- Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
2016 Whiting Award winner Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota) introduces part II of her debut collection, WHEREAS, recipient of the 2018 National Book Critic Circle Award in Poetry, as well as the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, by overtly labeling it as a response to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans: it is, she explains, "directed to the Apology's delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document" (57). Thereafter, she presents her response: a sequence of poems—twenty pieces starting with "WHEREAS" and ending in a semicolon until a full stop in the last, followed by six "Resolutions" and a "Disclaimer"—mimicking the form of S.J. Res. 14–111th Congress (2009–10), sponsored by a bipartisan group of US senators, predominantly from states with (once) large Indigenous populations, almost exactly. But Long Soldier's commentary goes well beyond form. Although she has asserted that she didn't think of herself as a political writer before she began this series of poems, and still doesn't (see Brooks), time and again Long Soldier's "Whereas Statements" talk back to the so-called apology and appropriate the US government's language to start to address the innumerable silences in the "official" record. She not only assimilates fragments of the actual text of the congressional resolution into many of the poems in part II but also seizes entire passages, nearly eradicates some (as represented by faint print), dismisses others to mere footnotes, and molds the remaining words into the shape that she wishes them to take. If the US government sought to pigeonhole the "more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the US" (57) into "Native Peoples," avoid the word "genocide" at all costs, and gloss over atrocities—past as well as present—from forced removal to boarding schools to contemporary conditions on reservations, then Long Soldier's poetry challenges the government's declarations at every turn, while [End Page 117] also figuratively reenacting the violence perpetrated against the many Indigenous nations using the very language of the US government. Consequently, as others have noted, reading Long Soldier's work without a copy of this legal document at hand will result in missing many of the intricacies of her text.
However, to focus solely on the "Whereas Statements" of the second half is to see only "haŋké, a piece or part" of Long Soldier's whole response (64). Part I, "THESE BEING THE CONCERNS," are not pieces that can be read quickly or in a straightforward manner merely for their content; instead, they are designed to convey multiple layers of meaning through their visual form. Long Soldier begins this section with "Ȟe Sápa," where, for example, in "Three" of five, she plays with language and visual poetry by rearranging the same thirteen words, "This is how you see me the space in which to place me," into four different lines to create a square (8). Deceptively simple, the work invokes the boundaries of a reservation, implies the destruction of Indigenous cultures through the emptiness between the lines, emphasizes the gaps in knowledge of "you" that have helped to create this situation (represented by blank spaces within the lines, where some of the original thirteen words have been excluded), and calls for "you," presumably a non-Indigenous, US audience, not only to "see this space" in the poem and that within "you" but also ultimately to recognize the final omitted "me."
Long Soldier's choice to start at this place—the sacred and embattled Black Hills, as Ȟe Sápa are known in English—and with this shape also seems far from coincidental. As it so happens, Zitkala-Ša (Ihanktonwan Dakota), in Impressions of an Indian Childhood (1900), notes that when first learning beadwork, she "usually drew easy and simple crosses and squares," only to progress to more difficult designs (74). Similarly, Long Soldier begins her text by following Zitkala-Ša's lead: she creates a square. By the third part of "Diction," as Long Soldier continues to develop...