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

Jacqueline Keeler: Why reading Sherman Alexie was never enough

Why Reading Sherman Alexie Was Never Enough

As the #MeToo spotlight moves to Indian Country, epidemic violence against Native women meets tokenism in publishing.
By Jacqueline Keeler
YES! Magazine

Altered World

Woody Allen’s depictions of New York City largely define that immense, complicated city to the world. Harvey Weinstein’s films spawned a generation of Oscar winners and well-known faces who make up the celebrity landscape to this day. President Trump’s political base still believes the master of the Art of the Deal will work that magic on their lives. And although not as well-known, Sherman Alexie’s writing has largely defined how the publishing industry depicts Native America.

We are people of stories, communicating over digital displays via words and memes, repackaging ideas in two-minute videos, captioned so we can grasp them even with the sound turned off. Even before that, American identity was the product of propaganda called Manifest Destiny. And before that, we had origin stories that define the national identities of a multitude of Indigenous peoples. And as keepers of stories, we must from time to time purge some of our cultural furniture or at least move it around.

After #MeToo, we can honestly say we live in an altered world. The hidden monstrous natures of the men who create some of our most prized cultural furniture have been made plain. And the world they built for us is different now, the furniture they have filled our mental rooms with—films, books, characters, ideas, songs, political movements, poems, we were told defined us or at least delineated the world of possibility.

Now, finally #MeToo has come to Indian Country.

Last Monday, NPR released on-the-record statements by three women who recount sexual harassment from National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie of the Spokane and Colville tribes. Native American readers and writers as well as the very White publishing world are left reeling. A day ago, the publisher of Alexie’s latest paperback postponed its release.

We are left having to re-examine Alexie, a literary “rockstar”: winner of the 2007 National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and most recently, the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction for his latest work, a searing memoir about his late mother, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir (Little, Brown).

He is a writer who has compared himself not to other Native American writers but, as he explained in a Big Think interview in 2011, “I’m with the Jonathan Franzens of the world. That’s sort of my peer group now rather than this sort of ‘Indian literary world.’” It’s true that Alexie has been a long and dominating presence eclipsing all other Native American novelists excepting Louise Erdrich, Ojibway, a fellow National Book Award winner for her novel The Round House.

He is also known for his 1998 buddy film Smoke Signals. Memes and clips have been widely shared by Native Americans via social media for years as a sort of cultural shorthand. An example would be a quote from the movie between the two main protagonists, much loved characters, Victor and Thomas are talking to each other: “I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. And your mom was just in here cryin’.”

And within that dialogue is Alexie’s strength as a writer. His renditions of Native American lives encapsulate both pain and despair made palatable by a dose of humor.

There is no sense of that humor now. The recent allegations of sexual harassment and further allegations that he threatened the careers of Native women writers have turned reader sentiment, both Native and non-Native, against the author. The Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico, has had to take his name off its Sherman Alexie Master of Fine Arts scholarship. Jon Davis, director of the MFA program, explained to the Santa Fe New Mexican, “I can’t give that scholarship to a woman, for example. It’s going to be uncomfortable to accept that.”

And the details emerging make Davis’ reluctance understandable. Women allege Alexie preyed on Native American women writers in particular.

In 2014, Elissa Washuta, 29, a Cowlitz tribal member living in the Seattle area where Alexie lives, was getting ready to publish her first book, My Body is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press). Her publisher strongly encouraged her to get Alexie’s support and possibly a blurb to use to promote it. Out one night with him in a group, she told NPR, “seemingly apropos of nothing, Sherman told me that he could have sex with me if he wanted to. But he used a stronger word, beginning with F.” Washuta said she attempted to laugh it off at the time. Alexie is a powerful figure in the publishing world, and she worried others in the group overheard him.

Washuta’s book, which deals with the trauma of rape and bipolar disease she has struggled with in her own life, was later a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

Books written by Native women covering this topic are particularly important as Native women face rates of violence and rape at levels that are two and half times that of other American women.

