On a sorry sub­ject

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Layli Long Sol­dier

Layli Long Sol­dier first heard about the Apol­ogy in 2010. She was liv­ing in Tsaile, Ari­zona, in the heart of the Navajo Na­tion. As a teacher at Diné Col­lege, she reg­u­larly read Na­tive news sources for her own pur­poses, as well as for dis­cus­sion in the class­room. But the story of the Con­gres­sional Res­o­lu­tion of Apol­ogy to Na­tive Amer­i­cans still took sev­eral months to reach her.

“Is an apol­ogy that’s not said out loud re­ally an apol­ogy? What if the per­son ex­press­ing the apol­ogy doesn’t draw at­ten­tion to it?” In­dian Coun­try To­day wrote of the Dec. 19, 2009, res­o­lu­tion. The Apol­ogy be­gan in Congress and passed the Senate in the fall. The ver­sion signed by Pres­i­dent Obama was then folded into a long de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions spend­ing bill by the House, and its sec­tion be­gins with the in­ten­tion, “To ac­knowl­edge a long his­tory of of­fi­cial depre­da­tions and ill-con­ceived poli­cies by the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment re­gard­ing In­dian tribes and of­fer an apol­ogy to all Na­tive Peo­ples on be­half of the United States.” It also car­ries a disclaimer: None of its lan­guage au­tho­rizes or sup­ports any le­gal claims against the United States, and the res­o­lu­tion does not set­tle any claims.

“It didn’t take long for me to re­al­ize that I hadn’t heard about the Apol­ogy be­cause it was signed and passed so qui­etly,” Long Sol­dier wrote to Pasatiempo. “Sur­rep­ti­tiously. There was no pub­lic read­ing, no at­ten­tion drawn to its im­por­tance. No RISK. Its (lack of) de­liv­ery made me then won­der, was the Apol­ogy con­sid­ered im­por­tant? Mean­ing, were Na­tive peo­ple con­sid­ered im­por­tant enough to de­liver this Apol­ogy face-to-face, as a sin­cere ges­ture? In my gut, the an­swer was ‘no.’ And in my gut, I felt a de­sire to kick back.” She be­gan writ­ing a re­sponse to the “de­flat­ing his­toric apol­ogy,” as she put it, in 2011. The re­sult, which be­came the ti­tle se­quence of po­ems in her book WHEREAS, was pub­lished by Gray­wolf Press in March, and con­tains seven res­o­lu­tions and a disclaimer, just as the Apol­ogy does. The poet re­pur­poses the res­o­lu­tion’s crafted lan­guage and its ar­range­ment in order to in­ter­ro­gate and punc­ture it, ex­pos­ing its dou­ble-talk and eva­sive legalese for the empty and in­sult­ing repa­ra­tion it turned out to be. Long Sol­dier, who is a mem­ber of the Oglala-Sioux tribe and lives in Santa Fe, reads from WHEREAS at Col­lected Works Book­store on Mon­day, April 3.

