March 30, 2017
Transcript for The Freedom of Real Apologies
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: A single voice of integrity can be a window into many worlds. Layli Long Soldier is a writer, a mother, a citizen of the United States, and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. She has a way of opening up this part of her life, and of American life, to inspire self-searching and tenderness. And I had no idea, until I discovered Layli Long Soldier that the U.S. government offered an official apology to Native peoples in 2009. But it was done so quietly, with no ceremony, that it was practically a secret. Now, Standing Rock is in our midst as a new shorthand for layers of history we scarcely know how to talk about. Layli Long Soldier’s lyrical first book, WHEREAS, explores the freedom real apologies can bring — and offers entry points for us all to histories that are not merely about the past.
MS. LAYLI LONG SOLDIER: All of them had to be within living memory. I really wanted it to be grounded in the now, at least within my own lifetime. And I wanted as much as possible to avoid this sort of nostalgic portraiture of a Native life, my life. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: WHEREAS received the 2016 Whiting Award. Layli Long Soldier’s mother was from Idaho and her father from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She mostly grew up in the Four Corners Region of Arizona, where she now teaches English at Diné College of the Navajo people, the first tribally-controlled college in the United States.
MS. TIPPETT: A couple of years ago, I interviewed Sitting Bull’s great-grandson Ernie Lapoint. It was as I was preparing for that interview that I first learned that it wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act gave the Lakota and other tribes the right to perform their sacred rituals and ceremonies, that these things had been decreed barbarous and demoralizing in 1883 in law. It occurs to me that you, more or less, grew up in the aftermath of that shift, although probably when it was still in transition. I’m just curious about that, if that’s something you were aware of.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Oh, yeah. It’s definitely something I’ve been aware of. I can’t speak for all of my generation, and I cannot speak for all Lakota people. So I have Lakota family who is Christian. But certainly, for me, it’s the more traditional teachings that are important to me, as I’ve said before. But even learning about those things, it’s something that has come slowly because you have to find the right people and the right family members who have that kind of knowledge to share. There’s a great diversity within our own communities, and I think that has a lot to do with the history. Right?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: So people had to pray somehow. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right. That Christian aspect of things is also part of that lineage, of that history, even if it’s a nourishing thing for people now. I’m very intrigued with the language that people use — that other people use when they describe you. And these are both sections from the Whiting Awards citation. “Layli Long Soldier is the poet-architect” — that’s poet-hyphen-architect — “in the arena of witness and longing.” Are those words specifically — I mean, that’s how somebody else has described you, but are those words meaningful for you? Do you know what they’re getting at? And what does that mean to you?
MS. LONG SOLDIER: To me, I don’t know. 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.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re not assuming the persona of the witness in any kind of conscious way.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah. For sure.
MS. TIPPETT: What about “longing?”
MS. LONG SOLDIER: “Longing” — I’m not sure if — again, I don’t know if that’s a word I relate to because longing for me conjures up feelings maybe of nostalgia, both of which are things that I try very hard to avoid. [laughs] But maybe there is a sense of longing in there that I haven’t myself recognized.
MS. TIPPETT: Talk a little bit about what you avoid in the notion of nostalgia.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Well, let’s say with the WHEREAS pieces, which are a response to the national apology to Native Americans. I’ve often said that I felt like this was a project of constraints. So when I sat down to work on this response, there were a lot of constraints that I placed on myself. And one of those was that I wanted all of the pieces to be written, number one, through first person, “I.” But number two, all of them had to be within living memory. I did not want to jump back 100 years. I think, so often, that’s really a temptation to do when it comes to anything that has to do with Native issues, Native rights, or history.
And so I really wanted it to be grounded in the now, at least within my own lifetime. And I wanted as much as possible to avoid this sort of nostalgic portraiture of a Native life, or life — my life. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Well, to me, this also is an expression, perhaps, of this idea of dual citizenship. And it seems to me this work takes on both sides of you if — I don’t know if that’s the right way to say it. Like, you’ve written, “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.”
