Image by Taras
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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.
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
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.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry
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.
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista
Layli Long Soldier
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.
Anchor your life with poetry; new
episodes starting Monday, April 26.
Listen + Watch | Healing
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
Summit on Repair, Reconstruction, and
May 6, 2021, 9:00am – 3:15pm
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.