Michael, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MR. FOX: Yeah. I have to say it's a privilege to be interviewed by you. I've been a big fan of your work, and I think you're great.
MR. CAPEHART: Wow! Well, thank you. This is now how I thought this was going to start, but thank you very much, Michael.
This is your fourth book and your third memoir, and in this one, you open by talking about an injury you sustained after spinal surgery in 2018 that resulted in you having to learn to walk again. One, I want to know why that was, but also, what was it about that challenge in particular that forced you to rethink your trademark positive outlook on life?
MR. FOX: Well, to give you a little back story, I had had Parkinson's for 30 years at this point. This is 2018, and so I said to people, I [unclear] with the disease, we'd what we needed to do and it would be a long [audio distortion] get by and it would gradually take more and more, and there would be more loss, but I felt like on my terms. So I might have been cocky about that, but that's the way I thought it was going.
And then I had--a couple years previous, they found a tumor on my spine, a benign tumor, but it was a tumor that was encasing the spinal cord, and therefore, it was going to paralyze me within a couple of years. So, if I wanted to avoid that, I needed to get this surgery, which was really tricky. It was 6 hours at Johns Hopkins, an amazing team of doctors and assistants, and they [unclear], but I was basically--for the time being paralyzed, I had to learn to walk again and literally learn the mechanics of walking, you know, heel, strike, transfer, weight transfer. Keep hips forward, shoulders back. I mean just the basic fundamentals that you see a three-year-old or a two-year-old doing in the park, you know, getting up and falling down and tumbling over. That was my standard situation.
So I spent the summer recouping from this surgery, and I was getting to where I could walk a little more independently, and now my family were giving me a hard time saying I was being too cocky and moving too fast. And I said, "Relax. I'm fine. I know what I'm doing. I'm an athlete, I'm a stuntman," you know.
So I talked them into leaving me alone in the apartment one day because I was going to go to--they were in Martha's Vineyard. I flew back to New York, and I was going to go do a cameo in a Spike Lee [unclear] movie for Netflix. And so my daughter was in town. She was the only one in town, and she wanted to stay and get me off to work in the morning, and I said, "No. I'm fine. Just go home, honey. You have to go to work in the morning, and I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm a grown-up man. I know what I'm doing."
I woke up the next morning. I went to get coffee. I stepped into the kitchen. I fell down, and I shattered my humerus in my left arm. It eventually took a rod and 19 pins to put it back together. But, in the meantime, when it just had happened, I was lying on the kitchen floor alone, and I knew my arm was in bad shape because I couldn't feel it. I grabbed my way over to the wall, and I got my cell phone. I called my assistant and had her call an ambulance and come over.
And when she was on her way over, I sat there and just ripped myself a new one. I just said this is all the work that people put into you, all the effort people put into you, and you're doing your best. You're doing the right thing, and you blow it. You're just cocky, and you take a wrong step, and so I shattered. I had to learn to walk. The balance threw me off, and I just started to think, what is this? Like, make lemons out of--lemonade out of lemons. I'm out of the lemonade business. I can't put a shine on this. I can't make this happy. I can't make this good. So don't worry. It's just a shattered arm.
It was a real lesson to me in that moment, and I really wallowed in it and really got--it took me months to get over it. Sometimes when you destroy yourself so severely that you leave scars. You can tell without people doing damage to you. You do damage to yourself by saying the wrong thing to yourself at the wrong time. It has lasting implications. So I had too many times to get over that.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, Michael, I think you write in the book that in that moment you're talking about is when you hit your rock bottom. You were just saying how you were ripping yourself a new one, but you also write a great deal about your dynamic family life. How has life as a family man helped you stay positive and maintain your sense of what you call realistic optimism?
MR. FOX: Well, my kids are amazing. Everybody's kids are amazing. But mine are--they're grown up with this their whole life. My son was the only one who knew me before I was--before I had Parkinson's, but I was an alcoholic at the time. So he sort of viewed what happened. He was three years old or two years old. So he grew up with a real understanding and real patience with it and a sixth sense about how to negotiate around it.
And my daughters, my daughters are much more prone to want to take care of me than my son is. My son just knows that don't run into that tree that Dad just ran into. My daughters are more like to stop me from hitting the tree. And I don't promote that a lot. I try to be as independent as I can with my family and let them know that their love is enough. They don't have to...
