Who’s sorry now? Artist Layli Long Soldier deconstructs President Obama’s apology

Published in Indian Country Today in 2013. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Time-lapse photographs snapped every 10 minutes in Red Cloud Indian School’s Heritage Center, on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, document visitors inscribing messages on an art installation, then three months later painting them over. Writer and artist Layli Long Soldier projected onto the gallery’s white walls three sections of President Obama’s December 2009 apology to the Native people of the United States. For the last quarter of 2012, she offered viewers markers, pastels, paints and brushes and invited them to respond by writing and drawing directly on the walls.

 “Most Native people had never heard of the apology,” said Long Soldier, who is Oglala Lakota and French American and now lives and teaches on the Navajo reservation, where her husband is from. “Its text was folded into a larger piece of legislation that was signed over a weekend. It’s a national apology but has had no public attention.”

Long Soldier, who is an M.F.A. candidate at Bard College, in New York State, wanted to remedy that. She ran by Heritage Center director Peter Strong and curator Mary Bordeaux, Oglala and Sicangu Lakota, the idea of promulgating the apology in a way that would allow people to have their say about it. Strong and Bordeaux offered to host an installation.

The Heritage Center has one of the country’s major collections of fine Native art and crafts—primarily Lakota and drawn from historic and modern periods. Each year, the center welcomes as many as 12,000 art lovers from around the world to exhibits drawn from the 10,000 pieces in its collection.

Visitors—from Pine Ridge and beyond—reacted vividly to Whereas We Respond. They declared, “Give us back the Black Hills.” “We are ready for action.” “Don’t tell us, show us!”

This was Long Soldier’s second appearance at the center. In 2010, she participated in the show Making New Traditions, which commissioned thought-provoking work by Northern Plains artists. Her Dis/con/nect—a stunning red and silver jingle-dance dress, made of metal mesh and coiled cut-outs of Coca-Cola cans and backed up by three large text-covered panels, shown right—dominated the Heritage Center gallery, then went on tour with the other artworks to museums in the region.

Much of Native art—like Long Soldier’s and the other contemporary pieces in Making New Traditions—includes cultural and community references, said curator Strong. That content defines both traditional and modern Native art and gives the entire body of work a sense of continuity and shared concerns, Strong said: “The connection to community may be obvious, or it may be abstract or subtle.” National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman agreed, calling the Heritage Center an institution where you see art that’s quintessentially tied to its surroundings.

A portion of the Obama apology, each section of which begins with “Whereas,” deals with a critical community matter—a century of forced attendance at boarding schools where substandard education, physical punishment, compulsory conversion to Christianity and sexual assault devastated Native individuals, tribes, lifeways, spiritualities and languages nationwide. This made developing Whereas We Respond at Red Cloud Indian School—originally Holy Rosary, an early Catholic boarding school— resonant for Long Soldier. “It was powerful to have Lakota people write on the walls and, at the end of the exhibit, paint them over.”

Long Soldier spoke about her work:

Did Whereas We Respond elicit unexpected reactions?

Right before the 2012 national election, some Republicans interpreted the installation as anti-Obama and patted me on the back for that. I’m a declared Independent and never imagined anyone would think the work was about party politics! On the other hand, a Native mentor criticized me for not being condemning enough. I was hurt, then thought, ‘I’m an artist, not a politician. I’m creating a space for people to respond as they wish.’

Any surprise participants?

Pine Ridge community members who may not speak up in political forums wrote on the walls. It was rewarding to see the project appeal to them. I think it allowed people time to consider their responses and contribute at their leisure—artistically and intellectually. Foreign visitors left their mark as well; one wrote, ‘Free Palestine!’

Tell us about choosing materials for the jingle dance dress shown in 2010.

I’m obsessed with the metal mesh I used for it. As a material, it is both durable and transparent, and I find that paradox interesting. I recently built 21 buffalos out of very fine silver-colored metal mesh for a show that’ll open at the Heritage Center in February. That piece has associated text and is called Buffalo Book.

How do you unite innovation and a traditional-seeming devotion to craft in your pieces?

I take time with my work. Art is a process of learning and discovery. It’s not just about the finished product, but about an exploration the viewer can see or even be a part of.

Your writing and artwork inhabit large spaces, with references to big events and sweeps of history and public participation. How do you accomplish this?

An idea starts small and expands into something much bigger. You can look to our language for the model. In Lakota, for example, He Sapa are two small words. Sapa means “black,” and he means “mountain” or “horn.” The Black “Hills” were never hills in our language. They are our sacred mountains, a distinction and rank that is important. This raises questions, such as, what happened in the translation to English? And as a poet, I muse on the imagery of a mountain as a black horn. Through two words and their pairing, through reflecting on their meaning and history, a vast world opens up. 

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

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