Though WHEREAS is Long Sol­dier’s de­but col­lec­tion, she is al­ready a dec­o­rated writer, hav­ing re­ceived a 2015 Lan­nan Fel­low­ship for Po­etry, a 2015 Na­tional Artist Fel­low­ship from the Na­tive Arts and Cul­tures Foun­da­tion, and a 2016 Whit­ing Award. She holds a BFA from the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts and an MFA from Bard Col­lege. Her work con­tin­u­ally ref­er­ences the idea, as she writes in WHEREAS, of “the lin­guis­tic im­pos­si­bil­ity of iden­tity.” In the book, she also refers to “some bur­den of Amer­i­can In­dian empti­ness in my po­ems,” a phrase that she ex­plained “ex­am­ines the shaky struc­ture of any English term used to re­fer to Na­tive peo­ple. Na­tive, In­dian, Amer­i­can In­dian, indige­nous … these are all Amer­i­can con­structs. And by tak­ing on these terms, un­der­stand­ing our­selves through these ref­er­ences, we are lug­ging the weighted his­tor­i­cal bag­gage that comes with them e.g. The Doc­trine of Dis­cov­ery, Man­i­fest Destiny, the painful Amer­i­can gaze. … Re­fer­ring to our­selves, then, in our own lan­guages by what we have called our­selves for thou­sands of years prior to this Amer­i­can-ness, at least for me, is a much truer place to ex­ist in — psy­cho­log­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, and spir­i­tu­ally.” She ref­er­enced the role of her own lin­eage in this strug­gle to lo­cate her­self in words. “To com­pli­cate things fur­ther, my mom is An­glo, my dad is Oglala Lakota. What can be said about peo­ple of mixed her­itage? Do I feel iden­ti­cal to any def­i­ni­tion of that? And what do I do with vi­o­lent, op­pos­ing his­to­ries that are lit­er­ally in­side my body, the DNA? The poem, how­ever, al­lows for this kind of com­pli­ca­tion. I don’t have to re­solve things. I can think/feel my way through with all the loose and messy ends. In some ways, this makes a poem more in­ter­est­ing. Yet, the beauty of a poem is that it can lead to sur­prise. I may, one day, to my sur­prise, find some kind of peace. Res­o­lu­tion.”

Long Sol­dier sets up her book in two stages. The first por­tion, ti­tled “These Be­ing the Con­cerns,” lays the ground­work for part two, her ul­ti­mate re­sponse to the Apol­ogy. The ear­lier po­ems ad­dress the mul­ti­plic­ity of pos­si­ble mean­ings in­her­ent in a lan­guage that can nonethe­less also seem mono­lithic and in­flex­i­ble. Some po­ems have sin­gle words spread over the whole page,

“I DON’T HAVE TO RE­SOLVE THINGS. I CAN THINK/ FEEL MY WAY THROUGH WITH ALL THE LOOSE AND MESSY ENDS. IN SOME WAYS, THIS MAKES A POEM MORE IN­TER­EST­ING. YET, THE BEAUTY OF A POEM IS THAT IT CAN LEAD TO SUR­PRISE. I MAY, ONE DAY, TO MY SUR­PRISE, FIND SOME KIND OF PEACE. RES­O­LU­TION.”

some are re­lated in blocks of prose, and oth­ers fol­low the lines of a box or a sin­gle skinny col­umn. Of her ex­per­i­men­ta­tions with form, she wrote, “Some­times, the form comes first, not as ex­ten­sion but as orig­i­nal im­pulse. Form (shape) is, in it­self, com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I want to com­pare this to sound and lan­guage. Yes, lan­guage is im­por­tant for ar­tic­u­lat­ing the idea or feel­ing. But we can HEAR a cry, a word­less wail, and im­me­di­ately com­pre­hend and re­spond.”

Re­gard­less of the shape the po­ems take, Long Sol­dier is re­lent­less in her pur­suit of mean­ing, prob­ing the pur­pose of the pro­noun “I” or the in­tent of dic­tion as she parcels out words across the page, break­ing them in un­ex­pected places. More than a few po­ems, from their out­set, seem to be about writ­ing po­ems — and then, hap­pily, turn out to be about much more than that. Of her fo­cus on lin­guis­tic slip­pages, she said, “It was im­por­tant to me to lay a foun­da­tion; a fuller pic­ture of who I am as the writer and my con­cerns. I wanted the reader to have a sense of the pris­mic world I am a part of ... lan­guage is a box I’m al­ways wig­gling through or stuck in­side of. But for me, lan­guage comes as a re­sult of head-on phys­i­cal en­counter: mis­car­riages, his­tor­i­cal ex­e­cu­tions by hang­ing, a child in the back­seat of a car, a pro­fes­sor who says I should work on my dic­tion, the shad­owy pres­ence of au­thor­ity fig­ures. It’s felt.”