Tell me how — so this congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans happened in 2009. I had never heard of it until I sat down to prepare to interview you. And I don’t think you heard about it at the time. Is that right? How did you start? How did your attention come to be trained on this?
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah. I hadn’t heard about the apology until months later. I think it was signed in December 2009. And it was sometime in the spring, I think, of 2010 I heard about it, several months later. And I was personally really surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before. Part of the reason I hadn’t was because it was so quiet. And there really was not a lot of risk taken in how it was delivered.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it was enacted as part of the Defense Appropriations Act of 2009, which is a little confusing and not necessarily where we would look. And it’s interesting to me because there’s a lot of — I feel like — just recently, in American culture, we’ve started to entertain some new kinds of language like “truth and reconciliation.” And is that something we might think about with Native Americans, with slavery, or reparations, or words like “redemption?” And then there is this — here’s, tucked away is this thing, this resolution that was passed but never really spoken aloud, never really offered publicly.
I mean, I’m just going to read a little bit of it because probably other people haven’t heard of it either. This is just the beginning: “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.” It talks about the fact that “Native Peoples inhabited the…present-day United States…for thousands of years before the arrival of people of European descent.” That they “honored, protected, and stewarded this land we cherish.”
And then it says, “Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of the Native Peoples.” And then it continues to — “whereas,” “whereas,” “whereas,” and “whereas.” [laughs] So you discovered this and — yeah. What was your reaction?
MS. LONG SOLDIER: I think — well, first of all, what motivated me to even respond to the apology was the delivery. So that’s the heart of it. Or I should say the non-delivery of the apology. But then I went online, and I read the apology, and then I was like, “Oh my gosh, the language — it’s so careful.” It’s so carefully crafted. I mean, my goodness, these guys are poets. [laughs] I mean, very astute and very aware of what each phrase — how do I say it — what each phrase may carry, the implication of each phrase.
So even the phrasing of “the arrival of Europeans opened a new chapter for Native People” — that’s crazy. It wasn’t opening a new chapter. [laughs] That’s almost poetry. I mean, that’s a very interesting way to look at what happened. And going further into the document, just the idea — for example, they never mention genocide. Things are phrased as “conflicts,” “lives were taken on both sides,” and things like that.
MS. TIPPETT: “Both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.” I mean, they do say “the infamous Trail of Tears” and “Long Walk.” But yeah. You’re right. It’s very spare and careful.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Right. I mentioned this to a group of students recently at the University of Washington, but I’ll mention it here as well. I was watching this really nice video, a little talk by Faith Spotted Eagle. She’s Dakota, and she was the only Native woman to receive a vote from the electoral college in this last election.
MS. TIPPETT: 2016 election?
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah. She’s an amazing, beautiful woman, wonderful speaker too. Anyway, I was watching this video, this little talk she was giving, and she was talking about the idea of discussing history, discussing some of these traumas that have happened. And she was saying, for Native people, talking about these things — it’s important to a process of healing. And for me, I think it’s not just healing. I would add to that a sense of justice, being heard. And then on the other hand, she said for non-Native people, hearing and listening to these narratives, these histories, and engaging in a conversation, it is not about guilt, and it’s not about shame. It is about, in her words, I think she said “freedom from denial.” It allows a liberation.
So I think that that’s really, maybe, what was important to me in this work. And I didn’t want to jump back 100, 150, 200 years. I didn’t want to jump back to Wounded Knee or Sand Creek. I wanted to say, this is what it’s like here and now in my own lifetime. This is not history. This is not old history. It’s present in my life, in my child’s life, my daughter’s life. Someone recently asked me — a little bit embarrassing — they pointed out how many pieces include my daughter in them. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so true.” And I was a little embarrassed just because I didn’t want to seem obsessed. But I think that that was important to me as well. That was a part of…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not just — not the past. It’s the present and the future. It’s the world we’re creating.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: That’s right. Exactly.
[music: “Hopopono” by GoGo Penguin]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet Layli Long Soldier.
