Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota Poet, Catalogs the Untold

The Line on Poetry

HUMANITIES, Winter 2024, Volume 45, Number 1

On a quiet night in Las Vegas, I went to the Beverly Theater to listen to Layli Long Soldier. 

The Oglala Lakota poet was there to read from her work and to introduce the film Lakota Nation vs. United States by directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli. Long Soldier began by reading from “135 Xs,” her new poem conceived for the film—the Xs of the title referring to the signatures of the 135 tribal elders on the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie with the United States government. Written in lieu of their names, the Xs signify so much more than loss—they are replete with anonymity. Her breakthrough volume, Whereas, is a testimony to living and persisting in the absence of anything like a working treaty. It received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award in 2018, and Long Soldier’s acceptance speech at the awards ceremony was the most eloquent of the evening, a mother thanking her family and child for their infinite support. She was no different recently when I saw her read her poetry in Las Vegas—curious, self-reliant, vulnerable, determined to try and complete the unspoken narrative, waiting in the threshold of silence. Listen to her trepidation at bringing her daughter into the world: 

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 sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight 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. 

To her credit, Long Soldier manages to find hope in the poems and her view of life. She repeatedly asks if her perspective is enough to know how to believe, with her students, in the future, a future defined by language. At one point in the past year, she went to law school to learn the complicated language of whereas what might have been—my words, not hers. I told a close friend who saw the film with me that she, along with Sherwin Bitsui, Michael Wasson, Natalie Diaz, and Joy Harjo, to name a few of her peers, were decolonizing the American poem. “But how had American poetry been colonized as so much of it was original?” he asked. I paused and said: “It wasn’t that these Indigenous poets weren’t writing; they were not being read.” For a long time, with a few notable exceptions, Indigenous poets were not part of the larger, literary mainstream. By rejecting this accepted truth, Long Soldier and her peers took the first step toward returning their poetry to its readers.   

Whereas is Long Soldier’s poetic response to Senate Joint Resolution 14, written during Obama’s presidency, an apology to the more than 500 recognized Indigenous nations in this country. The apology was never read aloud publicly by the president. Senator Sam Brownback, its sponsor, read it to five tribal leaders months later.  

I have listened to Long Soldier talk about her creative process. She stays up late, watches some light TV, and starts writing. She must be in the right frame of mind to create. It is hard to imagine these poems emanate from anything but the core of her identity as teacher, mother, and poet. There is no easy desire for redress; the redress she imagines comes, without our intrusive lens, to the Black Hills, where the people of Pine Ridge flourish on the land that was their ancestral home—now one of the poorest reservations in the nation. She has cataloged a narrative of the untold, the unholding as she refers to it, the literal counterpoint to what is shared as fact. In other words, she does not need more explanation to understand that her culture and language have been threatened for centuries. She has learned to live without the facts of her existence as they have been presented. Whereas is the antidote to this isolation, this moonscape of being without what was once her homeland. 

Long Soldier’s poetic vision is a beginning, a way through this migration of meaning. I want to close with these lines from her encounter with a drunk man talking about Obama’s apology: 

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; 
Whereas his wrist loose at the bottleneck to come across as candid “Well at least there was an Apology that’s all I can say” he offers to the circle each of them scholarly; 
Whereas under starlight the fireflies wink across East Coast grass and me I sit there painful in my silence glued to a bench in the midst of the American casual; 
Whereas a subtle electricity in that low purple light I felt their eyes on my face gauging a reaction and someone’s discomfort leaks out in a well-stated “Hmmm”. 

One of the hardest questions in poetry is how to remain vulnerable in your defiance. 

This is Long Soldier’s supreme gift: She takes the reader in her hands to create a landscape of remembering what has been left out of that conversation. She weaves the story of a different Lakota future, and she will not go there without its retelling. 

Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier © 2017, reprinted with permission of Graywolf Press.