Other po­ems are more ex­plicit his­tory lessons. The poem “38” refers to the 38 Dakota men who were hanged for the Sioux Up­ris­ing — a re­tal­i­a­tion against the gov­ern­ment for its non­pay­ment of monies owed to the Dakota peo­ple — un­der or­ders from Pres­i­dent Lin­coln in the same week he signed the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion. Long Sol­dier writes, “The sign­ing of the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion was in­cluded in the film Lin­coln; the hang­ing of the Dakota 38 was not.”

In her re­sponse to the Apol­ogy, she uses found texts writ­ten by ac­tivists at Pine Ridge and Stand­ing Rock In­dian Reser­va­tions to high­light the fight of the wa­ter pro­tec­tors protest­ing against the Dakota Ac­cess Pipe­line at Stand­ing Rock. She told Pasatiempo that she felt the need to ad­dress this most re­cent be­trayal of Na­tive re­sources by the gov­ern­ment, writ­ing of the Stand­ing Rock move­ment, “It high­lighted the very ur­gent need that ... the Na­tional Apol­ogy (weakly) pro­posed: ‘[the United States, act­ing through Congress] urges the Pres­i­dent to ac­knowl­edge the wrongs of the United States against In­dian tribes in the his­tory of the United States in order to bring heal­ing to this land.’ Look­ing to Stand­ing Rock as an ex­am­ple, I won­dered, did the Pres­i­dent, at the time of the re­sis­tance, ac­knowl­edge the wrongs of the U.S. against In­dian tribes, es­pe­cially with re­gard to treaty land rights? And did the Pres­i­dent work to­ward the heal­ing of this land? Clearly, my an­swer was ‘no.’ ”

Long Sol­dier’s re­sponse is a pow­er­ful re­tort to the his­tor­i­cal — and con­tin­u­ing — fail­ings of the gov­ern­ment in their treat­ment of Na­tive peo­ples. By ne­go­ti­at­ing and reusing the rhetor­i­cal strate­gies of po­lit­i­cal speech, the au­thor lays bare the hypocrisy in­her­ent in the Apol­ogy’s sen­tences and struc­ture. As she asks ques­tions of this lan­guage and its ob­jec­tives, the point of the po­etry be­comes the ques­tion­ing it­self. Of this strat­egy, she said, “If any­thing, my work may con­tinue to re­veal that some ques­tions are as yet unan­swer­able, but that it’s okay to ask.” — Molly Boyle

mid­dle of nowhere, and my fam­ily is from farm­land. I think writ­ing about Tesla’s fraught fam­ily his­tory be­came this way of deal­ing with my own.”

For a sci­en­tist, Wil­son said, Tesla was “very Santa Fe. Peo­ple thought he was mad, and he may well have been. He had synes­the­sia; he talked to pi­geons; he thought that sex negated your en­ergy. He thought sci­ence was this nat­u­ral thing that you could tap into, not some­thing we dis­cover but some­thing we mine for. He gen­uinely be­lieved that you could crack the Earth in half if you dug deep enough. He thought the Earth was hol­low and that there were be­ings at the cen­ter. He be­lieved crys­tals had en­ergy.”

Tesla’s ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to tech­nol­ogy was his work on the de­sign of the mod­ern al­ter­nat­ing cur­rent elec­tric­ity sup­ply sys­tem, but he is also known to have en­vi­sioned wire­less phones and elec­tric cars. “He was prophetic,” Wil­son said. “I started to think of him as this man who be­lieved in the spir­i­tu­al­ity of elec­tric­ity, like elec­tric­ity as magic. I started think­ing about him in terms of cre­ativ­ity crushed by cap­i­tal­ism. All those threads pulled to­gether into Tesla be­com­ing this totemic fig­ure for me, and I just wrote about him end­lessly.” — Jennifer Levin

“I GREW UP IN THE COUN­TRY BE­CAUSE AIR FORCE BASES ARE AL­WAYS IN THE MID­DLE OF NOWHERE, AND MY FAM­ILY IS FROM FARM­LAND. I THINK WRIT­ING ABOUT TESLA’S FRAUGHT FAM­ILY HIS­TORY BE­CAME THIS WAY OF DEAL­ING WITH MY OWN.”

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