On a sorry subject
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.”