Poetry as a Direct Response to Mistreatment as Direct Route Towards Healing

“We don’t often get to visualize or grapple with complexity, with real human emotions” author Layli Long Soldier says in a recent interview expressing her discomfort with the lack of attention regarding Native American emotions (Long Soldier). As a Lakota poet, Long Soldier

Layli Long Soldier at Wesleyan University

released her collection of poems titled Whereas: Poems in 2017 in which she unearths the triumphs and extreme sufferings of being a Native American in twenty first century America. The book is filled with a variety of poetic styles, masterful short lyrics, longer narratives, prose poems, resolutions and disclaimers. In her writing, Long Soldier emphasizes the importance of her culture’s history explaining, “from historical accounts, we don’t often learn much more besides the most basic facts… Especially for our people” (Long Soldier). One of her well known poems from the book titled “Whereas” criticizes the Resolution of Apology to Native Americans and is shaped by her concerns about the lack of respect for Native history and emotion. “Whereas” follows a nonlinear prose structure that is divided into short stanzas of acute thoughts that proceeds into longer stream of consciousness paragraphs. According to Michael Wasson, at the Harvard Review,  “generously opens a doorway between the poetry of the personal and the poetry of protest” (Wasson).

 

The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans signed in 2009 by Barack Obama sought to “offer an apology to all Native peoples on behalf of the United States” (United States Congress). In reality, however, this Apology was insincere, inappropriate and did not mend the many centuries of mistreatment the United States government and Americans imposed on Native Americans. In response to the American government’s attempt to mend relations with Native people, Long Soldier wrote poems.

From the start of colonization Europeans disregarded all respect for the valued land and resources that Native Americans lived on; they displayed greed and arrogance. This mistreatment manifested in legislation that removed, killed and forced assimilation of Native Americans. The Indian Removal act of 1830, the Sand Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee Massacre, and forced enrollment in boarding schools were all efforts to degrade Native

Trail of Tears

American culture (Pauls). Through mistreatment, Colonizers altered Native American identity diminishing Native Americans into a race of the past making it difficult for non-Natives and Natives alike to identify with Native American identity.

 

Long Soldier claims Indigenous sovereignty, through her poetry which acts as an outlet to explore her own Native American identity. Defined by scholar Dustin Tahmahkera, Indigenous sovereignty is a status the Indigenous people can acclaim (Tahmahkera 140). This acclimation is done by reclaiming certain settings and correctly representing and using traditions, ceremonies and culture of Indigenous people to redefine Indigeneity. This redefinition is different from the wests stereotype driven definition. Long Soldier reclaims these spaces through her literature. Indigenous blogger Wikler states that “sovereignty is a critical tool in the pursuit of decolonization and asserting self-determination and sovereignty” (Wikler 1). Long Soldier’s exploration of her Native identity through poetry is an act of Indigenous sovereignty. By addressing common struggles, this platform of creates a space for healing. Long Soldier reclaims Native culture through the Indigenous sovereignty found in her poetry, allowing for Natives to reconnect with their culture and thrive in a modern context.

Long Soldier’s “Whereas” opens with a descriptive scenario of a conversation discussing the insincere Apology Resolution, “Whereas a string-bean blue-eyed man leans back into a swig of beer work-weary lips at the dark bottle keeping cool in short sleeves and khakis he enters the discussion” (Long Soldier 1-2). The man is described as a typical white American, who says “well at least there was an Apology that’s all I can say” (Long Soldier 3). This statement is the basis for the narrative throughout the first half of “Whereas” as it fosters hatred within Long Soldier. By saying “at least” the man is personally accepting and allowing the American government to do the bare minimum in apologizing and recognizing past wrongdoings. The bare minimum rightfully so angers Long Soldier but also poses a challenge for her. The challenge manifests in Long Soldiers difficulty in responding to the ignorant statement as she would like to the ignorant statement. Long Soldier writes, “Whereas I struggle to confess that I didn’t want to explain anything…Whereas truthfully I wished most to kick the legs of that man’s chair out from under him” (Long Soldier 21-22). Although she longed to speak up she could only fathom physically hurting the man. She did not resort to violence, but this type of violent reaction is similar to one that a child would have. A child lacks fully developed identity similar to the lack of Native American identity Long Soldier portrays. Later in the poem Long Soldier mimics the man in a statement that aligns with Long Soldiers’ struggle with identity when she writes “whereas I can admit this also took place, yes, at least” (Long Soldier 27). She is admitting to her struggle with identity. Simultaneously, she is claiming her identity and sovereignty whether it is known or not by imitating this typical white man. This white man represents a norm of America, so by starting new lines off with the word “whereas” Long Soldier creates a direct correlation between her internal struggle and pain with Native American identity and the larger scale struggle with Native American acceptance apparent through the white man’s reaction to the Apology Resolution. By saying “at least” the White man is saying the United states apology is enough, that it is okay. This is angering to Long Soldier because it shouldn’t be enough.

