Sherman Alexie speaks at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, on April 22, 2016, during an event hosted by the ASU RED INK Indigenous Initiative for All: Collaboration and Creativity at Work. Photo: ASU Department of English
Arts & Entertainment | National

Sherman Alexie breaks silence after allegations of sexual harassment

'So much worse that he did it to Native women'

Popular author Sherman Alexie accused of sexual harassment
By Kevin Abourezk

On Wednesday evening, Sherman Alexie's FallsApart Productions sent a statement to Indianz.Com about the allegations.

"There are women telling the truth about my behavior," Alexie admitted in the statement, but he said he had "no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers," as some have alleged.

Alexie also claimed Litsa Dremousis, who told Indianz.Com that she has been contacted by alleged victims, has been spreading "accusations, insinuations and outright falsehoods" about him. He further said the two once had a "consensual" relationship.

Alexie ended the statement by saying he was "genuinely sorry" for the people he hurt but did not detail any of the behaviors for which he was apologizing.

One of Indian Country’s most celebrated authors is facing a mounting wave of allegations of sexual harassment, including accusations that he preyed upon young women in the film and literary industries.

Sherman Alexie, the award-winning author of such books as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, has been the subject of a social media campaign in recent days meant to expose his alleged unethical behavior toward female fans and co-workers.

Among those in the literary world that have spoken out against Alexie’s behavior is Debbie Reese, editor of the blog American Indians in Children's Literature who published an open letter Sunday criticizing the renowned Coeur d'Alene/Spokane author.

Reese said she has removed Alexie’s image from her gallery of Native writers and illustrators and has begun removing his name from any posts published on her website.

“Based on private conversations I have had, I can no longer let his work sit on AICL without noting that he has hurt other Native writers in overt and subtle ways, including abuse, threats and humiliation,” she said.

She said she has learned that Alexie has undermined aspiring Native authors and fed mainstream expectations about Native people.

“Far too many people adore him and think that they're hip to Native life because they read his books,” she said. “If you're one of those people, please set his books aside. Read other Native writers. Don't inadvertently join him in hurting other Native writers.”

A representative for Royce Carlton, a speaking agency that serves Alexie, declined to comment Tuesday but said he would forward questions to someone else within the agency. No one from Royce Carlton contacted Indianz.Com before publication of this article. Alexie also did not respond to email inquiries.

The allegations of sexual harassment against Alexie seem to have taken root publicly in the comments section of a January 3 article about sexual harassment in children’s publishing that appeared on the School Library Journal’s website, where at least five anonymous readers claimed he had harassed them. One person described attending a dinner with Alexie and a group of librarians during which the author spoke continuously about sex and showed the women his hotel room number.

“Maybe not harassment per se, but definitely gross,” the person wrote. “I don’t doubt he’s done worse.”

Another reader described being grabbed and kissed once by Alexie without warning some 20 years ago.

“After I pushed him away, he apologized,” the person wrote. “I accepted the apology, believing he’d misread my admiration for him. … I naively assumed it was an isolated incident. Guess not.”

Seattle, Washington, author and freelance journalist Litsa Dremousis, who describes herself as a former personal friend of Alexie’s, told Indianz.Com that she is working with reporters from National Public Radio to produce a story describing Alexie’s abusive behavior toward women.

This weekend on her Twitter feed, she called for any other alleged victims to come forward.

Dremousis said she first learned about her former friend’s pattern of abuse last October after seeing a post from a woman in Seattle who claimed to have been harassed by an unnamed prominent Native author. Based on the woman’s description of her abuser, Dremousis recognized Alexie and asked the woman if he was the man who had harassed her.

The woman confirmed her suspicion and then described what Alexie had done to her.

“It was clear-cut, unambiguous sexual harassment,” Dremousis said.

She said the #MeToo campaign that has exposed perpetrators of sexual harassment, including disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein, has inspired many of Alexie’s alleged victims to come forward.

The woman who first reported Alexie’s behavior to Dremousis told her a group of seven other women from Seattle, where both Dremousis and Alexie live, had found each other. However, none of the women was willing to speak publicly about their encounters at the time, she said.

“Not only did he sexually harass them, he then threatened to end their literary careers if they came forward,” she said.

She decided to confront Alexie and penned an email to him the next morning in which she described the woman’s allegations and the allegations of some of the other women.

She told him that she planned to help the women publicize their experiences and told him if he tried to stop them Dremousis would publicly release other embarrassing information that she knew about him.

“I said, ‘If they decide to come forward and eventually I’m sure one of them will, you’re going to shut up and you’re going to take it,’” she wrote to the author. “I said, ‘If you don’t, I just start releasing everything I know about you.’”

“‘You make a move on the women, I make a move on you.’”

She said close to 20 women have described eerily similar encounters with Alexie, who she said would often corner women in dark places, such as bookstores, following literary readings. The women, she said, would have to convince Alexie, a towering figure at nearly 6-foot-3-inches, to let them leave.

Angela Spring, the owner of a Washington, D.C.-based bookstore, Duende District, said she had been informed last summer by a colleague who works in children’s book publishing that the woman had received a series of uncomfortable emails from Alexie. The woman had informed her manager about the emails, Spring said.

“She learned that others in the industry had had similar experiences,” Spring said. “So, as with many of these cases, it was an open ‘secret’ that many people in the industry knew about but tolerated.”

Dremousis said she learned of an alleged 2004 incident during which Alexie had visited a college campus to speak and had taken a photo with a group of three 19-year-old women afterward.

“The minute their advisor left the room, after the photos were over, instead of letting go of her and her two best friends, he kept his arms around them,” she said.

When they asked him to let them go, the author told them: “But you all smell so good.”

