'I think he has to pay some kind of price'Sherman Alexie faced questions long before sexual harassment apology
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk That night, Liz Hill picked up two of her favorite books and tossed them in the garbage, along with any admiration she had for the books’ author. She never thought seriously again about Sherman Alexie until last week. That’s when she learned about allegations of sexual harassment against the acclaimed Coeur d'Alene/Spokane author. The accusations reminded her of her brief but memorable encounter with Alexie in Washington, D.C., in 1995. She was in her 30s at the time, working in public affairs at the Smithsonian Institution. She had just finished Alexie’s collection of short stories, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” the author’s literary breakthrough, and had instantly become a fan. Not long after, she learned the author would be speaking at American University. On the day of his speech, she purchased his latest work, “Reservation Blues,” so she could have him sign it afterward. When she arrived at the event, she joined a roomful of Native and non-Native people – local residents and university professors and students – waiting for Alexie. The audience waited nearly 45 minutes for him, she said. When he arrived, he didn’t apologize. “I’m sort of a very proper person so I would remember that,” she said.
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Alexie spoke about his new book and his literary career, but what struck Hill – a citizen of the Red Lake Nation – most about his speech was his criticism of mixed-blood Native Americans. “I remember him talking about mixed blood people being less than full blood, and I’m mixed,” she said. “I remember being so embarrassed because I honestly thought he was talking to me.” The author also said disparaging things about white people, seemingly callous to the mostly non-Native makeup of his audience, Hill said. Despite her misgivings, Hill decided to meet Alexie at a reception afterward and have him sign her book. When it was her turn to have her book signed, she told Alexie she was a friend of the woman who had organized his presentation. Dismissively, Alexie snatched the book from her and began writing. “He grabbed my book and signed ‘to friend of’ and then my friend’s name and then sort of thrust the book back at me,” Hill said. “I remember thinking I was so humiliated. I was just humiliated.” At the time, Hill served as president of the Smithsonian American Indian Council, an employees’ advocacy committee of about 100 people, and had been invited to have dinner with Alexie and the event’s organizers. “I didn’t go to the dinner,” she said. “I went home. I threw away both of his books, and I don’t think I’ve ever thrown away a book in my life.” She never read another word written by Alexie, she said. And she wasn’t alone in feeling disillusioned by the Seattle author.
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Keala Kelly is among those who believe Alexie bears some responsibility for being more supportive of other Native people and the causes they are pursuing. The Hawaiian journalist and activist said she interviewed Alexie in 2003 for a story in the Honolulu Weekly related to an upcoming speech he was scheduled to give at a writers’ conference in Maui. During the interview, Kelly jokingly described the conference where Alexie was going to speak as too expensive for Native Hawaiian authors to attend. The comment riled Alexie, she said, and the interview became awkward. “It was actually one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life as a journalist,” she said. At one point, she said, Alexie commented that indigenous Hawaiians should support a bill that was being considered by Congress that would lead to federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as tribes in much the same way that the federal government recognizes tribes in mainland America and Alaska. The Akaka Bill, as the legislation was known, had long divided Native Hawaiians, many of whom believed it would lead to the decimation of traditional Hawaiian culture and identity. Kelly said she protested and fought the bill for many years, believing it would essentially break the Hawaiian people’s spirit. So when Alexie said told her she should be happy and accept the legislation, she began openly arguing with the author. “Luckily, it was an interview on the phone because I think I would have hit him in the face, the way he spoke to me,” she said.
She eventually completed her story based on the interview, referencing the argument the two had in the first sentence of her story: “Interviewing Sherman Alexie is like interviewing a bear.” About a week later, she said, she learned about a speech Alexie had given at a Hawaiian university three years earlier in which he had criticized Native Hawaiians for being overweight and unhealthy. She said she was able to watch his speech on a local public access television station. “That asshole was speaking into a microphone about Hawaiians and saying to the Hawaiian people, The reason you are fat as a people is because you are overeating and you’re eating bad food,” she said. “My mouth fell open.” Alexie, Kelly said, either failed to understand and willfully ignored the reality faced by Hawaiians, who have suffered many of the same challenges posed by colonialism that mainland tribes have, including loss of land and culture and grinding poverty. She said 95 percent of the food Hawaiians get comes to their islands on vessels as they are mostly unable to grow their own food. “Apparently, when it’s Hawaiians getting diabetes, it’s just our own damn fault, according to Sherman Alexie,” she said. “It’s because we don’t know how to control our appetites.” She said the encounter convinced her to avoid his work, believing him to be a “real Hawaiian-hater.” Alexie doesn’t seem to think he owes respect to anyone, including his own people, she said. But Native people, especially those privileged with success like Alexie, don’t have the luxury of neglecting their people’s social justice efforts. She said she can’t imagine not accepting her own kuleana, or responsibility to her people that comes with her being educated and having a voice, she said. “We’re always the ones being erased all over the world,” she said. “That should matter to someone like him.”
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But Farmer – who played the iconic role of Philbert Bono in 1989’s Powwow Highway – admits Alexie can sometimes seem pompous and often has demonstrated a “sense of arrogance about some issues.” However, he said, he worries Alexie’s most recent troubles are the result of him being targeted by a former lover. “It seems like he had an affair and it got blown out of proportion,” he said. “I can’t help but think that he picked the wrong girl.” Farmer said Alexie has had to carry the weight of many people’s expectations of Native people on his shoulders for many years. “Maybe it’s a big weight off his shoulders from having to carry all of that, whatever he represents to Americans,” he said.
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Alexie’s speech to the Native youth, teachers and university professors quickly deflated Perry’s admiration for him when the author began telling his audience to avoid the film industry altogether. “He proceeds to tell the kids that he’s the only guy that can accomplish being the writer, the director, the casting director, and that the rest of the kids in the audience and other people should just go home and think about doing something else because they’re never going to make it in the business,” Perry said. “We were dumbfounded, shocked.” At a reception following the speech, Perry confronted Alexie, asking him why he tried to discourage the youth from following their dreams. “He proceeded to cuss me out, tell me that I’d never work in the business again,” Perry said. “And then he said that he was going to kick my ass, in front of all these people, while he’s holding a baby and his wife’s standing next to him.” Perry decided to walk away, but never forgot the experience. Later, he said, he began to wonder whether his own struggles to achieve success in the movie industry may have been affected by his encounter with Alexie. “It’s not really about me. It’s about what he did to those young people.” Perry said there are many prominent Natives in the film industry who should be concerned about the #MeToo campaign shining a light on their treatment of women. He said he hopes the accusations against Alexie lead to some kind of reckoning. “I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “I think he’s got to come clean. I think he has to pay some kind of price.”
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Related StoriesNative women go on record with NPR about dealings with Sherman Alexie (March 5, 2018)
Sherman Alexie breaks silence after allegations of sexual harassment (February 28, 2018)