[music: “Hopopono” by GoGo Penguin]
MS. TIPPETT: I feel like we’re talking about something very specific, but we’re speaking in a moment of time of incredible fracture. And there’s a lot of apologizing that hasn’t happened. And we’re actually building up a lot of things up that are going to have to be apologized for. [laughs] So one thing I find really interesting that you do in WHEREAS is — it’s not just that you’re not only talking about history; you’re also bringing in human intelligence from life about what an apology is and how — when apologies are done well. I mean, these are things that neuroscientists are studying too. Just what you just said. I mean, they can now watch someone give a real apology and have it received and have it start changing things in their brain.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Really?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: I didn’t know that.
MS. TIPPETT: But it has to be sincere, right? And there’s eye contact. And so you register that. Anyway, so you wrote in the beginning — actually the beginning of your response — “WHEREAS when offered an apology, I watch each movement, the shoulders / high or folding, tilt of the head, both eyes down or straight through.” I don’t know — I hope I — “I listen for cracks in knuckles or in the word choice, what is it that / I want? To feel and mind you I feel from the senses.”
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Mm-hmm. Yeah. [laughs] Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: This feels like really important deliberation. This is something we need to learn to do together as a people, in that part of your citizenship.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah. There’s the physical presence, the energy. That is important. But on a national scale, I mean, it’s also not just a personal apology. So there’s things that are bigger than us, bigger than having just, let’s say, a family member sit down next to me and apologize. At a national level, there’s a lot more that goes with it. When I was writing this response, I started researching a lot of other apologies around the world, national apologies. One of the apologies that I was really interested in was the one in Canada.
MS. TIPPETT: To the First Nations people.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: To the First Nations. Right. On the boarding school, the residential schools for what happened there and the taking of their children and so on. And that apology was read out loud. It was like a verbal speech. It was transmitted through their national television, and it had a very different quality. There was a very different quality to the language and the pacing of that apology.
I always remember there was this one little short interview with an elder Native woman, and I can’t remember her tribe. But in any case, so they asked her if things had changed, and she said, in her opinion, no. Things had not really changed. But she said — in just very, very simple terms, she said, “You know, if you want things to change, all you have to do is begin by honoring your treaties and doing what you said you would do.” But I think there has to be a kind of trust building in order for any kind of apology to be effective, whether it’s interpersonal or at a national level.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, one of the things you pointed out is that — and this was President Obama who signed this — that it was signed on a weekend. It was not read aloud. There was no ceremony. And there were no tribal leaders invited to witness it. And that ceremony is an important way in tribal culture to make something meaningful or to signify that something has meaning.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: I think it’s important in tribal culture, but I think we have ceremonies all the time at the White House. It’s in American culture too, right? [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: It seems like there’s all kinds of ceremonies going on over there at the White House. You know? [laughs]
[music: “Kapsburger” by Clogs]
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s Layli Long Soldier reading some lines from her book WHEREAS:
MS. LONG SOLDIER: “I did not desire in childhood to be a part of this but desired most of all to be a part. A piece combined with others to make up a whole. Some but not all of something. In Lakota, it’s hanké, a piece or part of anything. Like the creek trickling behind my aunt’s house where Uncle built her a bridge to cross from bank to bank, not far from a grassy clearing with three tipis, a place to gather…I think of Plains winds snowdrifts ice and limbs the exposure and when I slide my arms into a wool coat and put my hand to the doorknob, ready to brave the sub-zero dark, someone says be careful out there always consider the snow your friend. Think badly of it, snow will burn you. I walk out remembering that for millennia we have called ourselves Lakota meaning friend or ally. This relationship to the other. Some but not all. Still our piece to everything.”
[music: “Sand” by Michael Brook]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Layli Long Soldier through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Nocturno” by Bajofondo Tango Club]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re exploring the perspective and poetry of Layli Long Soldier of the Oglala Lakota Nation. She has a way of opening up this part of her life, and of American life, that inspires self-searching and tenderness. She’s the author of WHEREAS, a book of innovative poetry written as a contemporary response to the little-publicized congressional resolution of “Apology to Native Peoples,” which was tucked inside the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act.
