Layli Long Soldier and Identity

Jerry Harp
November 8, 2017
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Having spent a good part of the last week discussing Layli Long Soldier’s remarkable Whereas (2017) with my poetry classes, her complex questions of identity and being in the world have remained much on my mind. So I couldn’t help but be drawn into her Facebook post about accusations against her as—and here I’m quoting from what she wrote there—a “Too Late Indian or Wannabe.” She has been quite upfront that her mother is Non-Native / Anglo, her father Oglala, Lakota, and that it was her mother who raised her, though her father stayed in touch—she has letters, paintings, and drawings of his that she accumulated over many years. She reports that when she has had to inform people that she didn’t grow up on a reservation, she sometimes notices a “disappointment in their demeanor”—as if there is a script one has to follow to be truly Native American.

 

But isn’t human identity, even and perhaps especially at its best, complex, fragmentary, on the move? As Long Soldier writes in Whereas, “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.” Especially striking here is the way she verbs the nouns “art” and “friend”; the most powerful artworks and the deepest friendships come out of dynamic processes and must in some sense remain in process themselves. If a work of art cannot continue to mean in new ways as new generations engage with it, it quickly ceases to mean much at all. Similarly, human identity is not a fixed achievement, but rather an ongoing agon.

 

Related to these struggles of identity, Whereas is an extended struggle with language, the stuff of human speaking and the very material of the poet’s art. Part of the complication for Long Soldier is that while she is both a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a U.S. citizen, she is a Lakota language learner who writes her poems in English, the language that she grew up speaking, the language that was forced on American Indian peoples as an extension of conquest. The book’s opening poem, “H^e Sápa,” begins, “H^e is a mountain as hé is a horn that comes from a shift in the river, throat to mouth.” As Long Soldier says in her conversation with Diana Whitney on the Kenyon Review Blogsite (April 17, 2017), “In Lakota history, ‘H^e Sápa’ is our place of origin, part of our creation story.” She recounts how she had to learn that the place name, “H^e Sápa,” translated into English as “Black Hills,” would have been more aptly translated “Black Mountain.” But the English mistranslation infiltrated the Lakota language, so that now a common Lakota name for the place is “Pahá Sápa,” which is a fairly direct rendering of the English diminution that the turned the mountain into a hill. The poem goes on, “H^e Sápa is not a black hill, not Pahá Sápa, by any name you call it.” Long Soldier comments that this “little shift in language is what sparked the poem.” But such “little shifts” can make profound differences of meaning that have very real consequences in the material and social worlds that we live in and move through.

 

The hard work of unsettling the sedimentations of language is the constant churning of this book, which works toward a new way of speaking. “I welcome in / the new new,” says one poem, but the new does not simply arrive; rather, it requires great labor—thus Long Soldier’s many experiments with form, fragmentation, tones of voice, language worlds, typography, blank spaces, on and on. Of course Long Soldier is Oglala Sioux, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, as she is also a U.S. citizen; as it happens, she is also a very powerful poet. I plan to continue learning from her writing what it means to live in this complex world.

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