Image of a hand against a small mirror in a field of grass

Image by Taras Chernus/Unsplash


Dear friends,

There’s an anecdote told about a person who asked a scientist how to make bread from scratch. Well, the scientist said, first you have to invent the universe. 

And there’s another anecdote, about a tourist who’s lost while driving around Ireland. How do I get on the road to Dublin? they ask a local. First thing to say is that I wouldn’t start from here, the local replies. 

They’re funny, those anecdotes, and also partially frustrating, which is where some of their humor lies. But they also contain profound wisdom: None of us are alone (you can’t make bread from scratch, you’re in a long-line of humanity that’s made bread) and there are poor places to begin something. 

Krista’s interview with Layli Long Soldier is an exploration in reframing. She is a poet, and a citizen both of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation. Her 2017 book, WHEREAS, is a long meditation on the urgency of reframing public conversations about Native peoples in a more just imagination of time and a reconstituted understanding of apology — including where it should start. 

Much of the topic of apology in this conversation comes as a response to a document of apology released in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama. This document — rejoicing in a 35-word long title: the Joint resolution to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the federal government regarding Indian tribes, and offer an apology to all Native peoples on behalf of the United States — was not read out loud at its signing, did not involve a ceremony, nor did it involve engagement with any of the 560+ federally recognised North American tribes (not to mention the other tribes who are not federally recognised).

The interview begins with Krista asking Layli how she responds to the description of her put out by a poetry award committee: “Layli Long Soldier is the poet-architect in the arena of witness and longing.” And Layli’s response is so indicative of how different beginning points need to be mapped: “In some ways, I think that’s language that comes from an outward gaze. The idea of the witness is not something that I sit down to the page with… longing for me conjures up feelings maybe of nostalgia, both of which are things that I try very hard to avoid.”

President Obama’s document of apology itself was nestled into the Defense Appropriations Act of 2009, and contains an apology — of sorts — followed by a series of statements each beginning with WHEREAS. Layli Long Soldier’s poetic response takes the form of this government statement and reframes it, using the same amount of WHEREAS statements but rooting them in the current century, in lived experience, in free response, and with the kind of truth telling necessary for real acknowledgement. 

Layli Long Soldier offers a grounding wisdom to the calls for civic healing that are coming from so many these days. Affirming the intention of these calls, she helps focus them in questions like: Who is dictating the terms of healing? Whose wounds are being dressed? At whose expense? What reparations are being enacted? What is the public acknowledgement of wrongdoing? Healing may come, but only with truth. Where is the truth-telling? And who is telling it? And — importantly — who is listening? 

Layli Long Soldier situates much of what she is speaking of in terms of prayer. Prayer as action. Prayer as ceremony. Prayer as gathering. Prayer, too, as an offering of what a real recalibrated beginning point might look like. Prayer is an acknowledgement that the posture is towards penitence rather than performance; interdependence rather than appropriation; acknowledgement rather than avoidance. Prayer is public, and that does not just mean the opposite of private; in this instance public means in place. Her WHEREAS book finishes with the repetition of the word grasses, grasses, grasses. This attention to place — in her conversation with Krista and in her critique of the apology — is yet another reframing that is at the heart of her book. Begin in a place that’s not where you assume you should begin, she says, over and over. 

I read once that in a certain school of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Mu is an answer for when the wrong question is being asked. “Will you accept the apology or not?,” someone might ask. Mu could be an answer: unask the question, ask a better one. Friends, in all the questions that occupy your life, we wish you the right time, place and beginning points for these questions. 


Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound


P.S. – We featured one of Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS poems in season 2 of Poetry Unbound. And, with that reminder, we’re delighted to let you know that season 3 of Poetry Unbound starts on April 26.



This Week at The On Being Project

Our Latest Episode

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On Being with Krista Tippett
Layli Long Soldier
The Freedom of Real Apologies

The poet, and citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Opening up this part of her life, and of American life, to inspire self-searching and tenderness.

Listen on:
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Poetry Unbound
Season 3 Trailer 

Anchor your life with poetry; new episodes starting Monday, April 26. 

Listen on:
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Listen + Watch | Healing Our City
Healing Our City, hosted from Minneapolis and open to all, continues every morning at 8 am CDT through May. The On Being Project’s Lucas Johnson offered this deep reflection on April 20. On April 21, former On Being guest Darnell Moore offered a powerful meditation that he wrote in the immediate wake of the Chauvin verdict. 



Global Summit on Repair, Reconstruction, and Restoration
May 6, 2021, 9:00am – 3:15pm EDT
Online Event

Pádraig will be a part of the Facing History and Ourselves Global Summit convening of scholars, educational and civil society leaders, artists, and educators to explore some of the processes that have been used and are actively being developed in countries around the world to establish accountability, build democracy, nurture peace, and promote inclusion, justice, and equity. Karen Murphy, who Krista spoke with last year, will lead the facilitation. To find out more and register visit here

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