MS. TIPPETT: While you were writing this, Standing Rock is in the public eye, in the public imagination, this kind of ongoing drama. One thing you’ve said about that is how intrigued you were about the community, the tribal community taking a position of remaining prayerful, of having that be ceremony, no weapons. And in some ways, I think, struggling with people who were coming to be in solidarity, but that being the position that the Standing Rock elders took.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Right. And what should I say about that? [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I’m just curious about how you are watching that, have watched that. And how does it flow into this other exchange you’ve been having by way of just thought and poetry with the large picture of this history and this struggle still to reconcile this history.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: It’s kind of funny. Yesterday, I just had an interview with someone else, and we were talking about this idea of prayer. And so it’s something that I’m — I want to be really careful in talking about because I certainly don’t want to come across like some new agey type person or some guru or something. But I think that — I have thought a lot about, both at a community level and on a personal level, this idea of this prayer being central to an ability to enact, even to take — how do I call — how would I say it? I almost want to say a prayerful enaction. I don’t know. No, those are not the right words.
But I think what I’ve been thinking about a lot is — at Standing Rock, I have a few friends there, and how firm that community has been on keeping prayer as central to everything that they do. And I think that’s something very beautiful and unique that Standing Rock has offered to the world of resistance. And that’s not to say that other movements have not had prayer at the center of what they do either.
MS. TIPPETT: No, but you’re right. It’s — even that word “resistance” which is very much entered the lexicon right now. And not very often — I’m not hearing it attached to prayer in other contexts. I mean, the other thing about that is that it was really in reading you saying this about the community taking a position and remaining prayerful, I realized that it was true and that it had come through in what I knew, but it’s not prioritized in, like, coverage, right? It’s not the headline. And so I think it’s so important for you to say that, to speak that, for people to hear that too and be looking for that because Standing Rock is going to be with us.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Right. And I think that — yeah. Every movement in every community, they have their own culture, their own values that sort of propel the action that they take to create change. I don’t know if many people are aware of that, how important prayer is to Lakota life. But I always get a kick out of it. I had a nephew who was complaining to one of my cousins, my sister, and he was saying, “It’s hard to be Lakota. All we do is pray, pray, pray all the time.” [laughs]
So it’s like — yeah. I just got a kick out of that. So it is a very real thing, and so it is something that I have really appreciated and loved seeing how that really influenced every step that the community took, I felt. And it’s something that I’ve heard from people who went up to Standing Rock. It was why I think so many people had a good experience there because there was that prayer and that sense of connection, that community. And it’s different.
MS. TIPPETT: And all kinds of religious figures, all kinds of religious leaders also gathering around with their prayers.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah. Ultimately, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know how you feel about the language of “Native American spirituality,” but I find it dangerous. I worry about it being thrown around and appropriated.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah, that doesn’t mean a thing, actually.
MS. TIPPETT: It doesn’t mean a thing.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: No. I mean, listen, the thing is there are over 560 federally recognized tribes. And that’s just federally recognized. There are many more that are not recognized, who are — many of them right now are seeking recognition. But the point is is all of us are different, and all of us have beliefs and ways that are particular to who we are as a people.
So Lakota beliefs are very different than, let’s say, where I live here in the Southwest from Pueblo, some of my friends from Santa Clara, Pueblo, let’s say, or Hopi friends or Diné friends. I mean, all of us — our traditions and our ways are all so, so different, our stories. And they’re also so connected to the land that we come from. There’s not a separation. It’s connected. So “Native American spirituality” is just an awful term. [laughs] It’s scary. It’s so broad and — yeah. Abstract.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And it can be very, very superficial and out of context. I think one of the most striking sentences that I’ve read or heard in the context of what’s going on at Standing Rock is — I should’ve written it down — but one of the elders or maybe the chief saying, “Water is not a resource; it is the source of life.” And that is a statement of fact. It’s just — we never — it’s not a way we say it or think about it.