And another thing, I tend to fall a lot. My family always want to grab me and catch me or stop me from falling. Meanwhile, my brain is doing elaborate gyroscopic finding its balance, finding its appropriate sense of situation, and so when they grab me, it all goes to pot. And then we all go down. So I live in fear of knocking people down.
So, with my family, it's kind of odd thing because my mother--I haven't hugged my mother in two and a half years because I'm afraid of knocking her down, and then I went and saw her. And shortly after that visit, there's the pandemic, and I haven't seen her. She's in Canada. So I can finally go and see her. So my family is really important to me, my original family and my admired family and just the family of Parkinson's patients. It's all about families. It's all about connections. Life is about connections. If you live your whole life and you don't make any connections, you don't make any of those bonds, then none of these are going to be healed.
MR. CAPEHART: That is--I agree with you 100 percent on that. You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you have been living with Parkinson's. You were diagnosed with Parkinson's 30 years ago, and you write in the book that you thought that that diagnosis would be the end of your acting career, and yet you went on to play some acclaimed roles on television. You played Dr. Kevin Casey on "Scrubs." You played Louis Canning on "The Good Wife," Dwight on "Rescue me." What attracted you to these characters, and how did you morph your Parkinson's symptoms into what your characters were dealing with?
MR. FOX: Well, I realized if I wanted--I dropped out of acting in 2000 and left "Spin City" in the capable hands of Charlie Sheen and did--and started the foundation with [unclear] center, and I decided not to work anymore because the doctor said I had 10 years left to work, and so I figured 10 years had passed. And I wasn't functioning the way I used to. I couldn't do work the way I used to. I couldn't be as glib or as quick or as fast or as light on my feet or as acrobatic in a way. I just thought all my tools were gone.
And then I offered to do my friend Bill Lawrence's show, "Scrubs" and he's now known for Ted Lasso, but he did "Scrubs" at the time. And he asked me to do one, and I said, "You know, I come with a lot of baggage. I don't know if I can do this," and I did it. And I realized I took the character that had OCD, and I took it and put it through the Parkinson's filter and realized that in a sense everyone has Parkinson's. It's just finding that person's Parkinson's, whatever that is.
With Dwight on "Rescue Me," it was alcoholism and addiction and misogyny and general misanthropic behavior.
And then Louis Canning was an interesting guy because he was a lawyer who had Parkinson's, and he used it to cultivate sympathy with the jury, and he would say--he would make it all about him, and then he would defend drug companies that were being sued for malfeasance. So--
MR. CAPEHART: So--go ahead, Michael.
MR. FOX: I was going to say that the trick was just not having the weight anymore of being a leading man or being the guy that [unclear] on the call sheet, carrying the show, having all that pressure. I was just this guy who could slip in, put on these characters, use my own experience to blend in, create a new experience for them and do it, and it just became this thing. All of a sudden, it was like--all of a sudden, it was like not like a job anymore. It was a hobby, you know. It was just a good experience, and it gave me a second act. I realized less is more, which is good because I had less, and I could use more of it.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, Michael, you anticipated a question I was going to ask you about what you write in the book: "I can play anyone as long as they have Parkinson's, and I was discovering that everyone has Parkinson's." And you talked about that, but I want you to get to talk more--and I think you just talked about him, Louis Canning, and I'm bringing this up because I interviewed Robert and Michelle King and Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald from "The Good Fight" last week, but in that--and you also talked about the fact that your character was peculiar in ways using his Parkinson's as a way of currying favor with juries. But the question is, why do you think that role left such an impression with viewers?
MR. FOX: I tell a story in the book about being at the beach with my wife, and, you know, when I went down to the water and tested it out--we both did and came back. She ran ahead of me and got a towel and started to dry off. I came over and sat down, and this lady came up and said, "Mr. Fox, I have a confession to make." I'm with my wife, and I didn't want to hear this lady's confession, whatever it is, but she said, "I saw you go in the water, and I felt this incredible feeling of loathing and disgust." And I said, "Oh, that's nice," and she said, "And then I realized it was Louis Canning. That's why." And I said, "Oh, that's horrible. She saw Louis Canning on "The Good Wife," and she said, "I hate that fucking guy." Excuse me.
MR. FOX: She realized it was me, and then she felt she had to apologize to me for that. And I said that's the greatest compliment you could ever give me.
MR. CAPEHART: Sorry. True to form, you're making laugh, Michael. You're making me laugh.