The evident difference between the white man’s reaction to the Apology and the Natives reaction to the apology fuels longs’ poetry– poetry that natives can relate to. Jolene Rickard, of the Tuscarora nation writes about her hope of a stronger Native American identity by expanding the definition of Indigenous sovereignty. Native Americans can reclaim their sovereignty as long as “[Native Americans] try and retell the story from the bottom up, instead of from the top down” (Rickard 472). Long Soldier does this by using “I” to personalize the poem. As a Native writer, she is telling the story of Native people from the bottom up. “I” creates a relatability in human emotions that all people feel making her bottom up strategy more effective. By personalizing the poem Long Soldier successfully finds an outlet for her emotions. The sovereignty found in literature creates a sense of community within the Native American identity, that Rickard sees as a beam of hope for Native American people to reclaim their identity and heal their personal struggles.

Long Soldier uses her poetry to reclaim her Native American identity, inherently representing her culture in a positive light. The use of “I’’ tells the Native American experience through the eyes of a Native person. Through the eyes of Long Soldier her reaction to the Apology creates a contrast with the white man’s reaction. Rickard writes that by personalizing and exclaiming one’s own identity as a Native American it is a “distancing strategy from the West” (Rickard 472). This distancing from the West enhances Indignity.  As a form of separation, poetry represents a successful attempt of claiming Indigenous identity. This contrast decolonizes and separates western culture from Native American Culture which feeds into Native American sovereignty.  It is this separation that also creates a Native American community and connection to personal identity that Long Soldier can thrive off of. This idea of “thriving” is the idea of healing from the horrific acts committed against Native Americans in the past. With such a horrible history, the lasting trauma and mindset can only be healed by Native American identity in a modern context like Long Soldier does through her poetry.

A symbol often used in Indigenous protests

Long Soldier claims Indigenous sovereignty by utilizing the word “whereas” revealing her personal experiences and thoughts as a Native woman. The first half of the poem is constructed of relatively short lines beginning with the phrase “Whereas I…”. Broken up into their own miniature stanzas emphasizes each individual line as they are all unique reactions (Long Soldier 1). Midway through the poem there is a volta, or a turning point. Long Soldier uses a volta at the start of the second page, writing, “Whereas we ride to the airport” (Long Soldier 28). Starting the second page off with a different phrase signifies a change in subject and structure. The second page goes on to address a different everyday interaction with non-Natives in a bus signified by the change in phrasing from “Whereas I” to “Whereas we”. The word whereas followed by “we” creates a sense of collectivity between all Natives, Long Soldier is representing Native Americans as a whole in this interaction. The second half of the poem is also written in a more paragraph form which Long Soldier’s stream of consciousness, unlike the first half. A paragraph structure creates more opportunity for relatability of experience and thought process for Native Americans. There is a connection between the flow of the poem as a whole and the struggle that many Native Americans face, with the midway point of the volta. The struggle begins as personal struggle and offense, then the struggle moves into a more general and bigger problem that many Native Americans can relate to.

The flow of “Whereas” parallels the alarming struggle that Long Soldier and other Native Americans face while also providing a sense of community within this struggle. It is this struggle that Cherokee writer Daniel Heath Justice uses as a basis for his, “Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer”. Justice’s goal in his letter is to encourage fellow writers and all Native peoples to use writing, which he calls a gift, to represent the survival and struggle of Indigenous generations. He suggests that writing can be used to Indigenous people’s advantage, to help them heal and build a stronger community. He does this by offering up a sense of compassion in grappling with writing as a Native man. Justice’s personal empathy also boosts the importance of the writing process, declaring, “there’s magnificent power in that vulnerability, and its deserving of acknowledgment” (Justice 1). He later goes on to address the community building aspects of writing. Justice’s writing structure begins with his individual struggle and later turns into a community building experience aligning with Long Soldiers writing structure. She also well starts with her individual reaction and at the volta, changes to a broader struggle. In the second part of Justice’s letter he writes, “be the mentor you wish you had” for other writers, continuing on saying, “being kind means being critical. Criticism at its best is an act of profound generosity” (Justice 2). There is a community within Indigenous writers the Justice wants to elevate in order to help fellow writers and Indigenous people by providing mentorship and constructive criticism. By acting as a supportive and encouraging letter the letter also simultaneously claims Indigenous sovereignty by addressing a truly indigenous issue.

