The introduction of the horse to the North American landscape changed the fabric of society, presenting new vehicles through which nations saw themselves in relation to the space around them. In his book Horse Nations, Peter Mitchell illuminates how their entrance into societies both offered new ways of gaining power over others, but also presented new ways of subverting that colonial power. As key assets in the settler colonial projects of the Spanish, French, British, and finally European Americans, horses were exploited as tools for roaming around and claiming indigenous lands. Because of their incredible power and speed–enabling fast travel and transport of goods–they offered the settler military an advantage over non-equestrian communities (Mitchell 7). Simultaneously, however, they became decisive additions to indigenous nations in the West, including the “Northwestern Nez Perce and Blackfeet and plains peoples such as the Kiowa, Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapho, and Sioux,” enabling new ways of trading and traversing the landscape (Hueburt 171). Against this complicated and transformative fabric, Muscogee poet Joy Harjo enacts her poem “She Had Some Horses,” capturing the mutual imaginative power horses formerly held in the human mind. Using Derrida’s concept of différance, this essay will explore the ways in which Harjo’s poem brings the decolonial project to the English language, through the images she enacts and the poem’s structure and rhythm. Further, the essay will explore the ways the poem offers a Muscogee-centered vision of the complex intertwined histories of the Americas, enacting not only decolonial potentialities but also alternative ways to think about the environment.
In her introduction to her book, She Had Some Horses, Harjo tells the story of a time when her dad “butchered deer from bowhunting…hanging them from the one tree in (their) yard” (Bryson 50). She goes on to describe how this scene created a large spectacle for her neighbors since “large animals were not present (in their world) except as packaged meat in the grocery store” (50). In this false dichotomy between humans and the rest of the non-human world Harjo locates her central problematic.
My frustration with the language, particularly the English language, stems from anger with the colonization process in which the English language was a vicious tool. The colonizers knew what they were doing when they tried to destroy tribal languages, and which, infuriatingly, they were successful at in many instances. Language is culture, a resonant life form itself that acts on the people and the people on it. The worldview, values, relationships of all kinds—everything, in fact—is addressed in and through a language (Bryson 52).
Thus, the violence of settler colonialism extends far past a forced separation of Native peoples from their lands, and includes a separation from their values, cultures and relationships as a result of the loss of Native tongue. The illusion of alienation from the non-human world enacted in the English language, she argues, translates itself to the real-world alienation, illuminating the violence of Anglo society’s systemic patterns of linguistic and cultural oppression.
In his conception of différance, Derrida brings this problematic into view through deconstructing the ways in which language and its structure produce meaning. He explains that “with its a, différance more properly refers to what in classical language would be called the origin or production of differences and the differences between differences, the play of differences” (476). Therefore, engaging Harjo’s contestation against Anglo society’s systemic patterns of linguistic oppression, for example, the enactment of the illusion of isolation from the non-human world with Derrida’s conception of différance offers parallel tools in understanding the linguistic effects of settler colonial society and logic. In this way, Derrida’s engagement with language reflects similar structures (creating mindsets) that Harjo engages with through her use of poetics: both concern themselves with the construction of the self and the other in order to cultivate new forms of environmental sociality.
She had horses who were maps drawn of blood. She had horses who were skins of ocean water. She had horses who were the blue air of sky.
Bringing about the complicated fabric that the horse has been woven through, her poem engages the settler colonial claim of manifest destiny, the carving of a map “littered with the bodies of (her) relatives,” traversing the origins of this “psychic wound of the Americas” (47). Yet, in the lines following, she complicates the settler logic and linguistic patterns that make the claims of domination possible.
Mocking the notions of possession, Harjo engages with and challenges the vision that the English language creates of the world, destabilizing the consequent illusion of ‘actual presences’ and ‘substance’ that guarantee their truthfulness: the legitimacy of the settler state. Following the word had, a word used to indicate the idea of possession, are the ‘objects’ of the ocean and sky. Through using these words of ownership to ‘possess’ elements of the world that are never the same from one day to the next, Harjo throws a net through open air, retrieving nothing. In this process of de-signification, illuminating possession as both nonsensical and also impossible, Harjo delegitimizes the settler state along with its logics of domination. She enacts the transformative power of the horse, to once again allow its powers to rupture the way we view ourselves and our relation to the world around us. By destabilizing the sense of possession, the had in the refrain works the opposite way it is assumed to. The poem’s highly structured quality sets up the expectation for the refrain to harness the wildness of the poem. Yet, as possession is undone at each line, flickering and galloping off in a rupture across the page, the refrain refuses to hold back the horse, with its use of the word some refusing limitations or quantifications.
Similarly, in Harjo’s free play with language, un-sticking it with essence, origin and meaning, Harjo destabilizes the false dichotomy separating humans from the other animals and nature.
She had horses with full, brown thighs.
She had horses who laughed too much.
She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.
She had horses who licked razor blades.
At each line, Harjo’s play with language smears the binaries, fracturing western claims to autonomy such as species and self. Enacting différance, Harjo takes to task implications of the category ‘animal’ that is exclusive to the human species, and vice versa. Since “all substantive units of language are generated by other things that lie outside them, but these external characteristics are actually internal to their makeup” (474), the categories of horse and human are connected and interrelated, effectively drawing meaning from each other. The mischievous play of this element of language in the poem engages Derrida’s production of différance to illuminate the categories constructing separation, and challenging it by smearing the signifiers with the signified. Through the combined humanization of horses and animalization of humans, through description of the horse and the use of the word who after horses (implying humans), Harjo’s play with the language allows the poem to harness the ways in which these categories are mutually implicative, enacting an unsettling synthesis of human and horse bodies and transgressing species. Thus, the horse transforms the world around us, and itself, to mean a mutually implicative and interconnected life force, as opposed to part of the ‘environment’, with natural nonhuman entities seen as nothing more than natural ‘resources’: “fur and teeth.”