I want to go to an audience question. This is a question that comes from the Commonwealth of Virginia from Kimball Boone. She wants to know, what parts of your memoir were most challenging to write?
MR. FOX: I think one thing that was hard to write was when I had this kind of post-operation, kind of psychotic break. The reaction to the drugs I take for Parkinson's mixed with the drugs that I took for the operation, and I kind of was hallucinating. It was really tough because at the time, I wasn't aware of what was happening, but my daughter was there. She was a psychology major. So it was like a field day. It was like a busman's holiday. She was watching me go freaky, but that was tough. It was tough to write that. You just have to break down other people's observations of what was happening coupled with my observations from this kind of damaged position.
But then it was also hard to write about my--so I had to write about Tracy because--I'm not a good enough writer to really get to the depth of what that connection is with the person who commits to you and commits to you early in what's going to be a long journey, a long slog and a lot of challenges, and she committed to me and has been with me through all this stuff. To this minute, it's like aware of everything that's going on with me and yet not suffocating me with it and making it my burden that I'm her burden. It's really a remarkable relationship. So it's tough to pay justice to that but not go overboard and not make it--we're not really sentimental people.
You would think with all my optimism and I've accepted, I'd be sentimental. I'm not. I'm a realist. I just think that there's--when I picked up The New York Times the other day and looked at the front page and there were four stories that were all--I won't go into them, but they were all just horrible, floods and disease and social injustice, and I just went there's got to be something on the next page that will make this a little lighter. There's got to be something--not lighter, but more understandable. If we just understand, if I can understand the connections that people have and the way that we can help each other and the way that we can get each other through--we don't have to look and say that person has that, that's their thing, but say that's my thing. We have this. We all have this, and that's what I have in my family. We all have this, and we all get by the best we can.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, this is your third memoir. I'm wondering, when you write these memoirs, one, do you have your family read them before you hand them in to the editor? And I'm wondering, what reactions do you get from your family?
MR. FOX: They're really interesting. My daughters are--my daughters are the most amazing because they're just my daughters. They own me. So whatever they say, it goes double for me. But they're interested--they ascribe to the broader notion, the motion, the message of it, whatever we talk about that, but then they'll say, "I got a B in this class, and I got an A in this class, or I went here. I went to Sally's on Friday, and I went to Wendy's on Thursday." I mean, stuff like that, it's really great, and I love that, actually, to put that in.
I love creating--especially my daughter, Schuyler, who was there the night before I got hurt--re-creating conversations with her where I know that that's what she said, and I know that that's what I said. And it's just such a beautiful experience, and then to have her read it and affirm it and say, "Yes, that's the way I saw it too. But I saw this other thing that you didn't see that I was worried about potential problems." It's interesting to delve into family and present these situations, but this book more than any of the others, I really wanted to concentrate on the dialogue and communication. It wasn't so much about atmospherics. There's enough atmospherics with the injuries and the surgeries and all that stuff. But I wanted to concentrate on just conversations between people that love each other and try to help each other and know that sometimes you can't. You have nothing to bring to it other than love, and ultimately, that can work.
MR. CAPEHART: You're already--you and your family are already close. You rely on them a lot. Has having them read through particularly this memoir actually brought you closer? Did you find that you got closer to people you were already super close to?
MR. FOX: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I think my son, again, he read it, and he was--it's a funny family. Like, we call each other--my kids call me "Dood" but not "Dude" like the Dude, but D-O-O-D, which I don't know what that means.
MR. FOX: And Tracy and I have kind of--what was his name? A great director. It's out of my head, but the kind of '40s, that movie, just whack at each other with stuff, and it's fun. It's a fun dynamic.
But it means you have to stay invested in it, and you have to ask what's going on. One of the things that was really cool, if I can go into this really quickly, and I don't want to jump to any question you might have had about it, but during the pandemic, we were all in the house together. My son was in Los Angeles, but all the girls and Tracy and I. It was great. She made meals, and we did jigsaw puzzles. We read books, and we had these great conversations after dinner, my kids. The stuff in Minnesota was happening, so great conversations about that and great conversations about social injustice and disease and dystopian societies that we live in. And it just blew me away. I thought, where did this come from?
And so, meanwhile, I have Parkinson's, a broken arm. I have problems walking, and I have--my dog died, who I loved very much, during that time, and yet it's all good. It just is what it is. Like I said, you can be a realist and an optimist at the same time, and you see this stuff.
