How Poet Layli Long Soldier Champions Indigenous Communities

Featured image: Black Mountain Institute/Joshua Chévere Cohen
For activist, scholar and artist Layli Long Soldier, Indigenous Peoples’ Day isn’t just another day off.
Acclaimed poet Layli Long Soldier believes the second Monday of October, which in 2019 was officially deemed Indigenous Peoples’ Day, is a good opportunity to raise collective awareness around Native communities. But it’s work that goes beyond just a one-day moment, she firmly believes. 

As a creative writing teacher in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Long Soldier centers her work around Indigenous culture and gives voice to people who have not only been relegated to the fringe of American history, but are still fighting to preserve their traditions and culture today.

Her first collection of poetry Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017) received the National Book Critics Circle Award, addressing the destruction of Native peoples across the United States. The film Lakota vs. United States, which Long Soldier wrote and narrated, premiered in 2022 at the Tribeca Film Festival and has received recognition for exposing atrocities committed against Native people as well as showcasing their resilience.  

Long Soldier speaks with Sweet July about the ways she’s fueling this movement—all year long.

How do you feel about the term Native American? Indigenous? Are there differences? 

Layli Long Soldier: I don’t know if there’s any correct [name], because it depends on the context and the place and the people. There’s all those different terms—Native American, American Indian, Indigenous. I personally usually just say Native, but to be more specific, I think I just usually refer to myself as [Oglala] Lakota, [or] by my tribe. The tribal names are what we have called ourselves for thousands of years. I think that’s really the heart of the issue; we’re trying to use the English language to refer to very diverse people. We’re trying to find one term to call over 560 different nations, so it is a problem.

The 2023 IAIA Commencement Powwow and the 2023 American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Conference Powwow. Photo: Nicole Lawe, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA)
What are some of the issues that you seek to explore with respect to both the history and the present reality of Natives? 
LS: My book Whereas was a response to the national apology to Native Americans. That was a project where I engaged with that [2009] congressional document that sort of outlined all these wrongdoings by the U.S. government in relation to Native people. I was not really pleased with that apology—both the written document and how it was delivered, which was basically a non-delivery. So, I wrote all these poems engaging with the language of that document. And I wrote a bit about community and our language and so on. And I just finished a long legal essay on the issue of our treaties and land diminishment. It’s a 24-page essay, and I cite a lot of Supreme Court cases and Congressional acts and so forth. So once again, I am engaging with governmental policy and documents; that’s a form of poetics they call documentary poetics, [and] I do a lot of that.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about Native people? 
LS: I think in the American mind, Native people are very far away. We’ve been relegated to a sort of historical relic. That is, for me, one of the biggest misconceptions that exists, to understand that we are living, present and we have vibrant cultures here and now. We have beautiful families. We have beautiful traditions. I think that’s something that is not very present in the American mind.
The 2023 IAIA Commencement Powwow and the 2023 American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Conference Powwow. Photo: Nicole Lawe, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA)
What do you think we could do to better support Natives at this time? 
LS: One of the things that I’ve really been thinking about is our treaties. One of the questions I was pursuing in this essay was these living documents, considering how many of those agreements have been abrogated or broken. But the answer to that question is they are still living and still vital documents that the Supreme Court itself continually returns to—to make decisions. Those original agreements are still important to honor. I think it would help a lot if people were not afraid to honor those agreements and to support the Native communities around them when we ask for those treaties and those agreements to be honored. It’s not taking anything that is not due to us, you know? I wonder sometimes, how much less do you want us to have? It continually gets smaller and smaller and smaller. So I think [the] answer is really just to be unafraid to honor those agreements and to support the communities if you live near a Native community.
What are your thoughts on Indigenous Peoples’ Day? 
LS: I am of two minds on this holiday. I have family members who get that time off from work, and a lot of my family members still get together to just eat and have a good time. But of course, Native people know the real story. Having time to get together with family and friends—there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think that if people can educate themselves on the reality of that story, and just be conscious and be aware, and not continue to perpetuate the same American mythology, that would be a great service to us all. As artists and as writers, we have the freedom, at least here in America, to put something out there that benefits our communities.


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