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  • "Language to Reach With"Layli Long Soldier's WHEREAS Connects Words to Reality
  • Rachel B. Griffis (bio)

As a National Book Award finalist and recipient of many other accolades, Layli Long Soldier's debut book of poetry, WHEREAS (2017), has been praised for its messages about the way language participates in reality, particularly in response to the 2009 congressional apology to Native American people. Reviews of the book acknowledge the astuteness with which the poet criticizes and interacts with this spurious document. Natalie Diaz states that the book is "an excavation, reorganization and documentation of a structure of language that has talked the United States through its many acts of violence. This book troubles our consideration of the language we use to carry our personal and national narratives." Similarly, Emilia Phillips describes the book as "dismantl[ing] the language that has long justified and euphemized the violent actions perpetrated by the US government through restrictive legislation, broken treaties, and formal apologies." Crystal Alberts concurs, emphasizing how "Long Soldier's poetry challenges the government's declarations at every turn, while also figuratively reenacting the violence perpetrated against the many Indigenous nations using the very language of the US government" (117–18). These reviews celebrate how WHEREAS explicates and clarifies the deceptive, impenitent stance of the congressional apology. Long Soldier indeed holds the language of colonization accountable for its vast damage to Native American communities, both past and present.

Alongside her indictment of the congressional apology, Long Soldier works with language to demonstrate its possibilities for honoring lived experience and maintaining fidelity to material and spiritual realities. As a book ultimately about language's deep participation in life, WHEREAS presents images, narratives, and impressions of words and actions that responsibly represent tragedy and trauma. Long Soldier's presentation [End Page 52] of language is rooted in her understanding of its purpose, which she expresses when she states, "each People has been given their own language to reach with" and "I understand reaching as active, a motion" (75). The description of language as a kind of tool "to reach with" suggests language is a resource human beings are meant to use to engage in life and contribute to their communities. Instead of "reaching," however, the congressional apology prevaricates and obfuscates, often curtailing the poet into the silences and blank spaces she includes in her poetry. WHEREAS therefore explores opposing functions of language: its power to enact violence through manipulation and denial as well as its role in nourishing communities.

The following will engage Long Soldier's struggle against the congressional apology as she evokes and clarifies specific methods of the language of colonization, described as "the American casual" (72). Long Soldier ultimately challenges the language of colonization through nontraditional poetic forms and by modelling a philosophy of language that encourages writers and speakers to strive for congruence between words and reality. WHEREAS is a fluid exposition of human interaction that conveys—through lament, struggle, defiance, and description—healthy perspectives on language that demonstrate how one might apologize, and more broadly, how to communicate about profoundly traumatic experiences. By struggling against manipulative language and attempting to use it herself, Long Soldier exemplifies redemptive ways to work with words that counter oppression and promote responsible modes of speaking and writing about forms of individual and communal tragedy.

"the american casual" in whereas

The 2009 United States congressional apology, "S.J. RES. 14," reflects a relatively recent genre of political writing in the West that officially marks the injustices Indigenous people suffered under various forms of colonialism. Other countries whose governments have issued such apologies include Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Australia. The apology written by the United States Congress begins with a clear statement of purpose: "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" (1). Filling six pages, the document proceeds to name and chronicle [End Page 53] many acts and events the United States acknowledges as harmful to Native American people, such as the Trail of Tears, the Sand Creek Massacre, the boarding schools, and numerous violations of treaties. For...


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