Northern Lights

Harjo, Joy

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Stanford, Ann Folwell
  • Date of entry: Jan-28-1997
  • Last revised: Dec-12-2006


A Native American who has been destroyed by his participation in the Vietnam war and alcoholism tells the speaker of the poem about his healing. "Whirling Soldier" had seen the apparition of his cousin Ralph in "the gook rattling the bush" nearby and had believed that "each shot [he fired] rigged his spine to hell." The difficulty of reconciling willful killing with the Native American belief in the connectedness of all life drives Whirling Soldier to alcohol and heroin.

The poem tells of his descent into hell and his final drunken episode, after which "a spirit who had never been a stranger but a relative he’d never met" speaks and blesses him. At the end of the poem, the Northern Lights appear, "shimmering relatives returned from the war, dancing in the skies all around us."


This poem examines the scars war inflicts on its survivors, especially those who are already socially disenfranchised by virtue of their ethnicity. It also recalls Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel, Ceremony (see this database), where the central character, Tayo, sees his relatives in the faces of the men he has been commanded to shoot and is driven nearly mad by the apparition which, in fact, turns out to be an important aspect of Tayo’s healing: the knowledge that the entire human community is connected by ties as strong as blood.

This poem also raises the question of the mystery of healing; what happens to Whirling Soldier is not clear, but that he is profoundly changed, is. How does this account challenge empirical biomedicine? How does the medical gaze discount or completely miss these (sometimes mysterious) elements of healing?


This edition came with a wonderful cassette of Harjo reading many of the poems (and commentaries) in this volume.

Primary Source

The Woman Who Fell From The Sky: Poems


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York