An American Sunrise

By Joy Harjo


“An American Sunrise” is a compelling collection of poems by Joy Harjo, the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States. Published in 2019, this body of work weaves together the threads of history, personal memory, and spiritual reflection. Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, uses her distinctive voice to explore themes of displacement, loss, and recovery, drawing on her rich cultural heritage.

The collection is not just a personal exploration but also a broader commentary on the historical injustices faced by Native Americans. Harjo masterfully blends elements of her ancestral traditions with a contemporary perspective, making her work both timeless and urgently relevant. 📚🍃

“An American Sunrise” revisits the lands from which her ancestors were uprooted in the 1830s due to the Indian Removal Act, a tragic event often overshadowed in American history. Through her poems, Harjo embarks on a journey of reclamation—of history, land, and personal sovereignty.

Meaning of An American Sunrise

Opening Section

In the initial verses of “An American Sunrise,” Harjo sets the tone by reflecting on her return to her ancestors’ homelands in the southeast. These lines introduce readers to the core theme of reclamation and the complex, sometimes painful, layers of memory associated with the land:

  • “We were running out of breath, as we ran to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.”

Mid Section

The middle part of the poem delves deeper into the collective and personal histories that shape the poet’s identity. Harjo reflects on the experiences of her people and their enduring spirits, despite the historical attempts to erase them:

  • “It was there I remembered everything… The songs came up through the ground, grasses whispered the stories of the ancestors.”

Concluding Section

The concluding verses of the poem offer a resolution and a reawakening to the power of heritage and the continuity of life. Harjo speaks to the resilience of her people and the unbreakable connection to their land:

  • “We are still America. We know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die soon.”

In-depth Analysis

Stanza 1 —

  • The poem opens with a sense of urgency and movement, using metaphors of running and surfacing to symbolize the struggle and emergence of Native American voices.
  • Literary Techniques: Use of vivid imagery and dynamic verbs to convey action and emotion.

Stanza 2 —

  • Here, Harjo employs personification and natural imagery, bringing the landscape to life as an active participant in the narrative of history.
  • Syntax and Diction: Simple yet powerful language that echoes oral traditions.

Stanza 3 —

  • The closing lines reaffirm the survival and presence of Native American cultures in contemporary America.
  • Figurative Language: Metaphors of spitting out rumors highlight resilience and defiance against erasure.

Stanza 4 —

  • This stanza connects historical experiences with the present day, reminding the reader that the struggles and triumphs of ancestors continue to influence contemporary life.
  • Literary Techniques: Harjo integrates anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) to emphasize continuity and connection.
  • Example: Repeated use of “We remember” at the beginning of lines to reinforce collective memory.

Stanza 5 —

  • In this part of the poem, Harjo explores the theme of renewal and healing. The imagery shifts to a more hopeful tone, suggesting that despite the pain of the past, there is room for growth and rejuvenation.
  • Figurative Language: Metaphors of light and sunrise symbolize hope and new beginnings.
  • Example: “The sun rises, despite everything” suggests resilience and inevitable progress.

Stanza 6 —

  • The concluding stanza serves as a call to action and reflection. Harjo invites readers to acknowledge their shared history and to engage with it actively.
  • Syntax and Diction: Commands and direct address are used to engage the reader personally.
  • Example: “Learn the stories of your ancestors” directly involves the reader, making the poem’s message more impactful.

Poetic Devices used in An American Sunrise

Alliteration“Surfacing the edge” emphasizes the S sound, enhancing the lyrical quality.
Assonance“We were running out of breath” uses repetition of the short “e” sound.
Consonance“Grasses whispered” repeats the soft “s” sound, creating a hushed, secretive tone.
Enjambment“We were running out of breath, as we ran to meet ourselves.” encourages a flowing, continuous reading experience.
Imagery“The songs came up through the ground” vividly paints a picture of ancestral voices rising.
Metaphor“We are still America” metaphorically connects the people to the country, asserting their inherent place.
Personification“Grasses whispered the stories” gives nature the ability to communicate like humans.
Repetition“We were running, we were running” emphasizes persistence and motion.
Simile“Rumors of our demise, we spit them out” compares rumors to something distasteful that needs to be expelled.
Symbolism“The sunrise” symbolizes new beginnings and the renaissance of Native American identity.

An American Sunrise – FAQs

Q: What is the central theme of ‘An American Sunrise’ by Joy Harjo?
A: The central theme revolves around reclaiming identity, history, and connection to the land from which Native Americans were forcibly removed.

Q: How does Joy Harjo use nature in her poetry?
A: Harjo frequently uses nature as a symbol of resilience, a source of wisdom, and a connector to ancestral roots, often giving it a voice to narrate stories of the past.

Q: What literary style is most prominent in ‘An American Sunrise’?
A: Harjo employs a lyrical and narrative style, intertwining elements of traditional Muscogee oral storytelling with contemporary poetic forms.

Q: What role does symbolism play in ‘An American Sunrise’?
A: Symbolism is pivotal in conveying layers of meaning related to spirituality, cultural heritage, and historical continuity. Symbols like the sunrise, river, and earth itself serve to link the spiritual with the terrestrial and the historical with the contemporary.

Q: How does Harjo incorporate her Muscogee heritage into her poetry?
A: Harjo incorporates Muscogee cultural elements through language, stories, and symbols that are significant to her tribe’s traditions, often reflecting on spiritual practices and historical experiences.

Q: Can ‘An American Sunrise’ be considered a form of historical documentation?
A: Yes, through its vivid recounting of Muscogee history and broader Native American experiences, the collection serves not only as a poetic exploration but also as a powerful piece of cultural testimony.

An American Sunrise Study Guide

Verse for Analysis:
“We were running out of breath, as we ran to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.”

List of Devices:

  • Imagery: “running out of breath” evokes a sense of urgency.
  • Metaphor: “surfacing the edge” implies a breakthrough in understanding or reclaiming history.
  • Alliteration: “ancestors’ fights” emphasizes the connection through the ‘f’ sound.


  • The verse uses imagery, metaphor, and alliteration to express themes of struggle, reclamation, and identity.

Additional Exercise:

  • Verse for Analysis: “The songs are the breath of our ancestors.”
    • Imagery: Describes songs as something living and essential, connecting them directly to past generations.
    • Metaphor: Compares songs to breath, highlighting their necessity and vitality.
    • Symbolism: Songs symbolize a living connection to history and culture.


  • The verse effectively uses imagery, metaphor, and symbolism to deepen the reader’s understanding of cultural continuity and the power of ancestral heritage.

This wraps up our detailed guide on poetic and rhetoric devices in “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo.