Native poet speaks the language of Standing Rock — and explains how a presidential apology falls short

When poet Layli Long Soldier heard news over the weekend that the government was halting the Dakota Access Pipeline project, she was elated.

“I was astonished and excited,” said Long Soldier, who hasn’t been to the Standing Rock Reservation in the last few months but says her heart has been with the Native American activists who are protesting the building of an oil pipeline.

“I took time to let my spirit fly and be happy. But at the same time, I feel a sense of caution. I have a general feeling that this is not the end. The fight isn’t over yet.”

Long Soldier, a member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe, wrote a poem about the standoff earlier this year. It interweaves an interview she conducted with Waniya Lock, one of the Standing Rock activists, with the official guidelines that were developed by tribal elders about how people at the camp should conduct themselves.

“I was so impressed by the position the community took in remaining prayerful. They were firm about having no weapons there and wanted to reinforce the idea that this is a ceremony.”

The poem is part of a collection that will be published next spring. It is called “WHEREAS” and it is a direct reaction to a resolution that President Obama signed in 2010 apologizing to Native Americans for their mistreatment by the U.S. government. The problem for Long Soldier was the way the apology was issued.

“I was shocked when I heard about it. But the reason I hadn’t heard the news was because it was a silent gesture. President Obama signed it but there wasn’t an official ceremony that accompanied it. No tribal leaders were invited to witness the signing. He signed it and tacked it onto the Defense appropriations bill.”

Long Soldier was so angry she immediately sat down and wrote a poem. “And it felt so good to do so that I realized one piece was not enough. I realized I’d have to write much more.”

The result is a series of 20 poems that begin with the words “Whereas,” just as the official apology is written. It also contains seven resolutions and a disclaimer, just like the apology.

“Before I began this series of poems, I didn’t think of myself as a political writer. I still don’t. I had never written overtly political subjects. Maybe it’s because now I’m a parent. I want things to be different for my child. I want us, our people, to be seen. I want to be heard.”

READ MORE: America, I sing you back

Long Soldier says the poems examine the language of the U.S. government over the past 240 years in its treaties and apologies to Native people — and the officiousness and duplicity that is contained in those documents. The Obama apology, she says, is no different. She compares the poor execution of that apology to the most moving apology she has ever received: when her father said he was sory for not being around for her childhood.

“I cooked him breakfast and I suddenly saw him crying. I had never seen him cry. In that moment he said he was sorry that he hadn’t been there for me when I was younger. I could feel his sincerity in that one moment. All those years of heartache and disappointment and grief, it went away. It was done. It was as simple as that.”

Resolution (6)

I too urge the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land although healing this land is not dependent never has been upon this President meaning tribal nations and the people themselves are healing this land its waters with or without Presidential acknowledgement they act upon this right without apology–

To speak to law enforcement

these Direct Action Principles

be really clear always ask

have been painstakingly drafted

who what when where why

at behest of the local leadership

e.g. Officer, my name is _________

from Standing Rock

please explain

and are the guidelines

the probable cause for stopping me

for the Oceti Sakowin camp

you may ask

I acknowledge a plurality of ways

does that seem reasonable to you

to resist oppression


don’t give any further info


People ask why do you bring up

we are Protectors

so many other issues it’s because

we are peaceful and prayerful

these issues have been ongoing

‘isms’ have no place

for 200 years they’re inter-dependent

here we all stand together

we teach the distinction

we are non-violent

btwn civil rights and civil liberties

we are proud to stand

btwn what’s legal & what isn’t legal

no masks

the camp is 100% volunteer

respect local

it’s a choice to be a protector

no weapons

liberty is freedom

or what could be construed as weapons

of speech it’s a right

property damage does not get us closer

to privacy a fair trial

to our goal

you’re free

all campers must get an orientation

from unreasonable search

Direct Action Training

free from seizure of person or home

is required

& civil disobedience: the camp is

for everyone taking action

an act of civil disobedience

no children

now the law protects the corporation

in potentially dangerous situations

so the camp is illegal

we keep each accountable

you must have a buddy system

to these principles

someone must know when you’re leaving

this is a ceremony

& when you’re coming back

act accordingly

“Resolution (6),” from WHEREAS. Copyright © 2017 by Layli Long Soldier. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press.

Layli Long Soldier is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She has served as a contributing editor of Drunken Boat. Her poems have appeared in The American Poet, The American Reader and The Kenyon Review Online. She is the recipient of the 2015 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship, a 2015 Lannan Literary Fellowship and a 2016 Whiting Award. Her newest collection of poems “WHEREAS” will be published by Graywolf Press this spring. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.