Joy Harjo accepted the Ucross Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center in Sheridan, Wyoming, on Saturday, Feb. 25. Presented by Ucross, the renowned artist residency program, the award recognizes an individual’s extraordinary impact on the nation’s arts and letters.
“Thank you for all you have done and all you continue to do to support the arts, share and celebrate Native voices, and champion poetry, art and music,” said Ucross President William Belcher, as he presented the award to Harjo. “We are in awe of all you have accomplished, and we are honored that you are part of our Ucross community and part of what made our first 40 years so incredible.”
Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was an artist-in-residence at Ucross in 2013, as part of Ucross's long-time partnership with the Sundance Institute. She just completed three terms as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2019 to 2022, and was the first Native American to hold the post. Harjo has written 10 books of poetry, several plays and children’s books and two memoirs. As a musician and performer, she has produced seven award-winning music albums. Her many honors include the Ruth Lily Prize for Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award, two NEA fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Harjo is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Board of Directors Chair of the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation and the first artist-in-residence for the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In Wyoming, Harjo gave a free community craft discussion at Sheridan College on Feb. 24, where she guided a packed hall of students, faculty and community members through her process, and a performance of music and poetry at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center on Feb. 25, accompanied by her longtime musical collaborator, Larry Mitchell. When Belcher presented Harjo with the Ucross Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts at the end of the evening, the crowd gave a standing ovation.
Harjo is the second artist to receive the Ucross Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts. The first was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2018. Proulx is a former Ucross artist-in-residence and member of the Board of Trustees.
Harjo’s visit kicked off Ucross’s 40th Anniversary celebration. Since 1983, Ucross has supported more than 2,600 writers, visual artists, composers and choreographers with the gift of uninterrupted time and studio space on its 20,000-acre ranch in northern Wyoming.
Like Proulx and Harjo, many alumni go on to have distinguished careers after their residencies, including Terry Tempest Williams, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ann Patchett, Ricky Ian Gordon, Theaster Gates, Tayari Jones, Sigrid Nunez, Academy Award and Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Emmy Award winner Billy Porter and Pulitzer Prize winners Michael R. Jackson and Colson Whitehead.
Photos by Matthew Gaston