Layli Long Soldier Reflects on America’s (Unapologetic) Apology to Native Americans

*** Trigger Warning: There is mention of genocide and violence against indigenous peoples. 

In a virtual Q&A Session followed by a live virtual poetry reading on September 22nd, Swarthmore students had the opportunity to directly ask Layli Long Soldier questions and converse with her about her inspirations for Whereas, her journey as an artist, and her thoughts on addressing America’s historically egregious relationship with indigenous peoples. 

How does America make an effective apology to the millions of indigenous people whose lives, cultures, and lands that the American government has stolen and claimed as its own? How does America apologize for centuries of generational trauma and gargantuan loss? When President Barack Obama attempted such an apology on behalf of the U.S. government by signing the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans on December 19, 2009, he essentially fizzled that apology into a deafening silence. Separate from that of the revisionist history that many Americans are taught, the silence in this Congressional Resolution is evident in how it undermines the atrocities committed against indigenous peoples. This Congressional silence is separate from the silence of the cultural ignorance many Americans have towards the origins of the land we stand on today and towards the mere existence of Native American communities. This silence was especially deafening as it accompanied a written national apology—one without any public announcement, acknowledgment, or direct communication with a single Native American tribal leader. By issuing a virtually invisible apology, Obama’s Congressional Resolution renders what could have been an act of true accountability into lip service. 

The fact that it has been over a decade since the Native American Apology Resolution was passed, and I, as an American citizen, have never heard of it, speaks volumes to the inefficacy and insincerity of the document. President Barack Obama approved the resolution as a part of a defense appropriations spending bill, a particularly sour irony when one reckons with the genocidal history between the U.S. military and Native American tribal communities. In response to this silent release and the lack of sincerity in the presentation of the Resolution itself, Layli Long Soldier wrote a poetry collection titled Whereas, which was published in 2017. In the introduction to this set of poems, she writes, “my response is directed to the Apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document.” Additionally, she notes that she is a citizen of both the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation (of the Oglala Sioux Tribe). She expresses this “dual citizenship” as an essential element of her identity, noting that “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,” as a member of each nation—inescapably caught between both worlds.

Long Soldier is a critically-acclaimed poet, writer, and artist with a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA with honors from Bard College. She has authored the chapbook Chromosomory (2010) in addition to the poetry collection Whereas (2017). Whereas won the National Books Critics Circle Award and was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award. Long Soldier was among recipients of the National Arts Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry. She has held roles as poetry editor at Kore Press and contributing editor to the electronic arts journal Drunken Boat, and designed an interactive installation in response to the National Apology, entitled Whereas We Respond, that was featured on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In Whereas, Long Soldier states that her poems are written in response to the diction and overall organization of the Congressional Resolution. She further elaborated on this idea in conversation with students, explaining that the Congressional Apology was written in a lukewarm tone that hardly admitted wrongdoing towards Native Americans. Furthermore, its presentation, or lack thereof, was silently hidden in a much larger Congressional funding law with no acknowledgment or reading from the President of the United States who signed off on the resolution. The lack of effort made in the immediate days following the passing of the resolution to communicate and connect with Native leaders casts a shadow of superficiality over the entire document.

When asked about her writing process, Long Soldier explained that she thinks of writing as “a way of addressing things, discovering, and exploring” her life in a novel way. For her, writing acts as an outlet for not only her personal expression, but the preservation of her emotions. She explained that it almost allows her to take snapshots of her psyche at different points in her life, conserving them for future reminiscing and reckoning about her own personal growth. Along the lines of personal development, she explained that her writing itself can be an experience of self-discovery. Whereas was her first experience writing politically-charged literature, and it became an incredibly personal endeavor—she was able to use her own personal and familial experiences as an indigenous citizen to detail her response from the perspective of the larger Native American community. Throughout the process of writing the book, she noted experiencing a certain catharsis, understanding the people who have impacted and shaped her the most throughout her life. This allowed her to develop an understanding that her endeavor was not taken alone, and her voice throughout the book is not singular, but rather she stated that “I am a we”—she holds the power of those special people within her at all times.

In regards to the Native American experience of colonialism and injustice in America, Long Soldier offered an explanation to the question of how the American government should properly address their wrongdoing. She spoke of her experience of shock upon realizing that so many people know almost nothing about the history of the land that we stand on—the land that we take for granted everyday. She highlighted the privilege we enjoy on this land as a result of a series of broken treaties, promises, and lives of Native Americans over hundreds of years. Her proposal for a proper governmental address is educational: make our history books less revisionist, less whitewashed, less sympathetic to colonizers—have them tell the true, gruesome story of American colonization because so many people are either unaware or choose to be ignorant of this history. She remarked that it has led to a lack of awareness of the existence of Native American cultures and communities today.

Despite the serious and heavy nature of her poetry, she still finds ways to genuinely communicate her personality. Her poem, “Opaque” is a response to the simple fact that she went most of her life thinking that it meant the opposite of what its definition actually is, and she found it as a way to have a “little giggle or laugh at [herself].” Her willingness to speak honestly and to authentically reflect upon her experiences without any sense of superficiality (that often comes across with many acclaimed artists) was a breath of fresh air; Long Soldier created an environment of literary discourse which properly acknowledged the weight of its topics, while still allowing for many refreshing moments. At the very end of the Q&A, Long Soldier further directly shared with students a future project she had begun, featuring a photoshoot posing with tumbleweed that her daughter had taken earlier that day. 

Her poetry reading later that evening was poignant and gripping. The way in which she chose to speak her poetry slowly and authoritatively immediately demonstrated that these poems were her own unique truths. In fact, throughout the experience of the reading, I was constantly brought back to one of the key ideas she discussed during the Q&A, which was that she loves to establish a reciprocal relationship with her poetry, “honor[ing] each poem with its own kind of life.” The authenticity and raw emotion contained within the words of her poems reflected her explanation of seeking “intuitive” inspiration and “wait[ing]” for the language to come” to her in her writing process; the poems speak for themselves, but hearing them through her voice only amplified the magnitude and strength of each word.

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