IAIA grad­u­ate up for pres­ti­gious Na­tional Book Award for po­etry

Long Sol­dier, nom­i­nated for ‘WHEREAS,’ would join very small group of Na­tive writ­ers to re­ceive honor

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Boyle

“I am a cit­i­zen of the United States and an en­rolled mem­ber of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, mean­ing I am a cit­i­zen of the Oglala Lakota Na­tion — and in this dual cit­i­zen­ship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must lis­ten, I must ob­serve, con­stantly I must live.”

— poet Layli Long Sol­dier, WHEREAS

Layli Long Sol­dier’s de­but col­lec­tion of po­ems in the book WHEREAS isa pow­er­ful re­tort to a lit­tle-seen 2009 Con­gres­sional Res­o­lu­tion of Apol­ogy to Na­tive Amer­i­cans. But if Long Sol­dier — a Santa Fe res­i­dent and Bach­e­lor of Fine Arts grad­u­ate of the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts — takes home the pres­ti­gious prize in the po­etry cat­e­gory at the Na­tional Book Awards cer­e­mony in New York on Wed­nes­day night, the vic­tory will punc­tu­ate an era of in­creas­ing vis­i­bil­ity for mi­nor­ity writ­ers.

Long Sol­dier’s recog­ni­tion, friends and fans say, also could lead to more wide­spread aware­ness of is­sues sur­round­ing con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Amer­i­can iden­tity pol­i­tics in the U.S.

“In my mind, she’s won it,” said the ac­claimed poet Joy Harjo of the Musco­gee (Creek) Na­tion, who grad­u­ated from IAIA in 1968 and chaired the 2016 Na­tional Book Awards judges’ panel

for po­etry. “This is a great cause to cel­e­brate for New Mex­ico, IAIA — it’s re­ally great on so many lev­els. When there’s a suc­cess, it helps ev­ery­one else. We don’t see in the Na­tive writ­ing com­mu­nity, that of­ten, suc­cess in the main­stream.”

Harjo said the club of Na­tional Book Award-win­ning Amer­i­can In­dian writ­ers that Long Sol­dier might join is very small: Louise Er­drich (Chippewa) and Sher­man Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d’Alene). New Mex­ico res­i­dents who have re­ceived the award in­clude Cor­mac McCarthy (in 1992, for his novel All the Pretty Horses).

In WHEREAS, Long Sol­dier re­pur­posed the le­gal lan­guage of the 2009 con­gres­sional res­o­lu­tion, which was signed by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and reads in part: “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.”

The res­o­lu­tion was ob­scured to the pub­lic by be­ing folded into a mas­sive de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions spend­ing bill by the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The apol­ogy it­self in­cludes a caveat — none of its lan­guage au­tho­rizes any le­gal claims against the United States, and the res­o­lu­tion does not set­tle any claims.

In March, Long Sol­dier told Pasatiempo that first heard about the Apol­ogy — cap­i­tal A, to Long Sol­dier — sev­eral months af­ter it was passed, while she was teach­ing at Diné Col­lege on the Navajo Na­tion.

“Were Na­tive peo­ple con­sid­ered im­por­tant enough to de­liver this Apol­ogy face-to-face, as a sin­cere ges­ture?” she said. “In my gut, the an­swer was ‘no.’ And in my gut, I felt a de­sire to kick back. It was mo­tor reflex.”

In 2011, she be­gan writ­ing her po­etic re­sponse, which of­fers read­ers an ac­count of the com­pli­cated liv­ing his­tory of Na­tive iden­tity.

“In a note fol­low­ing the en­try for In­dian in an Ox­ford dic­tio­nary warns: Do not use In­dian or Red In­dian to talk about Amer­i­can na­tive peo­ples, as th­ese terms are now out­dated; use Amer­i­can In­dian in­stead,” she writes in the con­ver­sa­tional, stream-of-con­scious­ness style that is a hall­mark of WHEREAS. “So I ex­plain per­haps the same could be said for my work some bur­den of Amer­i­can In­dian empti­ness in my po­ems how Amer­i­can In­dian empti­ness sur­faces not just on the page but of­ten on drives, in con­ver­sa­tions, or when I lie down to sleep.”

Long Sol­dier, who is in her 40s, took her first writ­ing class at IAIA in 2005 and grad­u­ated in ’09. For Jon Davis, Long Sol­dier’s for­mer po­etry in­struc­tor and di­rec­tor of the Mas­ter of Fine Arts pro­gram at IAIA, the nom­i­na­tion of WHEREAS is sig­nif­i­cant from a his­tor­i­cal stand­point.

“Layli is ex­plor­ing his­tory on the level of the dam­age hid­den by and en­forced by bu­reau­cratic lan­guage,” he said. “She’s also look­ing at his­tory from an in­dige­nous per­spec­tive. Many pro­gres­sives were ap­palled at Trump’s win, but for an in­dige­nous per­son, his­tory has not been a se­ries of bet­ter and worse ad­min­is­tra­tions, but a se­ries of worse and worser.”

Harjo pointed to the re­cent nom­i­na­tions of the African-Amer­i­can poet Clau­dia Rank­ine, a 2014 Na­tional Book Award fi­nal­ist in po­etry, and the Ira­nian-Amer­i­can writer Sol­maz Sharif, whose de­but col­lec­tion Look was nom­i­nated for a 2016 award, as in­di­ca­tions of a sea change in the land­scape of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture.

Of WHEREAS, Harjo said, “It breaks a lot of bound­aries in terms of tak­ing col­o­nized lan­guage, and lan­guage meant to de­stroy and take away, and find­ing a way to make a path. You know, that’s what words do, is make a path in a di­rec­tion, a re­gen­er­a­tive di­rec­tion.”

With re­gard to this cal­iber of lit­er­ary award, Harjo added, “There was a long pe­riod, like dur­ing the Rea­gan years and the Bush years, we were pretty much si­lenced. What I no­ticed was that any­one who was not con­sid­ered full-blown white Amer­i­can, even in the lit­er­ary field, was — you know, we were in the back­ground.”

In her life and work, Long Sol­dier said she both em­braces and probes her mixed racial iden­tity. In a re­cent Face­book post, she wrote, “My mother is Non-Na­tive/ An­glo (to be spe­cific, her fa­ther was English, Span­ish and French; her mother was English, Irish and Scottish). My fa­ther is Oglala, Lakota. My par­ents did not stay to­gether when I was a child, and I was raised by my mother. Yet, this is not to say that I never knew my fa­ther. I did know him. He vis­ited, he called, he sent let­ters.”

At age 11, the bud­ding poet moved with her mother to the Four Cor­ners re­gion, where her mother took a job with the Navajo Na­tion. As an adult, Long Sol­dier re­lo­cated to Santa Fe and worked for the In­dige­nous Lan­guage In­sti­tute for 11 years. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from IAIA, she earned a grad­u­ate de­gree in cre­ative writ­ing from Bard Col­lege in New York, as well as a Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Fel­low­ship and a Whit­ing Award. Next fall, she will teach as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Iowa Writ­ers Workshop grad­u­ate pro­gram in po­etry.

Long Sol­dier ac­knowl­edges that her iden­tity is com­plex, but in some ways, it has made her work all the more ful­fill­ing.

“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,” she said in March. “I don’t have to resolve things. I can think and feel my way through with all the loose and messy ends. In some ways, this makes a poem more in­ter­est­ing.”

The Na­tional Book Awards judges might very well agree with that sen­ti­ment.


Layli Long Sol­dier is a nom­i­nee in the po­etry cat­e­gory at the Na­tional Book Awards cer­e­mony in New York on Wed­nes­day night.

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