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An American Sunrise

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An American Sunrise

The poem "An American Sunrise" published by Joy Harjo in 2017, was later republished as the eponymous poem of her collection An American Sunrise, in 2019. The poem revolves around the themes of race and Indigenous sovereignty in a modern United States that seeks to silence those of Native American descent.

Analysis and overview of "An American Sunrise"

"An American Sunrise" is a prose poem, meaning Joy Harjo utilized common grammatical and sentence structures found in prose writing. The poem is generally composed of complete sentences, but with characteristics found in poetry writing, such as compactness, intensity, capitalization in grammatically incorrect places, and some incomplete sentences. Below is a comprehensive analysis of the poem and its literary devices.

Publishing Info"An American Sunrise" was published in the literary magazine Poetry in 2017.
Written ByJoy Harjo
Form / Style"An American Sunrise" is a prose poem, taking the form of sentences and presenting itself in a block of text, incorporating some of the traditional trappings of poetic verse without initially presenting as verse.
Notable Literary DevicesEnjambment, metaphor, alliteration
Rhyme SchemeNone
Notable ImageryDrumming a fire-lit pathway into the stars, Native Americans in the bar, jukebox
Key ThemesFreedom, settler-colonialism, sin, youthfulness, music
Meaning"An American Sunrise" (2017 version) is about the freedom of Native Peoples in the United States. It engages with Christianity and settler-colonialism to paint a picture of young Native Americans enjoying themselves in a conquered and modern world. It demonstrates that Native Americans still exist and live in the United States, despite it all.

"An American Sunrise" full poem

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We

were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.

Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We

made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing (5)

so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin

chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin

will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We (10)

had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz

I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,

forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We

know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

soon. (15)

Summary of "An American Sunrise" by Joy Harjo

"An American Sunrise" shoves the reader onward through a short, 15-line prose poem about young Native American adults partying and dancing in a post-colonial America. The poem opens with the image of the speaker and their friends "running out of breath" as they try to "meet" themselves—depicting an image of quickly moving and changing youths who are trying to learn who they are (line 1). This image is a critical opening to this poem, as the poem unfurls, the reader is further introduced to these adventurous and self-actualizing young adults.

The second line immediately addresses the concept of ancestry, a weighted and deep theme that holds a lot of history for the various Native American tribes in the United States, particularly the Creek Tribe, which is the assumed tribe in this poem due to Harjo's personal connection and voice as a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The speaker addresses substance usage immediately following this, saying that they could lose themselves at the bar, as long as they drank and carried on, but not if they were "Straight", meaning straight-laced in this context. They planned their life amongst all of this merriment, and some of them went on to achieve those dreams.

An American Sunrise, bonfire, StudySmarterBonfire as seen in "An American Sunrise". wikimedia commons

"An American Sunrise" is a poem that looks back on raucous youth with fondness and the hindsight of a dedicated and vulnerable adult. This is not a poem that limits the reader to an image of substance usage and partying, rather illustrates how these things can be used in a form of pure self-expression, indicating the love and eagerness with which these modes of self-expression can have on a forming adult. Lines 6-7 discuss how Sin and the Devil were invented by Christians, further separating the speaker and their friends from the culture of settler-colonialism.

The poem takes a turn near the end, outlining how the speaker argued with someone from the Pueblo tribe, then goes on to say that years passed and they are still looking for justice. In knowing the historical contexts of the Trail of Tears, as well as the attempted genocide of the Native American people in the Americas, it is easy to understand the speaker's desire for justice. The speaker, however, is a peaceful rebel. The last line demonstrates the fact that their rebellion remains in the face of the United States. The poem leaves us with the message that they are not dead. They are very much alive, and they spit in the face of the idea of their demise. More than these ideas, however, the poem leaves the reader with the understanding that the Native Americans are still America. They are still living in this country, and they still have a hand in shaping it.

The Trail of Tears was the forced migration of Native American peoples by president Andrew Jackson to reserves in 1831. The trail is 5,031 miles and covers 9 states. Native American peoples of many tribes were relocated away from their homes and forced onto land that they did not have a deep connection with. Over 15,000 people died on the Trail of Tears, and this is only one way in which settler-colonialists killed and harmed Native American populations and their homes, lives, and cultures.

