consists of 24 lines in total. The poem is a narrative poem written in first-person.

Lines 1- 13

We looked the part.

It was past midnight, well into

the weekend. Coming out of Detroit

into the Canada side, border guards

and checks. We are asked, “Who are you Indians

and which side are you from?”

Barney answers in a broken English.

He talks this way to white people

not to us. “Our kids.”

My children are wrapped

and sleeping in the backseat.

He points with his lips to half-eyed

Richard in the front.


The speaker recounts a journey, describing how they passed from Detroit into Canada late at night during the weekend. They encountered border guards who questioned their identity as Native Americans and asked about their origin on either side of the border. Barney, a member of their group, responded in broken English, a manner of speech he reserved for interactions with white people, not within their own community.

He referred to the children in the backseat as “our kids,” drawing attention to their presence. The speaker’s children were asleep and bundled up in the backseat. Meanwhile, Barney subtly pointed to Richard in the front seat, who appeared half-asleep or drowsy.


In this stanza from the poem “Crossing the Border” by Joy Harjo, the speaker talks about crossing the border from Detroit into Canada over a weekend. As they made this journey, she encountered the presence of border guards who approached them with questions about their identity.

The poet talks about how Barney’s manner of speech differed in this instance. He chose to communicate in a form of English that could be described as ‘broken’. The poet observes that this “broken” speech was reserved for interactions with white individuals, rather than within their own community. The poet talks about the sleeping children who represent a vulnerable yet cherished presence throughout this passage. The description of Richard as “half-eyed” conveys an impression of weariness or drowsiness.

Lines 14- 24

“That one, too.”

But Richard looks like he belongs

to no one, just sits there wild-haired

like a Menominee would.

“And my wife. . . .” Not true.

But hidden under the windshield

at the edge of this country

we feel immediately suspicious.

These questions and we don’t look

like we belong to either side.


The speaker, observing the situation, points out Richard, noting that he also appears to not have a clear affiliation. His untamed hair and demeanor give him the look of a Menominee individual.

The speaker then mentions her wife, though she acknowledges this statement is not accurate. They are positioned inconspicuously at the border, which immediately raises suspicions. The questions from the border guards highlight the speaker’s sense of not fitting neatly into either side, emphasizing their unique identity.


The poet in this stanza points out Richard and notes his appearance, suggesting that he possesses an air of independence. His wild, untamed hair is compared to that of a Menominee person, bringing forth a sense of natural and untamed freedom. The poet then mentions “wife” but admits to herself that this statement is not entirely accurate.

As the group stands at the edge of the country, a sense of suspicion is present in the air. This suggests an underlying tension or unease, possibly stemming from the inherent suspicion and questioning they face at the border. The poet paints a vivid picture of the observations and reflections as they cross the border and  portrays the tensions and suspicions that surround them in this space.

Stanza 2

“Any liquor or firearms?”

He should have asked that years ago

and we can’t help but laugh.

Kids stir around in the backseat

but it is the border guard who is anxious.

He is looking for crimes, stray horses

for which he has no apparent evidence.


The speaker reflects on the border guard’s question about liquor and firearms, finding it amusing that this inquiry should have been posed years ago. The group in the car can not control their amusement and begin to laugh, and though the children in the backseat start to stir, it is the border guard who appears anxious.

The speaker observes that he is on edge, searching for signs of wrongdoing or illicit goods, even in cases where there is no clear evidence to support such suspicions. This suggests a heightened sense of vigilance or apprehension on the part of the border guard.


In this stanza, the poet shares a moment of humor and tension at a border checkpoint. When the border guard asks about liquor and firearms, the speaker can’t help but find the question ironical, as it should have been asked ages ago. This is a reference to how both of these things were brought to the continent by the white settlers themselves. However, what truly stands out is the demeanor of the border guard.

He appears noticeably uneasy, his gaze searching intently for any signs of wrongdoing. It’s as if he’s determined to uncover alcohol or weapons, even though they are not there. This heightened vigilance show’s how the indigenous communities are discriminated against.

Stanza 3

“Where are you going?”

Indians in an Indian car, trying

to find a Delaware powwow

that was barely mentioned in Milwaukee.

Northern singing in the northern sky.

Moon in a colder air.

Not sure of the place but knowing the name

we ask, “Moravian Town?”


The guard asks them where they are headed. The speaker, an Indian in an Indian car, is headed on a journey in search of a Delaware powwow, an event that received little attention in Milwaukee.

The idea of participating in Northern singing under the expansive northern sky fills them with a sense of anticipation. The moon shines inside the cold car. Although the speaker is uncertain about the precise location, she is familiar with the name and queries, “Moravian Town?” This inquiry reflects her attempt to navigate the landscape, trying to find her destination.


The poet identifies as an Indian traveling in a car with fellow Indians. She is on a quest to locate a Delaware powwow. This particular event is a social gathering of Indians in North America. As it is an event for the Natives, it is barley talked about by the white settlers.

Despite not having a precise knowledge of the location, the poet and her group possessed a familiarity with the name “Moravian Town.” With a sense of purpose, she raises the question, hoping to confirm if this is the correct destination. This question serves her determination to connect with her cultural heritage, seeking out gatherings and places that hold significance for her identity.

Stanza 4

The border guard thinks he might have

the evidence. It pleases him.

Past midnight.

Stars out clear into Canada

and he knows only to ask,

“Is it a bar?”


The speaker observes the border guard and senses his confidence in potentially having found some evidence. This seems to bring him satisfaction as it would allow him to detain or arrest them.

The speaker portrays the image of the situation and tells us that it’s well past midnight, and the night sky is adorned with stars that shine brightly all the way into Canada. The guard, however, only knows to inquire about a bar, suggesting he may be making assumptions based on limited information or stereotypes.


The poet in this stanza keenly observes the border guard. There’s a discernible air of satisfaction in the guard’s demeanor at having potentially found a fault. This discovery seems to please him, possibly validating his suspicions or assumptions. The setting is well past midnight, in a serene and starlit night in Canada. This display adds a touch of wonder and beauty to the scene, contrasting with the tense encounter with the border guard.

Despite the natural beauty around them, the guard’s inquiry creates a negative atmosphere for the travelers. He narrows his focus to a seemingly narrow assumption, asking if the group is heading to a bar. This question reflects a certain stereotyping that Native Indians are alcoholics. The poet’s observations reveal the complex interplay of individuals at a border crossing.

Stanza 5

Crossing the border into Canada,

we are silent. Lights and businesses

we drive toward could be America, too,

following us into the north.


As the speaker crosses the border into Canada, a quiet descends upon all the passengers. The lights and businesses that line the route could easily belong to America as well. This scene seems to follow them into the northern territory.

This observation emphasizes the continuity and similarity between the two nations, blurring the distinctions between them as she traverses the border.


As she crosses the border into Canada, the poet experiences a profound sense of stillness settle over her. This observation makes her reflect on the seamless transition between America and Canada. The shared characteristics of the landscapes and urban environment blur the lines between the national borders.

The continuity between them becomes a powerful symbol, highlighting the idea that while physical borders may exist, the essence of the land and its surroundings transcends such divisions. The poet’s observations speak about the universal nature of landscapes and the communities that inhabit them, regardless of national affiliations.