The first time I taught Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas in an intro creative writing class, I had ordered and assigned it kind of on impulse. I was excited about the book but hadn’t yet spent a lot of time with it—a questionable pedagogical practice maybe, and with which I’ve had good and other results in the past. While I was reading, in preparation for our class discussion, I worried about how students would respond. I wasn’t worried about the content; my students are smart, thoughtful, and generally attentive to questions of social justice especially in relation to race and culture. But the book is formally challenging, dense in language and complexity of ideas, and takes multiple readings to process. Although many students regularly apply themselves and are strong readers, it is still always impossible to know how the conversation will go.
The class exceeded my hopes. They dove right in, were honest about the difficulty but interested in a variety of specific pieces from the book. In trying to “make sense” of larger structure and organization questions, we looked back and forth between the first and second sections and shared interpretations and ideas. At some point I directed them to the official U.S. Resolution of Apology document, and then they were blown away. We compared the language of Long Soldier’s “Whereas” and the Resolution, saw how she was responding, rewriting, and calling out the charade of apology. They noted how she used the government language against itself, and how the pieces in “Whereas” were dense blocks of text, compared to the open pieces with more line-breaks and white space in the first section, “These Being the Concerns.”
In a new class this semester, we have just started discussing the book, and again, the students have taken on the challenge. In small groups they flipped pages, talked seriously with each other about organization of the whole as well as short pieces and long poems in sections; they looked at uses of language, sound, and visual presentation. One student noted that “official” American history only gives us the positive versions of stories. Another pointed out something about pain and suffering that I can’t exactly recall but remember thinking how clear it was, how thoughtfully articulate. In working on a longer essay about Whereas, I am looking for ways to reflect on the complex layers and insights one gets in returning to reading time and again, how Long Soldier weaves the personal and political so powerfully. And when the student commented, in such plain language, on how Long Soldier is teaching us about historical power and the silencing of Native voices, I was, as I often am, struck by the capacity of my students to teach me so much.
At the center of Whereas, as Long Soldier says in an interview with Krista Tippet, is a piece in which her father apologizes at the breakfast table for having been missing from her life while she was growing up (65). The poem captures the intensity of the experience, in sound and feeling; and that in its unexpected power it erased the hurt and loss that had come before. In effect, the apology marked a place of beginning anew. In the poem and in the conversation, she tells us that is what an apology should be and do. Earlier in the interview, Long Soldier referenced a video interview with a Native woman, whose name and tribe she couldn’t recall, who, after the Canadian National Apology to the First Nations People was asked if anything had changed,
… and she said, in her opinion, no. Things had not really changed. But in just very, very simple terms, she said, “You know, if you want things to change, all you have to do is begin by honoring your treaties and doing what you said you would do.” But I think there has to be a kind of trust building in order for any kind of apology to be effective, whether it’s interpersonal or at a national level. (Tippet)
An apology does nothing if it is only words and no action. An apology is also about mending or building a relationship. If there’s no interest or hope for a sustainable relationship, then maybe there’s no need for an apology. Relationships are built on words and actions, recognition of one and another, on trust and reciprocity. Whereas, the book, one might say, uses apology as a way to reflect on relationship. Writing from a present tense, first person perspective, Long Soldier narrates in poetic form how history continues to exist in the present. In seeing how U.S. historical narrativizing and the creation of official documents empty of truth value continue to fall short, this book fills in some of the silenced space in a poetic, personal-is-political way. Long Soldier creates an other narrative, a new and contemporary story that puts language into action, uncovering and exposing truths otherwise edged out. She says:
I did not want to jump back 100 years. I think, so often, that’s really a temptation to do when it comes to anything that has to do with Native issues, Native rights, or history ... I really wanted it to be grounded in the now, at least within my own lifetime. And I wanted as much as possible to avoid this sort of nostalgic portraiture of a Native life, my life. (Tippet)
The section, “These Being the Concerns,” figuratively mimics the structure of the apology process; the official apology recognizes there is something to apologize for. Long Soldier creates these “concerns” as disparate resonances that cannot be coherently narrativized, drawing attention to the fact, it seems, that the writers of the Resolution don’t comprehend what the document is trying (failing) to perform. An apology should address, if not reverse or right the wrong done. But the concerns are not a coherent list of wrongs to be righted; they are constellations of the effects of violence and marginalization over centuries, captured in personal poetic moments of story and reflection.
