Crossing the Border by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo’s “Crossing the Border” is about some Indians who are crossing the Detroit-Windsor border to settle in Canada. This poem includes the scene of usual border check-point questioning by guards and the feelings of the immigrants. Harjo uses the first-person narrative technique to develop the story. It begins directly with the scene of the border without any formal introduction about the setting or characters. The speaker is immigrating to Canada with her children along with another family. Their driver (Barney) is in-charge of taking them to the other side safely.
- Read the full text of “Crossing the Border” below:
Crossing the Border by Joy Harjo We looked the part. It was past midnight, well into the weekend. Coming out of Detroit into the Canada side, border guards and checks. We are asked, “Who are you Indians and which side are you from?” Barney answers in a broken English. He talks this way to white people not to us. “Our kids.” My children are wrapped and sleeping in the backseat. He points with his lips to half-eyed Richard in the front. “That one, too.” But Richard looks like he belongs to no one, just sits there wild-haired like a Menominee would. “And my wife. . . .” Not true. But hidden under the windshield at the edge of this country we feel immediately suspicious. These questions and we don’t look like we belong to either side. “Any liquor or firearms?” He should have asked that years ago and we can’t help but laugh. Kids stir around in the backseat but it is the border guard who is anxious. He is looking for crimes, stray horses for which he has no apparent evidence. “Where are you going?” Indians in an Indian car, trying to find a Delaware powwow that was barely mentioned in Milwaukee. Northern singing in the northern sky. Moon in a colder air. Not sure of the place but knowing the name we ask, “Moravian Town?” The border guard thinks he might have the evidence. It pleases him. Past midnight. Stars out clear into Canada and he knows only to ask, “Is it a bar?” Crossing the border into Canada, we are silent. Lights and businesses we drive toward could be America, too, following us into the north.
“Crossing the Border” presents a group of Indians passing the Detroit-Windsor border at midnight. Passing the border at that time of a weekend would naturally invite suspicion and routine questions. The border guards do the same and stop the car in order to check whether they are legally passing the border with good intentions. After the routine questioning concerning their motive and intention is clarified at the checkpoint, they are freed to enter Canada. Besides this overall gist of the narrative, Harjo depicts the internal emotions of the characters in this poem. She describes what was going through their minds when they were stopped and given permission to cross the border.
The title of the poem is simple to digest. It contains the main idea of the poem that is crossing the international border. Readers come across a variety of emotions that linger through the minds of characters. Besides, the idea of “crossing” is used in this poem in a different sense. It is unlike stepping ahead a simple border or line. For the group of Indians, crossing the border was like a journey towards hope, a better life, and new opportunities. Besides, the text also reveals their anxiety and the suspicion in the eyes of the border guards.
Structure & Form
Harjo’s “Crossing the Border” consists of five stanzas. The first stanza is the longest one having a total of 23 lines. In comparison, the length of the following stanzas decreases towards the end. The text is divided into a number of sections dealing with a specific question of the border guards and the internal thoughts triggered by the interrogation. Alongside that, Harjo writes the poem in free-verse and utilizes the form of narrative poetry. There is no regular rhyme or meter. Regarding the point of view, the text is written from the first-person speaker who is crossing the border with others of her community.
Harjo makes use of several poetic devices in order to make this piece more appealing to readers. These include:
- Enjambment: The use of enjambment makes readers go through a set of lines in order to grasp the overall idea. For instance, Harjo uses this device in the first six lines of the poem.
- Simile: It occurs in “But Richard looks like he belongs … like a Menominee would.” In these lines, Harjo alludes to the members of the Menominee Nation.
- Metaphor: In line 19, the “windshield” is used as a metaphor for a hide. The phrase “the edge of this country” is a metaphorical reference to the border.
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the term “Indian” in the line “Indians in an Indian car.” It is used for the sake of emphasis as well as creating a comic effect.
- Alliteration: Harjo repeats similar sounds within a line or in neighboring words in order to create internal rhyming. For instance, she uses the repetition of the “b” sound in, “Barney answers in a broken English.”
- Imagery: The first stanza contains a number of visual images. For example, the first few lines depict the scene of crossing the border at night. Readers can also find the use of organic and tactile imagery in the poem.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
We looked the part.
It was past midnight, well into
the weekend. Coming out of Detroit
into the Canada side, border guards
and checks. We are asked, “Who are you Indians
and which side are you from?”
Barney answers in a broken English.
He talks this way to white people
not to us. “Our kids.”
Joy Harjo’s narrative poem “Crossing the Border” introduces the plot in the first few lines. There is no background information regarding the characters. Harjo directly presents the scene. The characters waited at the border checkpoint. They could easily see the part (Canada) they were heading to. It was past midnight on the weekend.
