Whereas speaking itself is defiance.
—Layli Long Soldier
In the discourse of law the term whereas signals a recitation of the important context in a formal or contractual document—but it also represents non-binding language. In the discourse of a contract or a treaty, a whereas clause is an introductory statement that means something akin to “because,” or “considering that.” These whereas clauses, however, are not an essential component for the osperative provisions of a contract, resolution, proclamation, or legislative bill.
Layli Long Soldier, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, responds in her first book of poetry, WHEREAS, to the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, signed into law by President Barack Obama on 19 December 2009. The collection is separated into two sections. Part I, “THESE BEING THE CONCERNS,” makes deep contact with themes concerning (among other subjects) landscape, motherhood, forgiveness, knowledge of language lost and known, miscarriage, and grasshoppers. Part II of the text is also titled “WHEREAS” and responds to the Apology by directly addressing it in an introduction followed by three subsections: “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” and “Disclaimer.” In these territories of the text, the poet echoes, tropes past, runs one hundred miles from, takes a knife to, and utterly transforms the legal language of the Apology.
The apology resolution that is the inciting occasion for WHEREAS never stood on its own or was publically declared. Instead, it was offered in near public silence as a minor inclusion in Section 8113 in the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act, H.R. 3326—a textual and governmental overlap so characteristic of American colonialism that it could not be said to rise even to the level of irony. A weak apology embedded in legislative preparations for war is, in some fundamental and brutal way, an official indicator of the duality of consciousness and the divided condition of daily life that characterizes Native American experience inside the punishing map of the United States of America:
My response is directed to the Apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document. 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.
Long Soldier has said of her poetry, “Sometimes I feel my work is a little antagonistic. I am often taking aim at somebody or something.”1 In WHEREAS, she takes aim at many wounds and many kinds of prey, but she is not confined in her sightline to only the national adversary, the whited sepulcher or pigeonhole that is the America of the apology.
This pigeonhole, “layers of droppings hardened cakes of white,” is the subject of the tenth of Long Soldier’s “Whereas Statement” poems. The pigeonhole as trope for America arises from a meditation on the white space of the page, which becomes metonym for the white space of history, which, in turn, opens onto the whiteness of America. In this poem, the national Apology is cited: “Whereas in the infancy of the United States, the founders of the Republic expressed their desire for a just relationship with the Indian tribes, as evidenced by the Northwest Ordinance enacted by Congress in 1787, which begins with the phrase, ‘The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians.”
Long Soldier’s response to this “utmost good faith” is to put it under the aseptic and leveling pressure of her art and her hand:
Because when unconvinced from this pigeonhole and no other I can
bleach and scrub forehead sweat rubber arms physical effort
mental force art and shape muscle my back languageness a list of moves
to loosen the hold yes I can shake my head wag my finger too
at that good faith white cake in a white hole
that stained refusal to come clean.
Tracking American apologetics and violence are part of the labor and art of WHEREAS, but Long Soldier is equally preoccupied with language (learning from Zitkála–ša, “to otherwise put”), motherhood (“your mother’s mouth has a roof your mother’s mouth is a / church. A hut in a lone field standing”), and the essential, alchemical relationship between land and body (“I don’t trust nobody / but the land”). There is equal submergence in blood, the life of punctuation, the complexity of human love, translation, loss, the Black Horn Mountain, and the relationship of stars to human bones.
Diction and language concern Long Soldier. She reads the tongues of commas. In their sound and detachment (“the comma will cool, will sigh, will lick an envelope for us”) she hears the shift that can happen to a word like opaque when it is unmoored from its usual definitional harbor (“One word can be a poem believe it, one word can destroy a poem dare I”). The nature and effect of language is, in multiple senses, at the heart of the project of WHEREAS, but so, too, is the space in which poetic language is contained or held. Long Soldier is one of the most sensitive and adroit contemporary shapers of the printed map of poetry on the page, from the hammer in the poem “(5) I express commitment to reveal in a text the shape of its pounding subtext,” in which she exposes what is behind the 2009 Apology, to her brilliant replication and refusal of the piercing linearity of the pronoun I in the poem “Diction,” where shape and visual poetic beget an electrified, prayerful reading of the designation of self:
having the shape
a symbol for
ic, ik, ih, ahám
Sensitive to the life of words, Long Soldier tells a poem that she has written for Inupiaq-Inuit poet dg okpik to be at ease: “poem rest here full don’t / lift a single l / etter.” In “Edge” she provides her daughter with a way to hear the language of grasses that the little girl already feels: “as we drive you do not understand word for word the word for you is little. But you hear how it feels always. The music plays you swing your feet. And I see it I Mommy the edge but do not point do not say look as we pass the heads of gold and blowing these dry grasses eaten in fear by man and horses.”
