It was a resolution that sought 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.” Yet there was so little fanfare that some of us are only learning about its substance now, seven-plus years later, because of a new poetry collection by rising star Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota.
It was the spring of 2010 when Long Soldier first heard about Senate Joint Resolution 14, passed by the United States Congress and signed by former president Barack Obama without ceremony in December 2009. The resolution’s enactment might have marked an opportunity for a focused and more authentic understanding of American history, or even a turning point in the United States’ conduct toward Native Americans. That would have been akin to the processes set in motion in Canada after the historic 2008 apology by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper before Parliament and Indigenous Peoples.
But since the U.S. resolution was folded into the National Defense Authorization Act, the moment of its adoption went largely unnoticed, and it was as close to a non-event as a historic act can be. Nonetheless, her imagination provoked and ignited, it was one that Long Soldier found impossible to ignore.
“The silence around the signing deepened our invisibility,” Long Soldier said on March 16 at Bookworks in Albuquerque, where she read from her fascinating collection of poems, WHEREAS, published by Graywolf Press in March, just before the advent of National Poetry Month in April.
The poetry goes beyond the words to their physical arrangement. Some of the poems are manipulated or framed on the page to evoke eroded landscapes, petroglyphs, stitched quilts, arrowheads and hammers, or are otherwise formally innovative. For Long Soldier, who is from the Pine Ridge Reservation, the government’s “depredations” and “ill-conceived policies” are not abstractions of violence, nor are they settled matters of the past. They are the stuff of her own shaping, and they provide motivation for her inventive poetry making.
“One of my hopes was to take those broad strokes and to give some specificity to it,” she explained. “I wanted to make the picture a little more detailed.”
Despite these pictorial flourishes (which are not ornamental), WHEREAS’s composition mirrors the structure of the government’s own writing in SJ Res.14, which consists of 20 Whereas clauses, seven resolutions and two crucial disclaimers. (These last protect the U.S. from being sued for the atrocities recounted in the Whereas clauses.)
“Such a sweet apology,” Long Soldier joked, adding more seriously that the legal protections to the government provided by the disclaimers may have been the impetus for bringing the apology forward in the first place.
The first poem is titled Ȟe Sápa, and though only nine lines long, it functions as an overture introducing the collection’s most important themes, and foreshadowing Long Soldier’s particular preoccupations with group survival, which for her is hinged in language, especially in its orality.
The poem begins with a wild and puzzling simile:
Ȟe is a mountain as hé is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth.
The diacritical markings distinguish the words in its title and first line as Lakota, asserting Lakota and not English as the author’s language of origin and cultural primacy. Its words describe a mountainous landscape, also a body, also a battleground. Ȟe Sápa is not a black hill, the poem insistently argues. To flagrantly misconstrue a mountain as a hill is to discredit one’s own descriptive powers and to show oneself capable of perpetrating any kind of perceptual distortion. There is a straight line from misnomer to apology, she cautions. As a corrective, the thoughtfulness, which the contemplation of poetry invites, can restore a sense of proportion.
Its rank is a mountain, and must live as a mountain, as a black horn does from base to black horn tip.
Ȟe Sápa’s physical appearance on the page also sounds notes that will resound throughout the collection. Three of its nine lines are arranged with elongated white spaces to visually indicate the gaps, the omissions, (inferring possible deficiencies) in verbal expression; Long Soldier leaves a place for thoughts not yet uttered, perhaps not yet formulated. The poem, like the poet, like the U.S. Congress, struggles with defining reality—what is, what was, prompting thoughts of what will be. None of these are fixed, inevitability is largely an illusion, and our choices, influenced by the visions we carry, cannot always be hastened.
Better to allow for blanks, best filled by poetry yet to come.
This article originally appeared in Indian Country Today.