And we were aware of the fact that while we were enjoying that space in that time that people were waving at beds going down hallway corridors that never come back with their person on it, with their loved one on it. You know that the reality exists. It makes you think about the reality that you're enjoying.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, Michael, we are running out of time, so I'm going to ask you real quickly, can you talk about your foundation, the Michael J. Fox Foundation? Talk about the progress and advancements made in the last 30 years.
MR. FOX: Well, in the last 30 years, we started and we've been involved in--and this happened organically in other ways, but it all seems to connect. We found we're getting new gene modifiers and gene identifiers and realizing that there are certain groups that are prone and likely the prognosis. We're setting them, and we're getting big PPMI, which is a multimillion-dollar study that's trying to find a biomarker. Our hope is--our soonest hope is that sometime within the next 10 years or so, we'll find a way to identify the disease before symptoms are evident, and we're getting close. So a kid can go in and get a blood test at six and they say you've got Parkinson's, and then we treat it prophylactically, and it never manifests itself. So that would be a huge thing.
But as to whether or not we can come with an answer in my lifetime, I don't know. I hope so.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, last question for you, Michael. As a realistic optimist, what is your advice to folks who are struggling to stay positive as we continue to confront this pandemic, this coronavirus pandemic, but also staying positive for people who are dealing with their own, as you say in your--everyone has--everyone has Parkinson's, as they deal with their own version of that?
MR. FOX: I think it's about acceptance. I think it's about acceptance, and the symptoms doesn't mean resignation. It doesn't mean you can't endeavor to change it, but you have to accept it for what it is first. I have Parkinson's. Now what do I do? Then it takes up that much space, and I have all this other space that I can work in and thrive and then come up with new ways to adapt my lift to this situation.
And it's the same within me. We have to be honest about what's happening. We have to have abject truths, the things that just are what they are, and you accept that. And anything could change. You find niches in it to make it better, but you have to accept it for what it is first.
MR. CAPEHART: "Acceptance," that is the keyword.
Michael J. Fox, what a pleasure to meet you. Thank you very, very much for coming to Washington Post Live.
MR. FOX: You're great.
MR. CAPEHART: Please stay with us. I'll be back with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo after this short video.
MR. CAPEHART: Welcome back. My next guest is Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo. She is the author of the new book, "Poet Warrior," a memoir.
Ms. Harjo, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MS. HARJO: Well, glad to be here. Thank you.
MR. CAPEHART: You've written a beautiful book about coming into your own as a poet about growing up, your family, and the people who influenced your life and work, and "Poet Warrior" is your second memoir. How did you first discover your talent for language, lyricism, and expression?
MS. HARJO: Well, it took a while because that was--I always sat in the back of the class and never said anything and was even said to be the shiest kid at Indian School, which is pretty shy. It wasn't until--in a way, poetry came to me. I think there was a bet in the poetry inspiration universe, and they took bets, and the one who lost got me. So it was quite a--it's like it almost found me.
I started writing out of Native rights movements as a student at the University of New Mexico, and what opened the doorway was going out and hearing poets and discovering Native poets, and that opened the door. And I started writing, and the writing--certainly writing poetry and now music and memoirs, et cetera, they're teachers of a sort. They're always teaching me. So it's been a long process.
MR. CAPEHART: I want to highlight a quite that we showed in the opening video before we began this conversation. You write in the book, "The rhythms of poetry brought me into a circle like the rhythms of the elders talking and telling stories that always brought me back to the fire that warmed my soul." What can we learn about our own lives by listening to the stories of our ancestors and by connecting with our roots?
MS. HARJO: Well, we're part of that story. I think there's a family genealogy, family genealogies, but there are also, like, stories genealogies. I've learned in that--I learned that really genealogy is a story field. It's also how we know history, and we are kind of like a tree. And those stories, whether we know them or not, they are the stuff that form the marrow in our bones, and they give us a kind of sense, even if we are not aware of them.
My favorite theme coming up was to go drive my Aunt Lois around the Creek Nation and visit with people and just listen to--listen to the stories, and they're like food. They're spiritual food, and they tell us how to live, how not to live, and they alert us to our human condition on so many levels.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, you could have chosen any number of ways of expression, and I'm thinking in terms of writing. You could have written short stories. You could have written historical fiction, but instead, you chose poetry. What is it about the power of poetry that moves you but also connects with other people?