Two of the young women reported the incident to a college advisor, who told them, “That’s just Sherman being Sherman.”

“We’re finding that even when women told, nobody did anything,” Dremousis said.

She said at least two women have said they had to leave their jobs because they were so profoundly affected by Alexie’s alleged harassment.

Sherman Alexie appears at the Indigenous Peoples Day Celebration in Seattle, Washington, on October 10, 2016. Photo: Seattle City Council

Dremousis described her own relationship with Alexie as cordial and mutually supportive. She said she first met the author when she interviewed him in 2001 for Movie Maker Magazine about The Business of Fancydancing, a movie for which he served as the writer, director and producer.

She said she never detected any hint that he was abusive toward women. Other women with established careers like her have told her they never saw any signs that Alexie was sexually abusive.

“Right now, what he did to dozens of women bears no resemblance to how he treated me and a lot of my colleagues,” she said.

Alexie seems to have targeted young women just starting out their careers in film and literature, those with little power to fight back, Dremousis said.

“They were either in the literary world or in film, and they were all just starting out and they were in awe of him,” she said.

She said further proof of Alexie’s abusive behavior came just four days after she confronted him in October when he canceled a planned lecture series called Sherman Alexie Loves being hosted by Seattle Arts & Lectures. A statement on the organization’s website said Alexie canceled the series because of “a difficult year following the publication of his memoir.”

“While we are sad that he cannot appear, we understand and are all wishing him a speedy return to health and writing,” the organization wrote.

Nine days after Dremousis confronted him, she said, he severed connections to the Institute of American Indian Arts, a congressionally chartered tribal college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had helped establish a creative writing program.

Jon Davis, director of the Low Residency MFA in Creating Writing program at IAIA, said Alexie was the first writer he contacted when he began establishing the program.

“His support was instrumental as I moved the program through accreditation,” Davis said.

Alexie gave readings and weeklong workshops at least five different times over the program’s first five years, Davis said. He worked for free and raised money for scholarships, last visiting the program in July 2017, when he spoke and gave a public reading.

A creative writing scholarship at the school even bears Alexie’s name, though that will be changing soon.

“We have renamed it the MFA Alumni Scholarship, since alumni have been asking about a way to give back to the program,” Davis said.

Davis declined to discuss the allegations against Alexie, saying he would wait until he hears first-hand accounts.

“Given all the media attention, I expect that will happen very soon,” he said.

Author and freelance journalist Litsa Dremousis. Photo: Kymberlee della Luce
Sherman Alexie at Arizona State University. Photo: ASU Department of English

Dremousis said she has heard allegations going back as far as 1998 and as recently as last year from women who live across the country. She said many of the allegations stem from speaking engagements and readings Alexie did.

Some women have claimed he harassed them on the set of the movie Smoke Signals, written by Alexie and directed by Native filmmaker Chris Eyre. The movie, which thrust the two men and the film’s entire cast into stardom, won critical praise and awards, including the Audience Award from the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

The film told the story of Thomas and Victor, two young Coeur d'Alene men, who travel to Phoenix to collect the remains of Victor’s father.

Eyre, who also directed films such as Skins and Edge of America, declined to comment on the allegations against Alexie.

“Respectfully, I have no comment at this time,” he told Indianz.Com.

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Other prominent Native writers and activists, including Joy Harjo, Dallas Goldtooth and Mark Trahant, have spoken publicly about the allegations against Alexie.

“Feeling deep grief and anger with our Native writing community in what has finally, after years, has come to light about the abuses of power by one of our own,” wrote Harjo, a Muscogee (Creek) poet.

Goldtooth, one of the leaders of the North Dakota protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, said he believed the accusations against Alexie and lamented the author’s threats to punish women who exposed his behavior.

“That’s jacked,” Goldtooth wrote in a Monday post on Facebook. “Seriously, brothers, we need to step up. This is crazy … and yet, has been so very common.”

Trahant, an independent journalist and University of North Dakota journalism professor, said it has been disheartening to learn of such a prominent Native storyteller facing allegations of sexual harassment.

“We need a better world and it's often the language of poetry and fiction that help us get there,” he wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. “I believe the women. This is an era of cleansing.”

Dremousis said Alexie has presented himself publicly as an ardent feminist, hosting fundraisers for women advocacy organizations in Seattle and speaking out against other men accused of sexual harassment, including comedian Bill Cosby. In a January 9, 2015, tweet about Cosby, Alexie wrote: “If these rape allegations are true (I believe they are) then Cosby is one of history's most terrible monsters.”

“The last thing I expected with #MeToo was Sherman,” Dremousis said. “He has been nothing but good to me. He has been nothing but good to my work.”

As she looks back at her friendship with Alexie, she said she’s especially disgusted by the conversations she had with him about the terrible abuse inflicted upon Native women by men over the past several centuries. Alexie never once betrayed that he was responsible for abusive acts against Native women, she said.

“He’s not even flinching, and I have no idea he’s f****** terrorizing all these Native women, in addition to having terrorized a lot of white women,” she said. “But it’s so much worse that he did it to Native women.”

Prior to the release of The Business of Fancydancing in 2002, FallsApart Productions, Sherman Alexie's production company, contacted Indianz.Com and asked for permission to use the website's name in his forthcoming film. Indianz.Com had previously reported on the project in a May 2001 story, which was based on an interview with Alexie.

Indianz.Com granted permission and the website's name appears on the screen during a brief section of the film.

Indianz.Com did not ask for, or receive, any compensation from FallsApart Productions or Alexie for the usage, and did not ask for, or receive, any promotional consideration during the subsequent release of the film.

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One Native Woman's Struggle: 'We've had colonizers beat us up for centuries' (December 22, 2017)