Themes in "An American Sunrise"

"An American Sunrise" explores the themes of youth, settler-colonialism, and rebellion. The poem itself revolves around the opposition and dreams of Native American youth. In "An American Sunrise" Harjo's speaker argues for justice, pushes against the trajectory of their people, and directly opposes Christian beliefs brought over by the colonialists when they forcibly converted Native American populations. The speaker in Harjo's poem stays true to the ancestry mentioned in line 2, opening themself up to the starry night and music, and using all of the passion of youth to move the course of history away from the demise of the Native Americans.

Youth is used in this poem to emphasize the power, vibrancy, and devotion that young people have to what they believe in and want from their lives. Lines 4-5 emphasize that some of the people in the bar wanted to become professionals, and some of them went on to do that. The distance between the young and dreaming youth and the speaker, who still hungers for justice 40 years later, demonstrates a lifetime of fighting for what one believes in. This fight doesn't cease for the speaker, no matter how old they get or how long they fight for justice. The good fight does not rest, much like the youth at the bar.

An American sunrise,  A sunrise, StudySmarterA sunrise as depicted in the title "An American Sunrise" by Joy Harjo, Wikimedia commons.

The concept of settler-colonialism is emphasized throughout the poem, in everything from talking about how Christians invented sin, to the way the speaker and their friends behave as "heathens". It is clear that the speaker does not feel guilty for their actions, not even for losing days in a bar playing pool and drinking. However, there is a clear, overarching theme that the speaker does these things to oppose the settler-colonialist narrative of their people being conquered and their dancing and excitement making them heathens.

This is a poem about rebellion. The speaker's actions throughout the poem, including the drumming, drinking, and arguing all demonstrate a feeling of obstinance and a heart of fire that carries the speaker throughout the rest of their life, as they say in line 13 that even 40 years later, they still are searching for justice.

Literary devices in "An American Sunrise"

Some notable literary devices within the 2017 version of "An American Sunrise" include enjambment, metaphor, and alliteration. These literary devices and their roles in the poem are further discussed below:

Enjambment

"An American Sunrise" is filled with enjambment. Enjambment is when a line or sentence continues beyond the normal usages of grammar and punctuation, transitioning between line breaks and stanzas with no pause in the sentence structure. "An American Sunrise" has enjambment in every line except lines 2, 3, and 12. This allows the poem to push the reader along the lines, not stopping to give them too much pause or time to absorb the text that they're reading. This can make the poem flow quickly, and gives Joy Harjo control over which aspects of the poem she wants to emphasize with a long pause at the end of a line.

Metaphor

There are many metaphors in "An American Sunrise", allowing Harjo to leap from idea to idea and between time periods because the poem is not stuck in a linear format. Figurative language such as metaphor and simile can allow the writer to leap from moment to moment, as well as illustrate vivid images. One of the most prominent metaphors in "An American Sunrise" is the end of the poem when the speaker says "We / know the rumor of our demise. We spit them out" (lines 13-14). This metaphor is one of rebellion and opposition to the forces that would seek to conquer the Native American population. The speaker does not actually spit rumors out, but figuratively Native American people will not resign themselves to the trajectory of demise for their people.

Alliteration

Alliteration improves and emphasizes the sonic qualities of a poem. In particular, alliteration can make something catchy or stick in one's brain. An example of alliteration from "An American Sunrise" is when Harjo writes "starry stars. Sin" (line 6). Using alliteration at the end of a line in this way can make the reader's mind glance over the line, looking for the next word to fulfill the pattern of alliteration and coming up short. In this way, it can really make certain words and ideas stand out to the reader and stick in the brain.

What other literary devices can you find in "An American Sunrise"? Can you find additional examples of enjambment, metaphor, and alliteration? What messages might they convey within the poem?

Quotes from "An American Sunrise"

There are many good quotations in "An American Sunrise" (2017 edition). Some notable quotations are mentioned and explored below.