The letter and Long Soldier’s poem both claim their own Indigeneity by writing about solely indigenous struggles. “Whereas” represents the goals Justice has for the future of Indigenous writers. Justice hopes that more Indigenous people will write, which will provide a community of writers to criticize and mentor one another. Long Soldier on writing her poem. They both address their personal struggle with their Native American identity and then how this personal struggle is relatable to most Native Americans. There is sense of comradery between Justice and Long Soldier as writers, Justice seems to uplift and congratulate Long soldier fulfills Justice standards of an Indigenous writer. Poetry and a letter are both are great platforms on a global level because they are easily accessible. This makes the unjust treatment that Indigenous people have faces in the past and still face today known, bringing the Indigenous struggle into the 21st century.

The word “whereas” is employed differently at the end of the poem when the word it becomes personified. Towards the end of the poem the narrative shifts to address the word itself.  This is done by placing Whereas in interactions between the author and the word. Long Soldier writes, “Whereas sets the table… Whereas calls me to the table because Whereas precedes and invites” introducing the scene of a tense meal (Long Soldier 59). The now character, Whereas can be used interchangeably with the false and offensive statements in the apology. Long Soldier later responds to Whereas saying, “whereas, I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates cloth” addressing her and ability to live despite the “whereas” (Long Soldier 60). It is in these made up conversations that Long Soldier is able to again personally express her contempt with the Apology.

In an entry of 4Column, teacher at Tufts University, Matt Hooley, writes about the issue subordinate communities, with regards to Whereas.  In his review of Whereas Hooley creates links between the language used by Long Soldier and in the Apology to emphasize the power of language in poetry. Praising the book, Hooley writes, “defiance is also a practice of care” explaining the hidden power in Long Soldier poems that is often covered by the beautiful diction. He continues on using this template of hidden power to show how Whereas secretly takes some of the burden of explaining their pain Natives face. He exclaims “Whereas dismantles the implications that Native People need to reconcile themselves to the desires or regrets of the US” (Hooley 1). This furthers the importance of Lone Soldiers poetry, for herself and other Natives.

Hooley’s remark on poetry is proven in “Whereas”. As a Native writer, Long Soldier is creating poems about Native issues which are directly driven by the pain she feels, which acts as an explanation to non-Natives that Natives will now not have to explain. This is furthered in the table setting, at the table when Long Soldier tells whereas that “this has become mine, this unholding” (Long Soldier 2). The unholding she is referring she is explained earlier as having had “learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates cloth” (60 Long Soldier). This job is difficult, but through writing “Whereas” some of the weight is lifted off her shoulder. Both the conversation with Whereas and the poem “Whereas” as a whole both act as a way for Long Soldier to lessen the amount of pain she has, healing and claiming Indigenous sovereignty.

For Native Americans who have experiences so much pain, poetry is an ideal outlet for healing. Through the act of writing, directly addressing oppressing documents and creating a platform for relatability for other Native Americans Long Soldier claims indigenous sovereignty. This claiming is important for all Native Americans to heal from harsh past and move forward. Although this writing allows for healing, Native American issues and oppression is still occurring so it will this writing will only become increasingly important. It is writers like Long Soldier that can lead the way for their culture and communities.

 

Works Cited

Hooley, Matt. “Whereas Native Peoples, Language, and Power.”4Columns, 3 Mar. 2017, http://www.4columns.org/hooley-matt/whereas. Accessed 30 April 2018.

Long Soldier, Layli. “Whereas.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Jan. 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/91697/from-whereas. Accessed 14 April, 2018.

Long Soldier, Layli. Interview by Kaveh Akbar. Dive Dapper, 9 October, 2017, https://www.divedapper.com/interview/layli-long-soldier/. Accessed 30 April, 2018.

Pauls, Elizabeth Prine “Native American History.”Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 19 Jan.  2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Native-American/Native-American-history Accessed 14 April, 2018.

Rickard, Jolene. “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors.” South Atlantic Duke University Press 1 April 2011; 465-486, doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-1162543. Accessed 14 April, 2018.

Tahmahkera, Dustin. “Sitcom Sovereignty in Mixed Blessings.” Tribal Television, The University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 139-166. Accessed 14 April, 2018.

United States, Congress. “Text – S.J.Res.14 – Native American Apology Resolution.”Congress.gov, 6 Aug. 2009, 12345. Accessed 14 April, 2018. Accessed 14 April, 2018.

Wasson, Michael. “Whereas.” Harvard Review, 18 July 2017. http://www.harvardreview.org/?q=features/book-review/whereas. Accessed 2 May, 2018.

Wikler, Alexandra. “Indigenous Screen Sovereignty Sold Here!.” Exploring Indigenous Knowledge Systems, 31 Oct 2016, https://blogs.ubc.ca/fnis401fwikler/2016/10/31/indigenous-screen-sovereignty-sold-here/. Accessed 14 April, 2018.

 

 

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