The Language of Apology in Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas

Andrew Harnik / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Whereas I went one day to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and the pharmacy was closed, and I decided a book of poetry was the next best thing to medicine;

Whereas the book I selected was Layli Long Soldier’s collection titled Whereas;

Whereas in January of this year, President Trump signed an order to expedite the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and, as my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote,

For roughly four hours after these orders were issued, they only existed online in an image from an Associated Press photographer. That version was missing at least a page, and some words were so blurry as to be non-parseable.

Whereas poems can be made to peel apart language, and language can be made to flail, to strike, to obfuscate and blur, or to shift responsibility and blame from one party to another;

Layli Long Soldier’s collection is a direct response to the official “Apology to Native Peoples” on behalf of the U.S. government buried quietly in the 2010 defense appropriations bill. At the time, the apology attracted little notice; President Obama signed it without fanfare or ceremony. Long Soldier pays close attention to its language, dividing her book into sections whose titles are borrowed from the apology: “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” “Disclaimer.”

The Whereas Statements lay bare the realities and contrasts of Long Soldier’s life and her role as an Oglala Lakota poet, mother, and daughter. There are moments of beautiful intimacy, connection, and forgiveness; there is also an awareness of separation, and acknowledgement of the difficulty (sometimes, impossibility) of repair. A sense of withholding runs throughout, as Long Soldier recalls things she thought, but did not say; wanted to do, but didn’t; saw, but only across a gap in time or space. She holds her forgiveness carefully separate from the apology even as she uses its words in her poems, and interrogates the ways the official apology offers recognition for the government’s actions without truly accepting responsibility for them. In one poem, she finds a microcosm of the political relationship between the United States and Native people in her own extracted tooth: “I don’t share this to belabor suffering … Yet at the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back ever. The root, gone.”

The language in the Whereas Statements is formal, with Lakota words woven in, and sharp, clear details punctuating Long Soldier’s wandering thoughts. Long Soldier tells stories about her family and people she has met, recounts fragile and dangerous conversations, and tangles with the language of history; for instance, she returns in many of the poems to the phrase grassesgrassesgrasses, in reference to the story of a trader who, when told the Dakota were starving, replied “let them eat grass.” She contrasts the deliberate, restrained, and arguably duplicitous language of the official 2010 apology with the way her father apologized to her—tearfully, humanely—for not being there during her childhood over a breakfast she cooked him as an adult. In the Resolutions, she reconstructs the language of the apology, shaping words into boxes, drawing lines between them or scattering them across the page. Below are fragments from the beginnings of some of the Whereas Statements:

WHEREAS I query my uneasiness with the statement, “Native People are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” … Whereas I remember that abstractions such as “life,” “liberty,” and “happiness” rarely serve a poem, so I have learned it best not to engage these terms anyway. Yet I smash head-on into this specific differentiation: the Creator vs. their Creator. ...

WHEREAS I tire. Of my effort to match the effort of the statement: “Whereas Native People 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. ...

WHEREAS the word whereas means it being the case that, or considering that, or while on the contrary; is a qualifying or introductory statement, a conjunction, a connector. Whereas sets the table. The cloth. The saltshakers and the plates. ...

WHEREAS I sipped winter water cold-steeped in pine needles, I could taste it for days afterward, I taste it now. When I woke alone gray 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?