We / were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

This quotation from lines 1-2 illustrates from the very beginning of the poem that the speaker of the poem thought intently and frequently about the fight of their ancestors and the fight that they went through to allow their descendants to exist at all. With historical events such as the Trail of Tears, and forced conversion to religion, along with many, many other events, the opening lines of the poem taking up this centuries-old battle is unsurprising. The people that now carry the weight of their ancestors' sacrifices and perseverance are the Native American youth of today.

Sin

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens

This quotation from lines 7-9 illustrate the ways in which their heathenism and moral wrongdoing were invented by Christianity. This is counterintuitive to a lot of mindsets present in the United States, and demonstrates that the people in the poem tried to refrain from being indoctrinated to the religion. They refuse to believe that their harmless actions are sinful or of the devil. This results in the speaker saying "we were the heathens", even though the word "heathen" is a word that came about as a result of the Christian religion.

We are still America. We

know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

soon.

The closing (lines 13-15) of "An American Sunrise" further demonstrates the rebellion that the speaker experiences at the potential of their people's demise. The phrase "they die soon" is reminiscent of the very same rumor that is being spread about the fate of the Native Americans in the United States. The closing line takes that rumor and turns it on its head, saying that the rumors themselves will die soon, because the people spreading them will recognize that Native Americans are still alive and strong within the United States.

An American Sunrise - Key takeaways

  • "An American Sunrise" (2017 version) is a poem written by Joy Harjo and is the eponymous poem of Harjo's collection An American Sunrise, within which is an edited version of this poem.
  • "An American Sunrise" is a short prose poem, hovering at about 15 lines.
  • "An American Sunrise" has a rebellious tone, utilizing the passion and ambition of Native American young adults to illustrate the speaker's opposition to the notion that the Native American people might die out.

"An American Sunrise" Joy Harjo, Poetry 2017.

Frequently Asked Questions about An American Sunrise

"An American Sunrise" (2017 version) is about the freedom of Native Peoples in the United States. It engages with Christianity and settler-colonialism to paint a picture of young Native Americans enjoying themselves in a conquered and modern world. It demonstrates that Native Americans still exist and live in the United States, despite it all.

"An American Sunrise" is a poem that was written by Joy Harjo in 2017 that later became the eponymous poem of her book An American Sunrise, published in 2019.

There are many themes in "An American Sunrise", but some include: freedom, settler-colonialism, sin, youthfulness, music.

"An American Sunrise" has a rebellious tone, utilizing the passion and ambition of Native American young adults to illustrate the speaker's opposition to the notion that the Native American people might die out.

"An American Sunrise" was initially published in 2017, then edited and republished in the collection An American Sunrise in 2019.

Final An American Sunrise Quiz

Question

When was "An American Sunrise" written?

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Answer

2017

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Question

"An American Sunrise" is the eponymous poem of what 2019 collection of poems? 

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Answer

An American Sunrise

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Question

Who wrote "An American Sunrise"?

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Answer

Joy Harjo

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Question

What state is the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in?

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Answer

Oklahoma

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Question

What notable literary devices are used in "An American Sunrise"?

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Answer

Enjambment, alliteration, metaphor

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Question

What are some notable images in "An American Sunrise"?

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Answer

Drumming a fire-lit pathway into the stars, Native Americans in the bar, jukebox

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Question

What themes are present in "An American Sunrise"?

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Answer

Freedom, settler-colonialism, sin, youthfulness, music

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Question

What was the Trail of Tears?

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Answer

The Trail of Tears was the forced migration of Native American peoples by president Andrew Jackson to reserves in 1831. The trail is 5,031 miles and covers 9 states. Native American peoples of many tribes were relocated away from their homes and forced onto land that they did not have a deep connection to. Over 15,000 people died on the Trail of Tears, and this is only one way in which settler-colonialists killed and harmed Native American populations and their homes, lives, and cultures.


Show question

Question

What is the speaker rebelling against in "An American Sunrise"?

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Answer

The speaker is rebelling against the demise of the Native American people. 

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Question

The speaker says that sin was invented by whom?

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Answer

The Christians 

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