16 pages 32 minutes read

Joy Harjo

For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet to be named Poet Laureate of the United States. Her poem “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” appears in the collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton & Co., 2015). The poem’s speaker combines humor, modern language and mythological and archetypal concepts. They advise the reader on how to call their spirit back from wandering. Like many of Harjo’s poems, the speaker addresses the reader directly, speaking to a large audience about universal topics that effect everyone. They refer to spiritual concepts that are part of Harjo’s heritage as a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, combining them with imagery recognizable by all. The poem advises people to let go of shame, take strength from nature, to connect with the spirit world through the natural world, and to help others do the same.

Poet Biography

Joy Harjo was born on May 9, 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she grew up as a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Her original name was Joy Foster. She adopted her grandmother’s surname, “Harjo,” which means “So brave it seems crazy.” Harjo wrote a memoir about her experiences growing up called Crazy Brave (2012, W. W. Norton & Co). Harjo’s mother and father divorced when she was young. Her controlling and abusive stepfather kicked her out of the house when she was sixteen. Harjo attended the Institute of Native American Arts in New Mexico, where she learned both art and discipline. Initially Harjo gravitated toward music and painting, and it was not until later that she became a poet.

Harjo earned her degrees from the University of New Mexico and an MFA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University while also raising children. She is a prolific writer, musician, activist and voice for Native American individuals, bringing attention to various causes. She has written nine books of poetry, two children’s books, her memoir, and has released seven albums.

Poem Text


This poem is a list of advice for the reader. The speaker begins by giving straight-forward advice. They mention ordinary objects and activities from daily life: “Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop. / Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control” (Lines 1-2).

The poem then shifts to the imaginative, abstract, and metaphysical. The speaker suggests that the reader “[o]pen the door, then close it behind [them].” (Line 3) The wind will bring the “essence of plants” (Line 4) and clean the reader. The reader must “[g]ive it back with gratitude” (Line 5). The speaker means that the reader must breathe out, returning breath from the universe.

The speaker advises the reader to sing; their voice will lift to the “stars’ ears” (Lines 8-9). The speaker directs the reader’s attention to the earth and their philosophy about it. They believe that “this earth [...] has cared for you” (Line 7) before birth. There are immortal “guardians” (Line 8) who have cared for us since the beginning of time, who sit around a fire that is “without time” (Line 8). The speaker tells the reader to let those guardians care for them. They say this to readers who have “moccasin feet” (Line 8), which implies that they are addressing fellow Native American individuals. The next line refers to the reader’s “postcolonial insecure jitters” (Line 9), which also suggests that Harjo’s intended audience is Native American. “Postcolonial” refers to the time after Europeans conquered North America and oppressed Native American people.

The speaker advises the reader to “[a]sk […] forgiveness” and “[b]e respectful” (Line 10) of the creatures they may have harmed. They assure the reader that “[t]he heart knows the way” (Line 13), though one’s journey may be armed by people who hate others because they are self-loathing. The speaker warns that the journey may take a long time, that “your mind” (Line 15) might “run away and leave your heart” (Line 15) to follow all of the distractions set out by the “thieves of time.” (Line 15). The speaker advises the reader to release regret. Eventually the reader will come to the fire that is “kept burning by the keepers of your soul” (Line 17); these keepers will welcome the speaker.

The reader should cleanse “with cedar, sage, or other healing plant” (Line 18). In addition to letting go of regret, one should release feelings of “failure and shame” (Line 19). One should look to the future, “[a]sk for forgiveness” (Line 21), and beseech loved ones for help. The speaker is careful to clarify that loved ones may be more than just humans; they may also be animals, elements, birds, and angels. The speaker tells the reader that their spirit may be “caught” in feelings of “shame, judgment, and human abuse” (Line 23), that they must call their spirit back (Line 24). One way to call back the spirit is to “speak to it as you would to a beloved child” (Line 25).

The spirit may come back in “pieces” (Line 26). It will be happy to return, though it may need some time to rest. As the poem ends, the speaker tells the reader to “have a party” (Line 28). The reader should invite those who are supportive and loving as well as “those who have no place else to go” (Line 28). The reader should “make a giveaway and remember, keep the speeches short” (Line 29). Lastly, the reader, after helping themselves, must help someone else.