Today in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Maggie Nelson features work by Layli Long Soldier. About Layli Long Soldier's work, Nelson writes: “It’s no exaggeration to say that I was blown away when I first read Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas project, a few pieces of which I am honored to include here. PEN seems a fitting home for such trenchant, beautiful thinking and writing about the relationship between official political speech and literature’s capacity to write back. And write back Long Soldier does, with a sensibility so tough and gentle, so sure of itself and so questioning, that I find myself simply standing back in admiration, savoring every perfect, necessary word of her intervention. I imagine the whole of Whereas one day being read in its entirety to and from the hilltops, in all its intimate wonder. I hope to be there.”
The following is an excerpt from Whereas, which is a response
to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans
On a Saturday in December, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. No tribal leaders or official representatives were invited to witness and receive the Apology on behalf of their tribal nations. President Obama never read the Apology aloud, publicly—although, for the record, Senator Brownback later read the Apology to a gathering of 5 tribal leaders. (Bearing in mind, there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S.) And the Apology was folded into a larger (unrelated) piece of legislation called the Defense Appropriations Act.
The following is my response to the Apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document. Facts as they are, it should be noted that this series is not written to target or attack President Obama, a specific politician nor any political party; I am not affiliated with a party. I am, however, 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.
WHEREAS my eyes land on the statement, “Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.” In others, I hate the act
of laughing when hurt injured or in cases of danger. That bitter hiding. My daughter picks up
new habits from friends. She’d been running, tripped, slid on knees and palms onto asphalt.
They carried her into the kitchen, She just fell, she’s bleeding! I winced. Deep red streams
down her arms and legs, trails on white tile. I looked at her face. A smile
quivered her. A laugh, a nervous. Doing as her friends do, she braved new behavior—
I can’t name it but I could spot it. Stop, my girl. If you’re hurting, cry. You must
show your feelings so that others know, so that we can help. Like that. She let it out,
a flood from living room to bathroom. Then a soft water pour I washed
carefully light touch clean cotton to bandage. I faced her I reminded, In our home
in our family we are ourselves, real feelings. You can do this with others, be true. I sent her
off to the couch with a movie encouraging, Take it easy. Yet I’m serious when I say I laugh
reading the phrase, “opened a new chapter.” I can’t help my body. I shake. The sad
realization that it took this phrase to show. My daughter’s quiver isn’t new—
but a deep practice very old she’s watching me;
WHEREAS I tire. Of my effort to match the effort of the statement: “Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.” I tire
of engaging in numerous conflicts, tire of the word both. Both as a woman and a child of that Whereas. Both of words and word-play, hunching over dictionaries. Tire of referencing terms such as tire, of understanding weary, weakened, exhausted, reduced in strength from labor. Bored. In Lakota, tire is okita which means to be tired. Should I mention I’m bored. Yet under the entry for okita I find the term wayuh’anhica, meaning to play out to exhaust a horse by not knowing how properly to handle it. Am I okita or do I wayuh’anhica?
In my effort to push and pull language, how much must I labor to concrete here what’s real. Really, I am 5-foot ten inches. Really, I sleep on the right side of the bed. Really, I wake after eight hours and my eyes hang as slate grey squares. Really, I am blokita very tired. Really, this is a matter of wayuh’anhica, meaning I exhaust a horse by not knowing how to properly handle it. I climb the backs of languages, ride them into textual conflict—maybe I pull the reins when I mean go. Maybe kick their sides when I want down. Does it matter. Okita, I’m stuck, I want off. From the repetition, my impulse to note: Beware, a horse isn’t a reference to my heritage;
WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota therein the question: what did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces. Until a friend comforted, Don’t worry, you and your daughter will learn together. Today she stood front and center her pride in the living room to share a song in Diné, her father’s language. To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands I watch her be in multiple musics. At a ceremony
to honor the Diné Nation’s first poet laureate, a speaker explains that each People has been given their own language to reach with. I understand reaching as active, a motion. He offers a prayer and introduction in heritage language. I listen I reach my eyes into my hands, my hands onto my lap, my lap as the quiet page I hold my daughter in. I rock her back, forward, to rise of conversation