And it’s such — the whole drama, really, is such an interesting — I mean, it’s so many things, but if you look at that sentence, it’s an amazing testament to the power of how we formulate and understand something like what is water, and how a word like “resource” that gets thrown around — and I throw it around all the time too like crazy — it’s, like, one of the big words now — can dehumanize us and be a way into belittling a source of life.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, all of these things — first of all, I really — I feel like I have to — I’ll constantly put out disclaimers before I ever talk on some of these issues because — I just — I’m so wary of sounding like I’m talking for all Lakota people and all Native people, and I’m certainly not an expert on any of these issues. But it is — again, it goes back to this idea of relationship. And seeing it in that way — even just for example, one of my friends posted something really funny on Facebook this morning, I think. And she was reminding people — what was — I think — red willow. This is a season for getting red willow. And she was saying, “Now, everybody be careful and don’t take more than you need. And leave the plant — allow the plant to stay alive for the next year.” So it is always like — even just things like that, little Facebook posts or what have you. I mean, it’s still alive, this awareness.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. A sensibility.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: A sensibility of connection. You don’t see the red willow as a resource — there you are — something you just take from. It is something you take from, but you do it respectfully. And the same applies, of course, to water and this source of life.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder — you mentioned a little while ago that you do talk about your daughter a lot in your poetry and…
MS. LONG SOLDIER: I know. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: And I talk about my children in my show. I wondered if you would read — and maybe this will put you at ease about — because I’m not — you’re not speaking for — you’re just speaking for yourself. But a single voice of integrity and searching is a window into a world in a way that often asking somebody to represent a group, in fact, is not. There’s this part in WHEREAS — there’s the part where — I didn’t write the page — “WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota.” Do you want to read that? Just the like the…
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Oh. OK. Let’s see. Let me find it. OK. Or maybe I’ll read the first two. They seem kind of connected.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s fine. Yeah.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: “WHEREAS her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota, therein the question: what did I know about being Lakota? Signaled panic, blood rush my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces. Until a friend comforted, don’t worry, you and your daughter will learn together. Today she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Diné, her father’s language. To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands I watch her be in multiple musics. At a ceremony / to honor the Diné nation’s first poet laureate, a speaker explains that each People has been given their own language to reach with. I understand reaching as active, a motion. He offers a prayer and introduction in heritage language. I listen as I reach my eyes into my hands, my hands onto my lap, my lap as the quiet page I hold my daughter in. I rock her back, forward, to the rise of other conversations.”
[music: “Gl•mur” by Amiina]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the poet Layli Long Soldier.
[music: “Gl•mur” by Amiina]
MS. TIPPETT: The question I’m always kind of pursuing, and the way each individual life is its own way in to this question is, “What does it mean to be human?” And I also know every one of our sense of that is constantly evolving across life. But there’s some things you’ve said about writing that I just find so intriguing. I feel like the way you’ve written about them is how writing forms you as a human being.
Like you wrote somewhere, “It’s an endeavor I grew into and now provides a solid deep joy. Perhaps this joy from writing is seated comfortably in my core because of the life lesson it’s provided. Writing has shown me what happens with patience.” And some place else, you wrote, “The surprises I’ve experienced in my writing practice have dislodged me from curiosity into love.” [laughs] I wonder if you could say a little bit about those qualities and — as a way into the question of what you’re learning about what it means to be human through the life you lead.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: I think the writing practice was something that I had not expected to be a good fit. I had never thought, “Oh, I want to be a writer one day. But I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts, and they didn’t have a music program. That’s what I wanted to study. [laughs] But I really wanted to go to school there. So I felt like the next best thing was to study writing. It was not easy. A lot of — I would say the first three, three and a half years, I wrote some really, really, really bad, bad, bad poems, like really dry. It took me a long time. But I think it was that patience that is something I’ve learned through writing, a sense of patience and the reward that comes from that. Even I’m just now thinking about the piece “38.” But that piece, for example, took me — I want to say maybe a year and a half to two years to write. But it was important to me.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s an epic piece.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: It’s like six pages long. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Would you just briefly say what’s happening in that piece?
MS. LONG SOLDIER: In “38?”