According to a National Congress of American Indians report: 34 percent of Native women will be raped in their lifetime, compared to 19 percent of Black women and 18 percent of White women. And 61 percent of Native women (3 out of 5) have been assaulted. These rates are nearly 10 percent higher than any other ethnic group.

Suicide rates for Native Americans are nearly double the national rate. And the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women (#MMIW) has been gaining more attention both in the United States and in Canada, where a national task force is touring the country and recording testimony of First Nation communities. Part of the problem is that little data is available on how many Native women go missing each year. Savanna’s Act (named for MMIW victim Savanna Greywind) introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) includes funds for data collection. A Center for Disease Control report found the murder rate of Native women exceeds that of every other ethnic/racial group.

Both Washuta and Alexie later became colleagues at The Institute of American Indian Arts, and she says the predation continued. She alleges he attempted to lure her into his hotel room in Santa Fe and sent her photos of a hotel room bed with condoms visible on a side table. Later, he accused her of plagiarizing him in an essay. At that point, she said she felt she had no choice but to leave IAIA. She felt Alexie forced her out of an MFA program specifically created to foster Native talent. “I’m sure they continue to do really good work there,” she says, “But I’m not a part of it. And that feels so lonely. I’m incredibly sad about it.”

Erika Wurth, another Native American writer and another woman who went on the record with NPR, gave a disturbing account of being a sexually inexperienced 22-year-old in a state of panic and enduring a sexual attack by Alexie.

Given the massive issue that sexual assault is for Native American women, a man who assaults and preys on women has violated community trust and loses legitimacy to be a voice for the community. And in threatening the career prospects of Native women writers, Alexie made subjugation the bar Native women would have to clear to be heard.

In his only public statement so far, he apologized to anyone he hurt but claimed “no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers.”

The Power of Yes

Not all the allegations concerning Alexie brought forward by Native women writers involve sexual harassment or assault. In interviews given to YES! Media, (most on background because Native American women writers still fear Alexie’s power in the industry) many described the ways he sidelined careers.

This included mention of an interview he gave in the Winter 1997 issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures, where he was asked about other Native American writers. “I think Tiffany Midge has a good future,” he told the interviewer John Purdy, “once she stops copying me.” When Purdy noted that Midge had done a good job when he saw them read together a few years earlier, Alexie elaborated on his critique of her work as a second-rate copy of his own.

“She got up and read, and I thought ‘Oh my god, that’s me, that’s my shtick.’”

Midge, Lakota, told YES! Media how hurt she was by these remarks, and members of the Native American literary world repeatedly brought this incident up as one of many examples of how Alexie used his platform for decades to belittle Native American writers and potentially stifle their access to the White publishing world, effectively acting as a gatekeeper.

That wasn’t the only run-in Midge had with Alexie. In 1994, after she won a book award for her first poetry collection Outlaws, Renegades and Saints, he told her both that she shouldn’t expect her book to sell and that he’d expected another writer to win the prize, someone whom he’d mentored. For the remainder of the conference, she said, he was aggressive, for example, calling her stuck up in front of other authors.

Was this just a bit of ordinary rough-and-tumble professional rivalry? It is important to remember the power of “yes” to writers.

“When you’re a writer from a minority background,” queer Greek Australian novelist Peter Polites and associate director of the Sweatshop collective—a group of writers from migrant and marginalized backgrounds—told NeoKosmos, “sometimes you need permission to write.”

And Sherman Alexie, at a very crucial point in his life, received that permission, that all important “yes.” There was a point in his life, his career could have taken a very different turn.

In a 2012 interview with Time Magazine’s editor at large, Belinda Luscombe, Alexie credited getting published in a poetry magazine for helping him stop drinking. “Yeah,” Alexie agreed, “you probably should offer every alcoholic desiring to get sober large book contracts! I woke up after a tremendous bender, and the acceptance for my first book of poems was in the mailbox. And, I thought, I think that’s telling me something.”

