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
“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.