They came out of Detroit to enter Windsor, Ontario. The border guards stopped their car for routine questioning. From the fifth line, the poem starts to become interesting. Harjo uses some interesting terms that raise a number of questions. Firstly, the guards asked them about their identity. Not for verifying who they were but for understanding their motive. From their physical features, the race-sensitive guards were not wrong to guess they were Indians.
As they were Indians, crossing the border at that time of night naturally raised suspicion in the guards’ minds. Moreover, they asked the passengers to which side they belonged. To simplify, they asked them about their nationality.
Barney was there in the driving seat. Naturally, he did not converse in English. He managed to tell them that they were heading to Canada in his broken English. The children in the back were his kids. However, the speaker does not clarify whether he was really their father or not.
There is another thought-provoking term in the line, “He talks this way to white people.” Through this line, Harjo hints at the communication gap between the Indians and white people. This line also triggers the idea of linguistic supremacy in a country dominated especially by whites.
My children are wrapped
and sleeping in the backseat.
He points with his lips to half-eyed
Richard in the front.
“That one, too.”
But Richard looks like he belongs
to no one, just sits there wild-haired
like a Menominee would.
In the tenth line, readers first come across the speaker of the poem. She is there with her children, who are sleeping in the backseat. While speaking with the guards, Barney points at another character as one of his children. His name is Richard, and he is sleeping with eyes half-closed in the front.
According to the speaker, this Richard does not look like he belongs to nobody present in the car. His wild-haired face makes him look like one of the members of the Menominee Nation. They are a federally recognized nation of Native Americans who live in parts of Wisconsin. Richard might have appeared suspicious to the guards due to his resemblance with one of them.
“And my wife. . . .” Not true.
But hidden under the windshield
at the edge of this country
we feel immediately suspicious.
These questions and we don’t look
like we belong to either side.
Then, Barney points at the speaker and introduces her as her wife to the guards. The speaker informs readers it is not true. Barney is probably one of her neighbors or friends, but not her husband. No matter how hard they tried to look genuine, the time and place made them appear suspicious. They are at the border of America at midnight. Probably, the same incident would have happened to anyone who was trying to cross the border at that time.
Their questions made them feel a bit nervous. On top of that, they are not white. They are Indians. Their identity in itself raises a number of questions concerning their motives to cross the border at midnight. There is another important thing to note here. In the last line, the speaker expresses that they don’t belong to either side. This line hints at her sense of alienation.
“Any liquor or firearms?”
He should have asked that years ago
and we can’t help but laugh.
Kids stir around in the backseat
but it is the border guard who is anxious.
He is looking for crimes, stray horses
for which he has no apparent evidence.
The second stanza of “Crossing the Border” begins with another question. It is followed by the reaction of the speaker and others. One of the border guards asks them whether they have any liquor or firearms with them. If the same question was asked years ago, they cannot help but laugh. But, in modern times, the cross-border smuggling of lethal weapons and prohibited drugs has become so common that the guards have to ask the question compulsorily. Besides, they are crossing the border at past midnight. It is natural to face this question.
The question makes the kids sleeping behind nervous. They stir around in the backseat to grasp what the adults are talking about. According to the speaker, it is not the kids who are nervous. The guards are more anxious than them. He is looking for crimes and stray horses, no matter if he has any solid evidence with him or not.
“Where are you going?”
Indians in an Indian car, trying
to find a Delaware powwow
that was barely mentioned in Milwaukee.
Northern singing in the northern sky.
Moon in a colder air.
Not sure of the place but knowing the name
we ask, “Moravian Town?”
This section of “Crossing the Border” follows the same pattern. The guard asks them where they are going. Hearing this, the speaker feels like telling the truth. But, she keeps this thought to herself.
She wants to join the Delaware powwow (a social gathering of the Native Americans). It is barely mentioned in the western part of the country. The tribal functions are kept in isolation, far from the clutches of mainstream culture. Besides, she badly wants to sing under the northern sky alongside her people. She wants to drink the beauty of the moon in a folder air.
They really don’t know where they are actually going. Somehow, they can recall the name of the Indian reserve located in Ontario, Canada. They tell the guard that they are probably going to Moravian Town.
The border guard thinks he might have
the evidence. It pleases him.
Stars out clear into Canada
and he knows only to ask,
“Is it a bar?”
Their reply clarified the doubts of the guard. The mention of a federally recognized reservation makes him assured that the Indian immigrants are definitely going there. Indians, riding in an Indian car, heading to an Indian reservation, what a beautiful analogy! It somehow pleases the guards, and they let the loosely-knit family go.
It has already passed midnight. Their car enters Canada, driving past the checkpoint, below the starry sky. Before they left, the guard mockingly asked them whether Moravian Town was a bar.
This rhetorical question hints at the present state of Indian reservations and others’ perceptions of the reserves. They recognize such reserves not by the indigenous inhabitants but by the name of some bar.
Crossing the border into Canada,
we are silent. Lights and businesses
we drive toward could be America, too,
following us into the north.