MS. HARJO: There's something that pulled me in as a child, and I think it was musical for me. It was musical, rhythmic language that made a kind of resonance, a pattern like song making.
My mother used to recite poetry to me, and she also wrote song lyrics, and there was something. It took me to--and it takes me to a place beyond language, especially poetry, because that's a thing about poetry, the contradictory thing. You're working so intensely with words in a kind of calling response, and yet what you're going for is what can't be said in words, the kind of thing that threads through all of us. And it's so beautiful, sometimes terrifying and intense, and we feel, we know like grief or like--and poetry enables us to--for me, it became a way--a kind of sacred language to speak about what couldn't be spoken and to sing it in a way that gave and gives another whole insight and sense of how the world works and of our place in this unfolding story field.
You know, for a long time, I thought, what use are humans on earth? You know, we can see what all the different animals and creatures and elements do, but what do we humans--what is it that we are here to do? What is our purpose here? Everybody asks that. Why are we here? But I came to realize that what we do as humans, we're the story makers. That's what we do.
Like, right now, we'll pick up The Washington Post or we'll get on our phones or we call, some of us, our generation calls people up, but that's all about making a story. We're all deeply involved in story making, and song making is part of that.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, Ms. Harjo, there is something--I'm sure folks saw me react to--and I'm going to garble it--what you said earlier about with poetry is sort of like the language of the un-said. I know I'm messing it up, but I was fascinated by that because, as a poet but also for myself as a writer, I'm always trying to paint a picture for the reader. It's just sort of the way you put it as a poet. You're using the words. You're putting the words down on the page, but at the same time, you're trying to draw a picture for the reader but also, hopefully, propel them to some to her realm of understanding. Am I making too much of what you just said?
MS. HARJO: No. It's something like making--it's--certainly, we use images, but there's also a kind of oral, oral and aural sound making that goes on that makes imprints that way, kind of make sound imprints, just as it's also making in the form, in the meaning, there are also imprints of sort of like mental patterns like rhythms, and they all work together.
I think a lot of people have the sense that poets are--you know, it's like a cartoon. This inspirational light goes off in your head, and you scribble it down, and there it is. It's easy. There's a poem, but there are all these elements that have to--for a poem to really work, all of these elements come together. So it's like you can see--you watch somebody go through drafts or you watch a carver carve and find what it is, and writing poetry is very similar to get it just right. It's always--it's really about listening. That's what I've come to the conclusion--that's the conclusion I've come to. It's like when the poetry really--because--I don't know. You never see poetry as a career choice in school, you know, a desk at Career Day for poetry. I've come to the conclusion that it's a kind of--kind of a calling. You have to have deep love for meaning, for philosophy, for beauty, for terrible truth.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. I want to pick up on what you were just saying about listening and talk about your sixth-generation grandfather, Monahwee. You're a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation based on Tulsa, Oklahoma, and you write that your grandfather, Monahwee, stood up against Andrew Jackson and the U.S. government against the illegal move from our homelands. Tell us the story of Monahwee.
MS. HARJO: Oh, where do I start? A lot of the story I know because of my Aunt Lois and other relatives talking about him, but he's also in the history books. And he was quite a character. His mother was Muscogee Creek. His father was--there were a lot of Scottish people coming in. His father was Scottish, and he came of age during a time of--I guess he managed. He had stores, cattle, and became--I guess Tecumseh came down to the Southeast part of the United States when he was--Natives were talking about the Great Alliance or how do we handle this influx, and how do we keep our cultures? How do we keep our cultures and keep our people going as who we are in the midst of this immense change? And he and other tribal--you know, there were tribal warriors got together and decided to stand up against this injustice, and he was one of many. His name is known, but there are always so many whose names aren't known who were also there.
And at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, they stood up against Andrew Jackson, but that wound up--it didn't wind up good--well for us. He survived seven shotgun wounds and lost his second wife and children in that at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
He wound up in one of the last immigrating parties with the Fish Pond Mekko, leader of that ceremonial town, that town, and went across--went across Mississippi, Arkansas, but he was known--the thing that you don't find in the history books is he was known for his parties. He was a very--
MR. CAPEHART: Oh.