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Just briefly, in “38,” it’s written to and for the Dakota 38, who were 38 Dakota men who were hung under the orders of President Abraham Lincoln as a result of the Sioux uprising, which came at a time when Dakota people, their territory, their land, was getting smaller and smaller, and finally down to something like a 10-mile tract. And the people, Dakota people did not have hunting rights beyond that. And basically, they had no store credit with the traders, and so they were basically starving. So there was an uprising, and as a result, these 38 men were hung, and then Dakota people were moved west to South Dakota area in different — basically, they lost their land in the Minnesota region.
MS. TIPPETT: This was the largest legal mass execution in U.S. history and…
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yes, that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And it happened the same week that President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yes, that’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: This history we don’t know.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Or we don’t teach. So you were just talking about — this took a long — this emerged your patience, writing all of this.
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Yeah, absolutely. I just think that I’ve learned through writing the reward and the joy that comes out of just being really patient with a piece and patient with yourself. I think, at least, for me, the imagination is something that I really have to respect like its own little person in me. And so I can’t demand too much of it. Sometimes I have to let it take a rest and then come back and be in conversation with it again. But it’s a beautiful process that I’ve learned through writing. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I was looking at page 64, “WHEREAS I did not desire in childhood,” and also page 65, which was another — part of the way you also reflected on what an apology is is about your experience of a really big apology that came from your father. And I think that we don’t often enough value the intelligence we have about something like an apology, even if we’re thinking about that as public work. The intelligence that we have from our personal experiences, we don’t understand that that translates too. So, anyway…
MS. LONG SOLDIER: Well, yeah. I actually would — I might mention that the piece about my father, the apology he gave me, I really do actually consider that almost the heart of this whole response. And I think — the reason is I think it was the most effective and the most miraculous apology that I’d ever received in my life. I think — now, I should clarify before I say anything that my dad and I have a pretty good relationship now. We keep in touch and visit and text and call each other. But when I was younger, he wasn’t around a lot, and he had a lot going on in his life. So that created a great emptiness and all kinds of stuff. So I had a lot of stuff I was carrying around with me.
And when I was in my 20s, he came to visit one time and unexpectedly, he was sitting at breakfast with me and apologized for not being there. And I think there was something in the way he said it. He cried when he said it. And I could feel it, I could physically feel that he meant it. And really — and I can say this to this day — in that moment, all of it was gone. Like, all that stuff I’d been carrying around — it was gone. It was lifted. And I feel, in many ways, we started new from that point on. I really have not had the need to go back and rehash things with him and so on. We started from that place forward. We’ve known each other in a different way.
MS. TIPPETT: You want to read that?
MS. LONG SOLDIER: OK.
“WHEREAS I heard a noise I thought was a sneeze. At the breakfast table pushing eggs around my plate I wondered if he liked my cooking, thought about what to talk about. He pinched his fingers to the bridge of his nose, squeezed his eyes. He wiped. I often say he was a terrible drinker when I was a child I’m not afraid to say it because he’s different now: sober, attentive, showered, eating. But in my childhood when things were different I rolled onto my side, my hands together as if to pray, locked between my knees. When things were different I lay there for long hours, my face to the wall, blank. My eyes left me, my soldiers, my two scouts to the unseen. And because language is the immaterial I never could speak about the missing so perhaps I cried for the invisible, what I could not see, doubly. What is it to wish for the absence of nothing? There at the breakfast table as an adult, wondering what to talk about if he liked my cooking, pushing the invisible to the plate’s edge I looked up to see he hadn’t sneezed, he was crying. I’d never heard him cry, didn’t recognize the symptoms. I turned to him when I heard him say I’m sorry I wasn’t there sorry for many things / like that / curative voicing / an opened bundle / or medicine / or birthday wishing / my hand to his shoulder / it’s okay I said it’s over now I meant it / because of our faces blankly / because of a lifelong stare down / because of centuries in sorry;”
[music: “Discussion Among Men” by Followed By Ghosts]
MS. TIPPETT: Layli Long Soldier is a professor of English at Diné College, a community college of the Navajo people, in the Four Corners region of Arizona. Her Whiting Award winning first book of poetry is WHEREAS.
[music: “Discussion Among Men” by Followed By Ghosts]
STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, and Rigsar Wangchuck.
[music: “Kerala” by Bonobo]
MS. TIPPETT: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.