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Joy Harjo

When members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began protesting a controversial pipeline project running through North Dakota, Joy Harjo used her voice and saxophone to raise awareness about the situation.

Harjo, an acclaimed poet, author, musician, and a professor of English and Chair of Excellence, joined other Native American artists on a new project that supports the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Proceeds from the “Water is Life” song will go toward a legal defense fund of the protesters who say they are fighting the Dakota Access oil pipeline to protect the water and land of residents.

Harjo noted that artists play a crucial role in using their craft to address or draw attention to national issues in such a way that people will listen.

“Poets have traditionally been the truth tellers in many cultures,” she said. “We are in service to the spirit of our art and to the people.”

The Dakota Access oil pipeline project is currently on hold as the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will not issue an easement to complete the work and will look for an alternative route for the pipeline.

Harjo, a native of Oklahoma from the Muscogee Creek Nation, got her start in poetry and music in New Mexico where she earned her undergraduate degree.

She challenges other artists—whether professionals or up and coming—to speak up on issues important to them through their art.

“I love my students at UT, and I encourage them to listen, read, pay attention, and gain the craft to write and speak with knowledge, compassion, and fluency,” Harjo said. “Others are inspired by what I do and take up the pen, a horn, or other instrument of expression.”

There is more power in people’s words and music than they might realize, she said.

“We are essentially sound, made of waves of thought and sound,” Harjo said. “Words can shift a story, can make doors in complicated situations, or new paths of understanding.”


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,

Joy Harjo (865-974-6905,