Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Broken mannequin lies on street with people walking by

Lessons in Survival and Resilience for a World in Perpetual Crisis


How can we survive a reality so obviously bleak and oppressive? The answer’s in a poem.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote that the death of a person is, in a sense, the end of a form of the world, the terms through which a vital experience arrives within the world. Throughout history, not only individual worlds have come to an end, but also the shared and intertwined stories of lives whose destinies went hand in hand. This was through the advance of colonialism, the destruction and appropriation of natural resources, wars, and in our own century, through the ghosts of religious radicalism and terrorism.

Native American nations have coexisted with this painful reality since the beginning of European colonization in the Americas. Most original peoples were exterminated. The “fortunate” were politically, racially, socially and economically relegated to reservations that confined their lives to ghettos. How, then, can we survive a reality so obviously bleak and oppressive?

Poet Joy Harjo was born in 1951 within the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. During her lifetime, she’s received numerous awards and distinctions, most recently the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. In books like Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Crazy Brave, How We Became Humans, and Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, Harjo has integrated elements of modern Western poetry with symbols and values ​​of her traditional worldview, questioning the limits of that subordinate position to which Western progress has placed the knowledge of original peoples.

In an interview, Harjo has said about the need to write:

I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all sources of who I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all the places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond, to all the principles and endings. In a very strange sense, [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have a voice, because I have to; it is my survival.

The poem “When the World as We Knew It Ended” (published in How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001) perfectly exemplifies the vital position Harjo takes with respect to her writing. It opens us to the possibility of seeing a new beginning at every end. To understand that not all wars and rebellions are fought on the fields of war, but also in the care of others, in the loving of others and in the contact with the spirit with all that is alive.

When the World as We Knew It Ended

By Joy Harjo

We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge

of a trembling nation when it went down.

Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched

the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry

by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed

by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.

Eaten whole.

It was coming.

We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their

long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.

We saw it

from the kitchen window over the sink

as we made coffee, cooked rice and

potatoes, enough for an army.

We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed

the babies. We saw it,

through the branches

of the knowledgeable tree

through the snags of stars, through

the sun and storms from our knees

as we bathed and washed

the floors.

The conference of the birds warned us, as they flew over

destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.

It was by their song and talk we knew when to rise

when to look out the window

to the commotion going on—

the magnetic field thrown off by grief.

We heard it.

The racket in every corner of the world. As

the hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president

to be king or emperor, to own the trees, stones, and everything

else that moved about the earth, inside the earth

and above it.

We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence

from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea

and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe

floating in the skies of infinite


And then it was over, this world we had grown to love

for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses

and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities

while dreaming.

But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies

who needed milk and comforting, and someone

picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble

and began to sing about the light flutter

the kick beneath the skin of the earth

we felt there, beneath us

a warm animal

a song being born between the legs of her;

a poem.

“When the World as We Knew It Ended” from How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems:1975-2001 by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 2002 by Joy Harjo. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.,

*Image: Pubic Domain

Related Articles