By 1862 a series of unfair treaties and delayed annuity payments had pushed the Dakota Indians in Minnesota to the brink of starvation. Trader Andrew Myrick refused to sell them food on credit, saying if they were hungry they could eat grass.
After bands of Dakotas began attacking white settlements along the Minnesota River, Myrick’s body was found, mouth stuffed with grass.
In her innovative debut, “Whereas,” poet Layli Long Soldier calls “this act by the Dakota warriors a poem./ There’s irony in their poem./ There was no text.” However, there is no irony to the “straightforward and plainly stated fact” that “The Dakota people starved.”
In this Whiting Award-winning collection, Long Soldier investigates how language has been manipulated to obscure facts and cheat American Indians. Her sequence “Whereas” interrogates a 2009 congressional resolution apologizing to Indians on behalf of American citizens. The resolution was never presented publicly and barely made headlines.
While the resolution enumerates how Indians were wronged, it includes no action to redress those wrongs. Long Soldier activates the apology through interrogations, footnotes and narratives spun around its fragments.
Long Soldier writes, “Whatever comes after the word ‘Whereas’ and before the semicolon in a congressional document falls short of legal grounds.”
Her typographical manipulations give the apology’s empty words heft and materiality. She scatters words across the page, creates shapes from excerpts and erases portions: “Whereas Native People are [ ] people with a deep and abiding [ ].” The brackets invite the reader to co-author the text by filling in the blanks.
Her inventive use of page space collapses the distance between a word and an action. For example, a poem written in the shape of a square evokes boundaries, the dwindling territory of Indians, and how individuals are placed within identity groups. Another poem is smashed against the right side of the page as if torn from a book in a strip.
Long Soldier’s emphasis on typography doesn’t mean she ignores prosody. She describes her newborn daughter’s eyes as “untied from northern poles from/ hard unseen winter months.”
Her moving poems about motherhood are not anomalies in this deeply political text. Everything she does involves negotiations between being a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe: “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.”
Readers will understand what it means to use “art” as a verb as they dig into these incisively intelligent and emotionally resonant poems.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet in Milwaukee.
By: Layli Long Soldier.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 101 pages, $16.
Event: Graywolf Literary Salon, with Carmen Maria Machado and Danez Smith, 6 p.m. Sept. 27, Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls., Tickets $30-$150. 651-641-0077.