Long Soldier also speaks with Tippet about her early interest in music, and the sounds of repeated musical phrases. And we can see and feel how sound is inextricable from other ways language functions in Whereas. The first piece of the book, for example, in its entirety reads:
make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses (5)
and sets up themes, ideas, and uses of language that resonate thereafter. Language in the mouth carries texture and sound, the sound and feel of the word “grasses” repeated without spaces is both hard to read at first and hard to say out loud (try it). It also refers to a story that is told in the piece “38,” in the middle of the book, about Andrew Myrick, a trader who, after the 1858 US government reduction of Dakota land and in response to the fact that Dakota people were starving—unable to hunt and with no money (they were never paid for the land stolen) to buy food—famously said, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass” and then:
When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem. (53)
One might say, poetic justice. A few lines later she writes, “Things are circling back again” and “if I wish to exit, I must leap.” There is some narrative circling in this poem, as in the book. Many readers likely won’t recognize the initial reference to the Myrick story, and when we get to the middle we have to go back to see how the ideas began to resonate earlier. When we encounter the apology at the breakfast table, having immersed ourselves as readers in the circle, over time, we might feel a kind of collective emotion, the weight of history shared through an intimate personal story, the piece ending, “because of a lifelong stare down / because of centuries of sorry;” (the / is included in Long Soldier’s prose line 65).
Further intertwining the personal and collective, in “Look” (11) the grasses and changing light literally and figuratively might represent the relationship with the land that for Lakota people is especially culturally and historically significant, and which is also infected with trauma; the grasses signifying survival and reciprocity, and the Myrick reference metonymic for the continuous colonial violence against Native peoples, leaving them only with grass, if even that, to eat. In a reading at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, Long Soldier reads from this piece and also explains that the feel, smell, and sight of the grasses are important to her relationship to home, and when going to South Dakota from the four corners area of the southwest, the first thing she would do is grab a handful of grass, and pull apart the strands. The poetic personal narrator in Whereas further calls our attention to the construction of the text; that the text is a negotiation and relationship between form and content. If Long Soldier speaks only for herself and not for the experiences of all Lakota people, the work also extends beyond, reaching into hearts and minds of readers in its personal/political insights, and adding to the archive of stories and perspectives that help to fill empty rhetorical gestures with constellations of real-life details.
“Whereas Statements” is directly in response to the resolution document and begins with a reflection on what an apology is or feels like, evoking both the physiological and linguistic.
WHEREAS when offered an apology I watch each movement the shoulders
high or folding, tilt of the head both eyes down or straight through
me, I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it
that I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses—I read
each muscle, I ask the strength of the gesture to move like a poem.
If I’m transformed by language, I am often
crouched in footnote or blazing in title.
Where in the body do I begin; (61)
Long Soldier asks “what is it / that I want?” and is answered a few pages later with her father’s apology. The pieces in this section critique the resolution language, processing and responding to the inadequacy of the apology and its delivery, as well as the “language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document” (57). At the Radcliffe reading, she says that when she found out about the Resolution, she was frustrated. And realizing there were many things she couldn’t do, one thing she could do was write. In writing this frustration, Whereas, the book, enacts the movement between language and emotional spaces, calling our attention to the form and content of this personal intervention into paternalistic government language practice and (in)action.
Following “Whereas Statements,” the short section “Resolutions” explicitly lifts and turns text from the document’s “Acknowledgement and Apology.” Much more visual on the page, and employing more white space than the dense “statements” section, Long Soldier pulls apart the government’s words and phrases: she repeats “this land” across a page; she pares down the text “recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes” creating a vertical, narrow line of text: “I / recognize / that / official / ill- / breaking of / the / Indian” and relegating the missing original words and phrases: “there have been years of,” “depredations,” and etc., to footnotes (90-91). Another piece lays the writing of two contemporary Standing Rock activists next to each other, further bringing the history of stolen land into the present incarnation of mis-representation of Native voices and actions. And in a near-final piece, Long Soldier again turns the resolution language: “commends the State governments that have begun reconciliation efforts with recognized Indian tribes located in their boundaries and encourages all State governments similarly to work toward reconciling relationships with Indian tribes within their boundaries” into “I commend the inventive crafting of a national resolution so mindful of—” and then beginning with “boundaries” rearranges and repeats the government language down the page. A vertical text box to the right begins at the top with “boundaries” and then expands the phrase “with recognized Indian tribes located in their boundaries” in reverse, one word or phrase at a time, moving down and to the right like an expanding list. And to the left of the text box, the first word, “boundaries” again begins at the top and the rest of the original text moves down and out to the left. The foregrounding of “boundaries” pushing out into the visual page, calls out the passive and pacifying empty rhetorical gestures about “reconciling relationships” in a kind of technical knockout; the apology farce is no longer believable, if it ever was. The relationship never one of reciprocity or redress.
Jill Darling has published poetry, fiction, and creative and critical essays. Her books include (re)iterations, a geography of syntax, Solve For, and begin with may: a series of moments as well as two collaborative chapbooks with Laura Wetherington and Hannah Ensor: at the intersection of 3, and The First Steps are the Deepest. Darling teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Dearborn and Ann Arbor. More info and links to work online can be found at jilldarling.com.