MS. HARJO: He was very well known for his--giving a good party, and so one of the stories that I came across in the immigration records was that--and poets research, by the way--in the immigration records was that the officer was pretty irritated because he was trying to get them to keep moving. They were near Memphis, and Monahwee said, "No. We're going to"--he threw one of his big parties, and that went on for days. So he had to wait it out until they were all ready to--all ready to move again.
MR. CAPEHART: Wait. Parties for days? What would happen at these parties?
MS. HARJO: What happens at any? People hang out, tell stories. There you go. Telling stories, having good food. What happens at any good party? And I think that was true for everyone. You know, we all used to--now we're bound by the weekend, you know, Monday through Friday weekend. It wasn't always that way. I think we used to meet a lot longer. You know, the stories could go on for days. I think that's true for all people.
MS. HARJO: Mm-hmm. As I mentioned in the intro, "Poet Warrior" is a memoir. "Poet Warrior: A Memoir." You write about some tough times in this book, including abuse inflicted on you by your stepfather. What was the most challenging part of writing this memoir?
MS. HARJO: Those parts are always difficult. I mean, I think it's important in any situation--and I liked a lot of what Michael J. Fox was saying, even about his own situation, about kind of not judging, that the story unwinds, and the pieces are there. And so those are the most difficult parts, but one--I think my favorite line or what gave me--one of the lines that--it came to me was after my stepfather passed, and I was at--I went to the funeral because my mother asked. I didn't want to go, and afterwards, I sat with my stepsister, his daughter, who was almost the same age as my mother. And she was always there for me because she had been through it all too with him, and we were sitting out in the car outside talking about his story and what had happened, because I wanted to understand. I wanted to have--it helps to have the pieces. It doesn't change that--well, this is what happened, because it happened.
But, at the end of writing that--because writing is an active process. I don't always know what's going to happen, and things--that's what's amazing about--for any creative artist, it's that discovery, what happened in the discovery, because writing is a discovery process. At the end of that, here came the line. You know, I learned that even the monster has a story, and I wrote that and I thought, wow, that's--thank you for that, for that insight, you know, the place it comes from, you know, that place--the place we all come from, because we're all moving through this world for insight and for knowledge that will not only help us and our families but could be useful to everyone. But when that line came, I had to sit there for a while and thought, wow, that's true. Even the monster has a story.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, Ms. Harjo, what is the one thing you hope people take away from "Poet Warrior"?
MS. HARJO: That everyone has--everyone has a story. Everyone has a story, and all the stories are important. That just because someone may have more status by money, skin color, you know, all the things that--gender, that all the stories, there's no hierarchy. We're all--you know, all of our stories, we're all part of the larger story.
MR. CAPEHART: I'm going to broaden the conversation out a bit. You are the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States. You are serving your third term, and today there are more indigenous people in Congress than ever before and also in the Cabinet. Deb Haaland is the first Native American Cabinet secretary, but of course, representation wasn't always there. What is--talk about it from your perspective. What is the power and responsibility of being first and of telling the stories of your community?
MS. HARJO: I have been aware of that responsibility since I was a child or young--since I was a young person making art. There is always this awareness of where I come from, the people, and a great love that was passed down to me from my family for our people and for our people's stories and for our people's art.
I see myself as someone holding the door open, sort of like a--not a doorkeeper because a doorkeeper is just somebody saying, "Okay. I might be the first, but I'm not the last," and there are many. That's one reason that the Library of Congress project came about, to highlight--to highlight other Native poets.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, over the last few years, Americans of all walks of life have been reckoning with our history, with American history, particularly when it comes to race. I'm wondering, what do American textbooks and depictions in popular culture get wrong, and what should we understand about the history of first peoples?
MS. HARJO: Man, where do I start with that one? Because it's still so present. I mean, all of us struggle so hard to shift, to shift that narrative of stereotypes, and I don't want to name them. Everybody knows them, but I always say, well, my grandmother, Naomi Harjo, played saxophone in Indian Territory. Put that in your book of images of Natives.
But, you know, when I was coming up as a young artist, I thought if I do anything else in my life with my art, whatever that art is, I want people to see us as human beings, and that's a tragedy in those stereotypes because in those stereotypes, we are not human beings, yet in our--in our real life, we're the original peoples, original nations of this country. We have languages. We have philosophical systems, and we're here.
Sometimes we're not seen as here if we're not wearing our traditional outfits or we don't look a certain way, but we are everywhere in this country, and we are part of you. And we are achievers. We have stories that are just as complex as any other person's story, and there is no, really, American cultures without the baseline of indigenous knowledge, story, history, and poetry.
MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. And to add to your point about not just stereotypes but Native peoples being human beings, the words that came to my mind were also "three-dimensional."
MS. HARJO: Yes.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, not only not viewed as--you know, all people of color not viewed as human beings, not even viewed as three-dimensional complex characters in the history and story of this country.
Ms. Harjo, I want to bring up two questions that we have, two audience questions. Sorry. I had a little brain freeze there for a second. The first question comes from Tim Lee, and Tim asks, there's Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. Do you feel that the history of racial injustice and abuse towards Native Americans is being ignored?
MS. HARJO: Yes. In all of this is that it's like what always happens with the Native story or the Native place. Usually, our numbers are even much higher than any other group when it comes to these racial injustices, and yet we are always--we're either called, as it happened not too long ago, "something else" or "other," which is strange in a country in which, you know, we were--not that long ago, we were 100 percent of the population, to be--you know, we've been "other." So, yes, we are often--it happens constantly in the unfolding American story on social media and in the media-at-large is that we're considered--well, our numbers, I've heard--I have a lot of stories. Well, your numbers aren't that large, or we're not going to promote this because the numbers are so low, or--you know, as if we're not part of the story or as if we don't matter.
MR. CAPEHART: Mae Fey from California writes--or asks, what is your foremost concern for Native American communities in the U.S. today?
MS. HARJO: Foremost. I think it's important for--I keep thinking of the children and the young people and how any community, you know, there needs to be--I don't know. I just think of--that's such a big question because there's like--I have several--I'm thinking about everything. I'm thinking about how--what's so important again that we're seen as human beings, but that even in the states--and I won't get too particular here--that we're seen--you know, we are sovereign nations in this country, and that we are--it's important that we are--there are more laws in the lawbooks, federal lawbooks. There are more federal laws dealing with Native peoples than any other kind of law.
So my concern is that we maintain our sovereignty, and we maintain our individuality as Native nations and as human beings, and that the children have--the children have everything they need to grow themselves as healthy human beings and beings that--that the children know that they come from--you know, they have powerful cultural ancestry and stories that link them together and really link all of us together. That's kind of a very rough--a roughhewn--it's a really roughhewn answer. If I wrote it down, I could finesse it.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, in this conversation but certainly through your poetry and your writing, you are inspirational. You are an inspirational person. You inspire people, but I'm just wondering, who inspires you? Is there a musician or an artist or a writer, someone from whom you derive inspiration?
MS. HARJO: Oh, well, I was saying the other day that one of the highlights of this year was getting to speak with Wayne Shorter on the phone, which is--
MR. CAPEHART: Wow!
MS. HARJO: --jazz sax. I mean, those are some of my--some of my heroes. Actually, there are more Native jazz players per group than any other group, so it's a little fact. And a lot of people don't know. So a lot of my heroes are there.
But there's someone--you know, Leslie Silko, a Laguna poet, I knew her first as a poet but storyteller, novelist, and short-story writer inspired--continues to inspire me, and her writing had a lot to do with me becoming a poet.
MR. CAPEHART: And then, on that note, in the minute that we have left, what has it meant for you to be the U.S. Poet Laureate during this time in our history and to be serving a rare third term?
MS. HARJO: It's quite an honor, and sometimes it takes me a while a process things. So I will have a really good answer when this is over, but like I said, to be in this position, again, I see myself as someone holding open a door for poetry, for poets, for poetry, for the place of poetry in this society that as we've come to see during these trials of the last years that how much we need what poetry gives us. Poetry gives us a language that can circumvent and make a pathway through political speech, through rhetoric, and so it's been quite an honor and a responsibility.
And three terms, it's not because I'm special, but there was a pandemic going on, and apparently, it's still going on.
I also wanted to say too that standing here in this position that I like that I'm standing alongside Deb Haaland who is the Secretary of Interior, and Deb and I go way back. She was my poetry student at the University of New Mexico and is a very good poet, and I have watched her journey along the way. And we are all so proud of her.
MR. CAPEHART: Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thank you very much for coming to Washington Post Live.
MS. HARJO: Thank you so much.
MR. CAPEHART: And thanks again to Michael J. Fox for joining us, and thank you for tuning in. Head to WashingtonPostLive.com to find more information about our upcoming events and to register.
I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thank you for watching Washington Post Live.
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