An American Sunrise

Joy Harjo

‘An American Sunrise’ by Joy Harjo is a powerful poem about Native American culture written by the current Poet Laureate of the United States. The poem explores the struggles of the poet’s community as well as the successes and celebrations. 


Joy Harjo

Nationality: American

Joy Harjo is a major American poet who was chosen as poet laureate of the United States.

She’s the first Native American to hold that position.

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Throughout the poem, the poet uses a prose-like format. The lines are quite long and form what appears to be more like a paragraph than a traditional quite extensive. Throughout, Harjo utilizes the first person pronoun “we.” By using this narrative perspective, the speaker expresses the experiences of more than just a single person.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo


‘An American Sunrise’ by Joy Harjo is a beautiful and memorable poem about Native American culture and the constant battle to maintain it in the face of contemporary life.

In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins describing the actions of “we.” They are referring to members of the Native American community, of which they are a part of. The speaker notes how difficult it is to remain present in the contemporary world while also remaining connected to one’s cultural heritage and remembering the tragedies of the past. 

The speaker alludes to the ease of getting lost in alcohol, the desire from other groups to “save” Native Americans and even speaks to the inventions of Christianity. As the poem concludes, the speaker declares that nothing will eradicate Native American culture, despite the “rumors of our demise.”

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-6

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.


Made plans to be professional—and did. And some of us could Sing

When we drove to the edge of the mountains, with a drum. We

In the first lines of ‘An American Sunrise,’ the speaker begins by using metaphorical language to describe a group of people’s return to their “ancestors fights.” The speaker is describing the struggle in Native American communities to maintain a connection with the past and contend with contemporary issues. 

The speaker suggests that it was important to remain “straight” so that one might not “lose days in the Indian bar.” Here, she is suggesting that due to the nature of their struggle, many turn to alcohol as a source of comfort and a distraction. One has to remain focused and not allow this distraction to influence their days, the poet suggests. 

The speaker uses the third person pronoun “we” in these lines. They are speaking for a group of people, perhaps those close to them within the Native American community, and describing how they “made plans to be professional— and did.” They were successful in what they strove to do because they worked as hard, or harder than anyone else.

In the following lines, the speaker merges the “success” in the contemporary world with the celebration of the group’s heritage in the next. They played music and drummed “a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars.” The repetition in this line creates a dream-like feeling that suggests that the speaker is both amazed by and nostalgic about moments like these. 

Lines 7-12

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin


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,

There is a wonderful example of enjambment in the transition between lines six and seven. Here, the reader begins a sentence about “sin” and then finishes it in the seventh line describing how it was “invented by the Christians.” The Christian concepts of sin and “the devil” are responsible for a great deal of suffering within the Native American community. 

These are subjects that the speaker and those around them imbued in their song. They embrace the fact that in the eyes of others, historically and even in some contemporary situations, they are considered “heathens.” They want to be different from those who sought to “save” them through conversions to Christianity in the past. 

The speaker notes that now, they need to be “saved” from the Christians or from anyone who wants to change their culture or remove them from it. Despite the speaker’s passion for this, she knows that there is a “thin chance” that they can be saved from those around them. The speaker and the other members of our community know their part in the story. A “little gin” will clarify the “dark” and make us “feel like dancing.” The speaker and the other members of our community know the darkness that’s present within their everyday lives, and the terror that fills their pasts. When they are reminded of it, they dance, trying to throw off the fear and the anger and do something that they can control. 

The speaker merges a conversation into the next lines. She’s speaking to a “Pueblo,” or someone from the Pueblo tribe in the southwest of the United States. She notes that “we,” the Native American community, had something to do with “the origins of blues and jazz.” Here, she’s alluding to the fact that there’s a great deal in their past that isn’t acknowledged. They have contributed to society in ways that aren’t studied or celebrated. Instead, their pasts are discussed only in terms of what happened to them rather than what they did. 

Lines 13-15

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


In the final lines of the poem, the speaker notes that “we still want justice.” The Native American community has not forgotten the past nor are they going to. They also know the “rumors of our demise.” Here, she acknowledges that some believe, in the end, of Native American culture. That, due to the actions of the past and discriminatory policies throughout history, eventually the languages, stories, and other elements of their culture are going to be lost. 

But, “We spit them out. They die / soon” she concludes. This is a strong and unwaveringly determined response to the idea that Native American culture could ever be lost.

Structure and Form 

‘An American Sunrise’ by Joy Harjo is a fifteen-line poem that is contained in one stanza of text. At first glance, readers will mediately note the poet’s use of a paragraph-like stanza. While it’s still clear that the text is written in verse, the shape of the stanza, and its long lines, make it feel more prose-like.

The poem is written with a few specific end rhymes. Some of the words, like “We” are repeated at the ends of lines, making exact rhymes. The rhymes reads: ABCADEAEEAFGAH. While some of the lines do repeat the same sounds, there is not a specific pattern. One might suggest that this poem is, in fact, written in free verse, without the intention of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern being used. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Caesura: occurs when a poet inserts a pause in a line of verse. This could be through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing.”
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars […]”
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines seven and eight. 


What is the theme of ‘An American Sunrise?’

The theme of this poem is the preservation of culture and resistance to unwanted change. The speaker alludes to elements of Native American culture, the past, and how she and her community celebrate their history. These things, some believe, will be lost. But she knows that’s never going to happen. 

What is the tone of ‘An American Sunrise?’

The tone is determined and passionate. The speaker spends the lines discussing elements of her life, and the lives of those within her community. They struggle with a great deal but they also dance in the face of adversity and ensure that their stories and heritage are preserved. 

What is the meaning of ‘An American Sunrise?’

The poem describes the everyday struggle within Native American communities as they wake up to an “American sunrise,” one that doesn’t, and hasn’t historically, included them. 

When did Joy Harjo write ‘An American Sunrise?’

Joy Harjo published this poem in a collection of the same name in August 2019. It is one of her most celebrated collections that has been described as a “dialogue with history” in which Harjo returns to her native land and looks to the past. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed reading ‘Remembrance’ should also consider reading some other Joy Harjo poems. For example: 

  • My House is the Red Earth’ – explores the center of the world and how it differs for various people.
  • Once the World Was Perfect’ – explores the loss, and regaining, of the perfect state of the world. It begins by focusing on the perfect nature of the earth and how it’s falling apart due to greed and other human weaknesses.
  • Perhaps the World Ends Here’ – uses the central image of a ‘kitchen table’ to connect all areas of life. Childhood, love, loss, war, adulthood, memory are all bound to events that take place at the table.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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