about mother tongues versus foster-languages, how to forge belonging. I connect the dots I rock in time with references to Derrida, master language-thinker who thought of his mother too. Mother-to-child and child-to-mother relationships, is that postmodern. As his mother suffered the ill-effects of a stroke he wrote: I asked if she was in pain (yes) then where? […she] replies to my question: I have a pain in my mother, as though she were speaking for me, both in my direction and in my place. His mother, who spoke in his place for his pain and as herself for her own, did this as one-and-the-same. Yet Derrida would propose understanding the word mother by what she is not. Forward, back. I lift my feet
as my toes touch the floor I’m reminded of the linguistic impossibility of identity, as if any of us can be identical ever. To whom, to what? Perhaps to Not. I hold my daughter in comfort saying iyo-tanchilah mi-chuwintku. True I don’t know how to write our language on the page correctly, the written takes many forms
yet I know she understands through our motion. Rocking, in this country of so many languages national surveys reporting Native languages are dying. Child-speakers and elder-teachers dwindle, we gather this from public information. But in our home her father and I don’t teach in statistics, in this dying I mean. Whereas in speaking we find defiance –the closest I can come to differánce. Yet I confess
these are numbered hours spent writing to speak to a national document which concerns us, my family. Hours alone to think, without. My hope: my child understands wholeness for what it is, not for what it’s not, all of it the pieces;
WHEREAS I sipped winter water cold-steeped in pine needles, I could taste it for days afterwards I taste it now. When I woke alone grey curtains burned in sunrise and down my throat to the pit, a tincture of those green needles changed me. When should I recount detail, when’s it too much. When my mother burrows herself, I listen to her. We speak about an envelope for receipts, dark roast coffee and the neighbor’s staple gun I want to borrow. In the smallest things I watch the compass needle of conversation register her back to center. What has become of us, mother to her former self. Daughter to mother, present selves. Citizen to country, former and past to present or, is it a matter of presence? My daughter wouldn’t do it when she was younger but this year she wanted to. For her birthday, an ear piercing. The needle gun hurts only for a moment we assure her. In the old days Grandma held ice on my earlobes then punctured with a sewing needle. You’ll have it easier, I encourage. She rushes through the mall to the needle chair, her smile. Eagerness, the emotion-mark of presence. I want to write something kind, as things of country and politic nation and nation-to-nation burn, have tattooed me. Red-enflamed-needle-marked me. Yet in the possibility of ink through a needle, the greater picture arrives through a thousand blood dots. Long ago bones were fashioned into needles. If I had my choosing I’d use this tool here, a bone needle to break the skin. To ink-inject the permanent reminder: I’m here I’m not / numb to a single dot;
WHEREAS I read an article in a New York newspaper about the federal sequestration of funds from reservation programs, the cuts. In federal promises and treaties. The article details living conditions on reservations those suicides up to ten times higher than the rest of the country. Therein the story of a 12-year old girl whose mother died she doesn’t know her father she bounces home to home to foster home, weary. I regard how plainly the writer imparts her repeated sexual abuse. And for her mental care, unavailable services. There’s a clinic that doesn’t have money after May, don’t get sick after May is the important message. As I read I cry I always cry and here I must be clear my crying doesn’t indicate sadness. I read a comment posted below the article:
I am a fourteen-year-old girl who recently visited the _______ Reservation in South Dakota, with my youth group. The conditions the Native American people were living in were shocking. When I arrived home, I wrote a petition on whitehouse.gov for the U.S. to formally apologize and pay reparations to the Native American people. This petition only stays up until July 23rd, so please sign and share!!! You signing it would really mean a lot to a lot of people. Thank you.
Dear 14-Year Old Girl, I want to write. The government has already “formally apologized” to Native American people on behalf of the plural you, your youth group, your mother and father, your best friends and their families. You as in all American citizens. You didn’t know that, I know. Yet indeed Dear Girl the conditions on reservations have changed since the Apology. Meaning, the Apology has been followed by budget sequestration. In common terms sequestration is removal banishment or exile. In law-speak it means seizure for safe-keeping but changed in federal budgeting to mean subject to cuts, best as I can understand it. Dear Girl I went to the Indian Health Services to fix a tooth, a complicated pain. Indian health care is guaranteed by treaty but at the clinic limited funds don’t allow treatment beyond a filling. 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. I don’t share this to belabor suffering, facts are what they are I share to explain. Dear Girl, I honor your response and action I do. Yet at the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back ever. The root, gone.
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