The last stanza describes the feelings of the speaker after crossing the border into Canada. They are silent because of the experience they had back at the checkpoint. A number of emotions are running through their minds. Some of them are of fear, tension, and indignation.
They think about the lights of American cities and the businesses. This essence of America is going with them as they move to settle in Canada. Their tie with America won’t ever be broken, no matter how much they try to fit in with the Canadian culture. It is important to note here that Harjo symbolically hints at the vibrant lifestyle and capitalism by “Lights and businesses.”
The main theme of “Crossing the Border” concerns immigration. Harjo explores this idea from the perspective of a group of Native Americans who are going from America to Canada in search of better opportunities. There is no clear evidence of their intention for immigration. Besides, the poem has some other themes such as identity, alienation, racism, language, loss, and going away. In the first section, Harjo describes how the identity of the Indians makes them suspicious to the border guards. Furthermore, the text dives deeper into the racial difference between the Indians and the white guards. The last few lines solely describe their feelings of indignation and alienation.
Tone & Mood
Harjo sets the tone and mood of the poem from the very first lines. The description of the surroundings and the emotions of Indian immigrants create a tense and anxious mood. Regarding the tone of the text, it is reflective, thoughtful, and filled with apprehension. Each question asked by the guards makes the speaker feel unprepared and fearful. These emotions get reflected in the poem’s tone as well. In the first few sections, the tone remains tense. While, in the last stanza, it becomes calm and thoughtful as the characters have safely entered Canada.
Setting, Speaker, & Characters
The first few lines present the setting of “Crossing the Border.” This piece depicts the Detroit-Windsor border checkpoint at midnight. A group of Indians is crossing the border by their car. At the checkpoint, border guards stop them for routine questioning. After they get their answers, they let the group enter Canada.
The speaker of this piece is an Indian woman who is going to Canada with her children. Harjo speaks in this poem from the perspective of the character by using the first-person narrative technique.
In this poem, readers can find a number of characters. First, they come across a group of Indians who are crossing the border by their car. In the front seat, there are Barney and Richard. The former drives the car, and the latter sleeps with his eyes half-closed in the front. There is the speaker, along with her children sleeping in the backseat. Besides them, there are border guards who ask them questions at the checkpoint.
“Crossing the Border” is a 20th-century poem written by the versatile American poet Joy Harjo. She is the first Native American to hold the position of United States Poet Laureate. Harjo is regarded as one of the important figures of the Native American Renaissance. In her poems, she uses symbolism to express her beliefs and values. She also draws from personal experiences to make her writing unique and expressive. Likewise, in “Crossing the Border,” Harjo makes use of several Native American symbols in order to develop the theme of identity. Besides, she also describes the social and cultural differences between Indians and whites.
Questions and Answers
Joy Harjo’s poem “Crossing the Border” is about some Indians who are crossing the Detroit-Windsor border at midnight. This piece describes how they are questioned by border guards and finally given permission to enter Canada.
The line “Crossing the border into Canada” best summarizes the end of the poem.
The conflict between the border guard and the Indians appears in the second stanza. Here, the guard asks them whether they are carrying any illegal items such as liquor and firearms. It highlights the fact that, in the guard’s view, they must be involved in some illegal activities. While, in reality, the Indians are innocent. They would have laughed at the question if they had been asked the same years ago.
The vibrance of American culture and capitalism might follow the Indians into the north.
In this poem, the speaker is trying to cross the Detroit-Windsor international transborder comprising Detroit, Michigan, and the Canadian city of Windsor.
The speaker and the others in the car want to cross the border to settle in the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown, an Indian reserve located in Ontario, Canada.
The speaker feels relieved and hopeful after crossing into Canada.
Harjo would advise her fellow poet Julia Alvarez to remain calm and never forget her cultural roots regarding crossing the border.
In both of these poems, the characters are seen to be floating in their emotions. They most likely advise one another to keep their cultural essence alive in their hearts.
- “Exile” by Julia Alvarez — In this poem, Alvarez talks about how they fled her country and settled in America.
- “The Powwow at the End of the World” by Sherman Alexie — The speaker of this poem seeks revenge for the injustice inflicted on the Native Americans.
- “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” by Margaret Atwood — This piece explores a mother’s sadness at the death of her only son. She is already in pain as she has to leave her own country.
- “I, Too, Sing América” by Julia Alvarez — This piece describes how Alvarez celebrates her Dominican-American identity.
- Check out Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo — This book is about Joy Harjo’s journey of becoming a poet and a voice of Native Americans.
- About Joy Harjo — Read about the poet’s life on her official website.
- Biography of Joy Harjo — Learn more about the poet’s life and about her works.
- Poet Profile & Poems of Joy Harjo — Explore the poet’s profile and her best-known poems.
- About American Indians — Read about the history of Native Americans and their racial identity.