Dual Citizenship: Re-Rooting The Language of WHEREAS

Courtesy of Graywolf Press © 2017

“WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as a 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.” — Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS

In her breathtaking first collection, Layli Long Soldier melds innovation and tradition to delineate a stunning poetics of living. She shapes an interrogation of the English language as vehicle of treaties and conditional clauses that the U.S. government imposes upon indigenous peoples, including her Nation and family.

[Long Soldier] explodes the myth that indigenous survival and resistance are only timely in reference to the ongoing indigenous activism evident at Standing Rock.

Introducing the title section, WHEREAS, Long Soldier states, “I am 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.”

She explodes the myth that indigenous survival and resistance are only timely in reference to the ongoing indigenous activism evident at Standing Rock. As the collection reveals, all forms of living as a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation are forms of resistance. In addition, Long Soldier must also language, making an active — and activist — verb of the command of linguistic systems.

Layli Long Soldier

Throughout the collection Long Soldier develops aesthetic strategies of linguistic resistance, from direct and implicit references to Derrida, to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s technique of spelling out punctuation marks, to code-meshing of Lakota words in mid-sentence with multiple registers of English.

She performs feats of translation, visual layout, and erasure poetry, blocking out the word apology in a treaty, preceding the poem with the statement, “ in many Native languages, there is no word for ‘apologize.’ The same goes for ‘sorry.’ This doesn’t mean that in Native communities where the word ‘apologize’ is not spoken, there aren’t definite actions for admitting and amending wrongdoing.”

She questions the philosophy of apology, the implicit racism of language prefaced by words such as whereas. She underlines the danger of petitions for government apology in the name of Americans who describe themselves as we, in opposition to Native peoples as other.

Addressing her own need to teach her daughter about being Lakota, Long Soldier considers the role of language in heritage…

Responding to a government petition by a fourteen year old white girl which asks for an apology from the government, and conflates apology with reparations, Long Soldier replies that an apology was already delivered, and “the conditions on reservations have changed … the Apology has been followed by budget sequestration. In common terms sequestration is removal banishment or exile.”

She proceeds to describe the impact of budget cuts, “Under pliers masks and clinical lights, a tooth that could’ve been saved was placed in my palm to hold after sequestration. Dear Girl, I honor your response and action, I do. Yet the root of reparation is repair. My tooth will not grow back. The root, gone.”

Language is also pulled up at the root; the acrobatics of Long Soldier’s English includes and responds to Lakota words. Addressing her own need to teach her daughter about being Lakota, Long Soldier considers the role of language in heritage, Derrida’s discussion of his own personal stories of language, and concepts of linguistic identity.

Layli Long Soldier creates a testament to the possibility and necessity of working within and through language to reach towards the roots of repair and to name the irreparable rifts perpetrated by ongoing colonialism.

Watching her daughter sing in the language of the Diné Nation, the language of her daughter’s father, Long Soldier relates, “my toes touch ground as 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 daugther in comfort saying iyotanchilah michuwintku. True, I’m never sure how to write our language on the page correctly, the written takes many forms” — she creates sound repetition between English and Lakota, and ends the stanza without punctuation. The meaning of the Lakota words is echoed in the epigraph to this review.

Expanding the tradition of Derrida, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and the poetics of language awareness, Layli Long Soldier creates a testament to the possibility and necessity of working within and through language to reach towards the roots of repair and to name the irreparable rifts perpetrated by ongoing colonialism. WHEREAS models avenues of aesthetic activism and serves as a call to poets and readers to respond in kind. As for me, I am looking to educate myself on Lakota language, the activism of its speakers, and the meaning of the words included in this collection.