Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
The largest mass execution carried out by the United States occurred in December of 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota, when President Abraham Lincoln ordered the death by hanging of thirty-eight Dakota Sioux men. They were among more than 300 tribal members originally sentenced to death and more than 1,000 arrested for their participation in a local uprising provoked by a combination of duplicitous Indian agents, diminishing hunting and farming land, and a lack of government payments promised in previously negotiated treaties. By August of 1862 the starving Dakota Sioux decided to try to drive white settlers from southern Minnesota. Before this, they had met with local officials and asked to buy food on credit, but were refused. A trader named Andrew Myrick is reported to have said, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” Myrick was one of the first people killed in what has come to be known (among other designations) as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The mouth of his corpse was found stuffed with grass.
The obstacles to expression in Layli Long Soldier’s poems evoke those experienced by indigenous peoples in achieving full political and human rights.
Layli Long Soldier prefaces her debut collection of poetry, Whereas, with the lines, “Now / make room in the mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses.” These lines resonate linguistically, culturally, and historically, as so much of her book does. “grassesgrassesgrasses” references the fate of both Myrick and the Dakota Sioux who were exiled from Minnesota, while its visual-aural enjambment draws attention to the physical properties of language itself—not drained of ideology and meaning but reclaimed and retransmitted, a material object to be deployed, not emptily presumed: “Not one word sounds as before. / Circuitous this / I know.” The grasses have been rendered anew, history has been loosened (note the extra space after “Circuitous”), made room for first in the mouth and then in the world. In this sense, Whereas is as much about the writing of history as it is about history itself.
The obstacles to transparent expression raised in Long Soldier’s poems parallel and evoke those experienced by indigenous peoples in the United States in achieving full political, and even human, rights. In the 1970s, indigenous activists led by the American Indian Movement (AIM) reached beyond the U.S. government to seek from the United Nations legal recognition of basic rights; it took nearly thirty years for the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to pass in 2007. The centuries of broken treaties and the recent decision to route the Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation—because it was deemed potentially too dangerous to situate it near the predominantly white town of Bismarck, North Dakota—are among the most obvious instances of disregard for the civil liberties and humanity of native peoples in the United States, who have been forcibly pushed into the equivalent of containment camps in some of the most desolate parts of the country.
Dakota Sioux. U.S.-Dakota War. Standing Rock. Bismarck. Indigenous. Native American. United States. These names conceal as much as they reveal. And to whom do they ultimately belong? Who gets to choose and apply them? These words sometimes feel like grass in the mouth. Long Soldier writes: “But the term American Indian parts our conversation like a hollow bloated boat that is not ours that neither my friend nor I want to board, knowing it will never take us anywhere but to rot.” There is no writing of history without names, and naming may be the first act of civilization. The book’s opening poem, “Ȟe Sápa,” begins:
Ȟe is a mountain as hé is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth. Followed by sápa, a kind of black sleek in the rise of both. Remember. Ȟe Sápa is not a black hill, not Pahá Sápa, by any name you call it. When it lives in past tense, one would say it was not Red Horn either. . . .
History and naming are intertwined, as are landscape and the body. These negotiations are at the heart of Whereas, signaled in its very title: not this but (also) that. The language of the colonizer has produced a history of the colonized that Long Soldier confronts, confounds, and subverts.
There is no writing of history without names, and naming may be the first act of civilization.
In “Ȟe Sápa,” Long Soldier is referring to the Black Hills in South Dakota, one of the most contested and sacred areas for the Oglala Sioux Tribe—of which she is a member—and other Lakota groups. The area was ceded to the Oglala Sioux in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, after the U.S. government lost what is called Red Cloud’s War. Despite this legal agreement, the Black Hills were soon overrun by miners in search of gold, and nearly a century later became a flashpoint for another round of “Indian Wars” involving AIM’s presence on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation.
Whereas questions official terminologies, their grammars, and their histories: which in reality are one and the same. This includes upsetting conventional syntax and traditional narrative for their role as conveyors of official histories—i.e., the history of the victors—and their inability to fully portray trauma, personal and collective, whether rifts within families or the genocide inflicted on native peoples and cultures. Long Soldier doesn’t only ask, “Who gets to name?” but also: in the end, isn’t all naming at least partially insufficient, even in one’s original tongue? Throughout Whereas she disfigures and reconfigures language, including her own Lakota: tókȟaȟ’aŋ, wakȟályapi, and waȟpániča, which she respectively translates as to lose, something boiled, and to be destitute. She further inflects and turns each word in strings of associations that the original Lakota evokes for her: “Tókȟaȟ’aŋ, my fingernails—dirt lined, digging. Tókȟaȟ’aŋ, guttural silence under a swing and whump. Tókȟaȟ’aŋ, this tire-iron to the eye.”
Much documentary-based work tends either to critique received histories or propose counter-histories. Whereas participates in both modes. Long Soldier presents her own version of the mass hanging in Mankato in a poem she titles “38.” An urgency to tell the story means that certain conventions will be maintained in utilizing the documentary mode to present this underrepresented history: “Here, the sentence will be respected.” Yet in a careful unfolding of separate single sentences/lines, she casts doubt on the official narrative and creates literal gaps within it. But more than purely disruptive, “38” also fills gaps in the narrative by, for instance, pointing out that Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln features the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation but makes no mention at all of the “Dakota 38,” and that in fact the mass execution occurred the same week. Long Soldier outlines the events leading to the hanging before proposing that the act of stuffing Myrick’s mouth with grass may be a poem, albeit ironic and without words. In any case, “. . . the words ‘Let them eat grass’ click the gears of the poem into place.” “38” ends with the vivid image of Long Soldier imagining herself on the scaffold before swinging free through a space that the visual quality of the closing lines emulates.
The poems in Whereas are filled with interruptions, redirections, and misdirections while assuming a variety of forms: long lines, short lines, lyric, disjunctive prose, self-reflexive commentary.
I cogitate I
tune up to
terms of pre
Long Soldier’s poems frequently have a visual component (and generous use of white space) that makes them difficult to reproduce purely as text, but which causes them to approximate physical bodies: “though all experience / is
through the body.” Long Soldier likes to visually create boxes and geometries, and then empty them out, as her poems erect and transgress borders and boundaries. Another formal strategy is the use of erasure techniques and redactions, particularly in the book’s second half, which deploys the form and content of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans signed by former President Barack Obama in 2009 to address personal and larger histories, intertwining them within the structure of an official government document to create a slippery tension between freedom and constraint—both linguistic and political.
Long Soldier's poems create a slippery tension between freedom and constraint—both linguistic and political.
Whereas also contains a number of poems involving Long Soldier’s daughter, motherhood, and family, setting up an interplay between vast historical forces and small domestic spaces, which isn’t to say that the latter are less precarious. They are filled with turmoil and beauty as well. “Steady Summer” is a stunning poem that imagines her daughter away with the other parent, leading to the reflection: “I don’t trust nobody / but the land I said.” This feeling of separation and estrangement manifests in the poem’s haunting final line, which dangles alone in space: “who have I become”—with the line’s lack of a question mark or any concluding punctuation emphasizing a temporary exile from self and the stories (and people) that support it. What remain in the end are the body and language: “Everything is in the language we use.” Yet they are also the two most powerful forces for othering, a process that Whereas continually confronts. The book’s hopefulness is indicated in the title, even if the pages within refuse a narrative of redemption, whether personal or especially for the past and present history of the United States.
Alan Gilbert is the author of two books of poetry, Late in the Antenna Fields and The Treatment of Monuments, as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.