Through transgressing species, Harjo also challenges the hierarchy associated with them, allowing humans the belief that they can control other life forces. Harjo explains witnessing humans and their devices of (horse) power replacing the wildness of nature and the natural sublime with a technological one. While the horse, and its incredible, jubilant and rapturous energy, previously held an unbridled place in the human mind, it is increasingly replaced by the horsepower.
Now, rather than roaming wide-open spaces as symbols of our own and all of nature’s wildness, horsepower exists only in cars or in trucks like Harjo’s father’s, while real horses are “restricted by asphalt roads and highways.” We can observe actual horses from the road, but they are fenced in, “lop[ing] across patches of prairie often next to pumping oil wells, daring humans to consider a diﬀerent road” (Bryson 50).
Yet, line by line, even in the past tense, Harjo is able to recapture the horse’s wildness as it once existed in the human imagination. In the line “She had horses who thought their high price had saved them,” Harjo enacts a vision of horses’ wildness subverting Western logics of control. In this vision, the horse expected to win in the race loses to a dark horse, undercutting both the assumptions of market fundamentalism and the assumptions that nature will submit to all human desires. Humans think they can control the outcome of the horse race, just as we think we can control the outcome of climate change, reflecting an ignorance of nature’s wildness and humans’ relationship to that wildness.
Similarly, in the line, “She had horses with eyes of trains,” Harjo complicates this hierarchy while, simultaneously, restoring an imaginative power to the horse. In the line, railroad manifest destiny is both evoked and inverted through the power of the horse. By horseback, Harjo captures this incredible and almost indescribable speed at which the horse moves in the tunnel vision with the eyes of trains. Instead of using and subverting nature to explain the sublimity of technology, Harjo inverts this expectation by subverting the technological power of train to the sublimity of nature, not just de-stabe-ilizing the western vision, but also re-visioning the position of the horse in the imaginary.
Harjo, as Derrida, does not limit this confrontation of hierarchy in difference just to ontological grounds, but even extends it to theological grounds in the lines, “She had horses who tried to save her, who climbed in her / bed at night and prayed as they raped her.” Unlike the line, “She had horses who told the truth, who were stripped / bare of their tongues,” where the action of telling the truth is differentiated between the action of the oppressor (via a comma) stripping the horses of their Native tongues, this line of rape contains no comma, illuminating no separation from the raping and the preying actions; in this way, the sexual violence reads as perpetrated in the name of salvation. The hierarchal categories and the character of language and its material presence are extended from ontological grounds to theological grounds, as the line connects the prayer and rape or exploitation as tools/effects of the same institution. Harjo further explains that:
I think where theologians get into trouble is that they’re working out of a hierarchical structure. There’s God sitting at the top of the world, in the image of a man, no women around in that trilogy of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I propose a different structure; it’s not original but what I’ve learned from being around tribal peoples, and in my own wanderings. The shape is a spiral in which all beings resonate. The bear is one version of human and vice versa. The human is not above the bear, nor is Adam naming the bear (Bryson 57-58).
As Derrida explains, “Not only is différance irreducible to every ontological or theological–onto-theological–reappropriation, but it opens up the very space in which onto-theology–philosophy–produces its system and its history. It thus encompasses and irrevocably surpasses onto-theology or philosophy” (478). Through différance, nothing can transcend language, or can occupy an essence outside of it since language is not essence but is just a network of signifiers which rely on each other for meaning. However, as Harjo critiques these hierarchal worldviews, she goes further than Derrida: in correspondingly offering her own alternative, through the play of language, pushing the western rationality that separates and limits.
The line that best embodies Harjo’s critique and delegitimization of separation from Anglo society’s systemic patterns of linguistic and cultural oppression while simultaneously restoring the unbridled imaginative power of the horse as a force of the wildness of nature in a Muscogee-centered vision, and offering other ways to think about the environment is the final one: “These were the same horses.” In the way in which this line weaves together the complicated threads and fabric of the horse into a single signifier; it restores balance. Duplicating the traditions of the Creek Federation in their stomp dance songs, the last line yokes all good and bad, rapturing of torment and galloping of joy, darkness and extract together. Creek Stomp Dance Songs—casting their rhythmic incantatory qualities and lyrical hue over the entire poem through repetition and tone—are enacted in this last line especially to smooth altercations and restore balance to the group. In the dance, people join in for a counterclockwise movement in order to stay in balance with the natural world: “hear(ing) the ground as it [spins] around / beneath them” (Bryson, 53). In this same way, Harjo combines the themes of balance and reflection, as well as the ceremony’s incantatory properties, thought, and yokes the lists together at the end as a disparate, refracted, tempestuous, and impossible whole.
As emblems of memory and storytelling, horses serve in Harjo’s poetry as symbols of the power of tribal myths and heritage… “They…ran through my dreams as if to thread my life together when it appeared broken, unthreadable” … An unthreadable world is a placeless one. (Bryson, 62).
Overall, through its imaginative power, the horse is both transformed and transforms. Using this life force, Harjo deconstructs language in a way that is both deeply restorative and deeply spiritual, critiquing the separations and limitations of the English language while recovering an ecstatic union between the human and non-human world, offering a Muscogee-centered vision of alternative ways to think about the environment.
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Danielle Straus is a rising senior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She is passionate about racial justice/climate justice, radical feminism, disability justice, LGBTQ++ activism, and subverting binaries. Originally from San Diego, California, Danielle loves art, the outdoors, reading novels, and anything queer. As an English major and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies minor, she is most interested in writing about theory, cinema, and literature. Along with creating ceramic and wood sculptures, Danielle’s lifelong dream is to publish novels of her own.