Grass moves, murmurs, and hisses throughout Long Soldier’s poetry. In “38,” about thirty-eight Dakota men mass executed by hanging in 1862 under an order issued by Abraham Lincoln, the poet speaks to her aesthetic motive: “I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.” Grass, an ambivalent figure that moves in crests and vertices, that hums of home in the inland ocean of the Great Plains and drones about the necessary exile of what Long Soldier calls “unholding,” by which she partly indicates what it is to be Native and resistant in America.
The collection WHEREAS begins with this injunction:
make room in the mouth
Long Soldier invokes the sounding grasses on the land of the Oglala Tiyospaye in the Upper Great Plains. But the poetry also makes “room in its mouth” for the grass that the Oceti Sakowin were historically told, in their hunger, to eat. After Andrew Myrick, the infamous “Indian trader” at the Lower Sioux Agency in Minnesota, was informed in the summer of 1862 that treaty-guaranteed annuities were delayed, he said this about the Dakota people: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”2 “I grass / nothing / here,” Long Soldier’s poem “Irony” says about life away from the prairie. So it could be said of the United States of America that nothing can grass in the long shadow of its multitudinous “Whereas Statements,” if by grass is meant life, movement, and the essential affiliation between land and body that Long Soldier’s poetry so often traverses.
In attending to the sonic and visual stirring of grass, Long Soldier’s poetry ingathers the senses of “tókȟaȟ’aŋ,” a Lakota word meaning—among other things not knowable by the “casual American”—“to lose, to suffer loss, to be gone, lost.” In “Steady Summer,” the anesthetic and medicinal quality of summer grasses is revealed: “when they fast / they cannot food / careful water so slide / grass needle tips / around the edges / of wounds this summer.” In the same poem the grasses heal and instruct: “present the grasses / confident grasses polite / command to shhhhh / shh listen [. . .] this grassshhhh // shhhh // who have I become.”
Long Soldier’s poetics in this work might be best summed up in the process of almost involuntary and painful uprooting that takes place in “Look” in which grasses are pulled up and their living being taken from them.
a green hill
till I pull
stalk ’n root
black matte [. . .]
in cupped palm [. . .]
shake the dead
By speaking of another but connected form of uprooting, Long Soldier responds in her twentieth “Whereas Statement” to a young white girl who wants to advocate for Indian people. In response to the girl’s petition for reparation and apology on behalf of others, Long Soldier speaks of a tooth that was sacrificed to the limitations of Indian Health Services, explaining that deracination, once accomplished, cannot be undone:
I went to Indian Health Services to fix a tooth, a complicated pain[. . . .] The solution offered: Pull it. Under pliers masks and clinical lights, a tooth that could’ve been saved was placed in my palm to hold after sequestration. Dear girl, I honor your response and action, I do. Yet the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back. The root, gone.
In the sixth “Resolution” Long Solider considers Standing Rock, by which is meant the place, the reservation, the river under threat, the camp Sacred Stone, Native resistance, state-sponsored police brutality, and the flow of oil and capitalism. She engages Standing Rock with a spatial and narrative blending of the words from a Facebook post by Mark K. Tilsen, an Oglala Lakota activist, and sections of an interview that Long Soldier did with Waniya Locke, a Hunkpapa Lakota activist. Both texts are from 2016, the year the encampment began and the protest accelerated. Long Soldier’s resolution does more than the officious and meaningless legal form of resolution in the Apology does. It transcribes the action Native Protectors took speaking back to the law, putting their bodies at risk in refusing the violence of energy colonialism. “I too urge the President of the United States to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States[. . . .] although healing this land is not dependent upon this President meaning tribal peoples themselves are healing this land its waters[. . . .]”
People ask why do you bring up
we are Protectors
so many other issues it’s because
we are peaceful and prayerful
these issues have been ongoing
‘isms’ have no place
for 200 years they’re interdependent
here we all stand together
we teach the distinction
we are non-violent
btwn what’s legal & what isn’t legal
More than ten thousand Mandan natives lived in their seven or more cities in the area north of the Sacred Stone camp, the land of the Hunkpapa Lakota. Both nations tell of how they came from the earth: the Mandan from east of the Missouri, the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota, like all their relations, from the Black Hills. The earth is, quite literally, their mother. They came from the earth, and their history is in the earth. Their politics are in the earth, in land and water that is sacred, which is to say, dedicated: deliberately set apart, exclusively appropriated to some people or for some special purpose. As pipelines are set aside for the people of the earth who worship money, so is the land set aside for the purpose of life, of home, of the power of self-determination, which is to say treaty-guaranteed sovereignty. This is the distinction “btwn what’s legal & what isn’t legal” that is sung and stitched in grasses in Long Soldier’s WHEREAS.
1. From “Layli Long Soldier IAIA Craft Talk,” Spring 2014.
2. Author’s note: Myrick’s remark is infamous in Indian Country, particularly in Minnesota and North Dakota, but see Richard Dillon’s North American Indian Wars (1993) for reference, p. 126.
WHEREAS. By Layli Long Soldier. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2017. 120 pp. $16.00, paper.