Luscombe probed further, asking Alexie whether his father, a brilliant young man who was periodically homeless and died of alcoholism, had had early success like his son might his life taken a different turn? Alexie agreed. Yes, that would have made all the difference to him.

If Sherman Alexie had not gotten that letter in the mail that day, we might never have any of his novels or his films or poems today. Consider the cost, then, of his refusal to give encouragement to other Native American writers, to have actively discouraged them. What books have we been denied over the past 25 years? What would the Native American literary landscape look like today if he had given that “yes” permission to more writers?

And despite his fall from grace, many in the Native American community are still fearful of his influence, which has now been passed on to a pair of his proteges: Terese Marie Mailhot is a gifted, young First Nations memoirist from Canada, whose recently released book Heart Berries (Counterpoint) includes a gushing introduction by her mentor, Alexie. His introduction has been—up to this point—widely quoted in reviews of her book. And Tommy Orange, Cheyenne and Arapaho, whose highly anticipated novel There There is forthcoming from Penguin Books.

A clue to the power of Sherman Alexie’s “yes”—and the inverse power of his scorn—can be seen in the rapturous reception the mainstream has given both books — highly unusual for Indian Country authors. Mailhot’s is a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and she appeared on The Daily Show a few days after the NPR revelations were published. Alexie is the only Native American writer to have been featured on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Neither Alexie’s publisher Little Brown nor his agent Nancy Stauffer Cahoon have responded to requests for comment.

The New York Times’ review of Mailhot’s book declared: “‘Heart Berries’ Shatters a Pattern of Silence.” But really, has there been silence by Native women writers, or has the industry simply not been listening?

“Publishers and agents and book critics,” Elissa Washuta told KUOW, a public radio station in Seattle, “can all look at this and see that for so long one writer has had a disproportionate amount of their attention to the exclusion of other native writers.”

Midge described in a written statement to YES! Media how recent events have made her wrestle with her own feelings about her treatment by Alexie:

“It is not a comfort by any means, to know I’m not alone in my experiences. Several people are alluding to similar treatment—worse treatment and abuses in fact—in regards with Alexie. Yet, to know that I have not been alone, is in fact, a kind of validation, and a necessary balm to my own self-incriminating interior script. Maybe I was defeated and undermined all those years ago. Maybe his bullying did in fact negatively impact my trajectory and potential success. I know I’ve spent years playing those encounters and others through my head, endlessly. I always blamed myself for the abuse and transgressions. I wasn’t smart enough. Or talented, or cool enough. I must have deserved to be mocked and maligned. I’ve made a million excuses.”

Will Mailhot keep Alexie’s introduction in her book? For now, she refuses to comment on her mentor.

Sherman Alexie

Why Not More Native Writers?

“Why then are there not more Sherman Alexies?” Time magazine’s Luscombe eagerly asked Alexie in the 2012 interview.

“I don’t know,” he responded, “When I first started writing, there were around 30 Native writers publishing with major houses, university presses, prestigious small presses publishing actively. And now, very little. And people say, well it’s racism in the publishing industry. I think you’re kidding. Publishers would die if a manuscript came flying into their offices that reminded them of me or Louise Erdrich. They would be dancing, but it just hasn’t happened, and I don't know why.”

The truth is, though, that publishers weren’t dancing when they first received Erdrich’s first novel Love Medicine in 1984. It drew no interest from agents or publishers. Her late ex-husband, Michael Dorris, a successful writer and professor, had to pretend to be her agent to get publishers to read it at all.

And the publishing industry is, if anything, more difficult to break into today with the rise of Amazon and competition from free online content.

“People who are not within our network are operating at a terrible disadvantage,” Vicky Smith, a Kirkus Reviews editor told the blog Open Book. “An agent friend of mine told me that she gives a piece of slush [an unsolicited manuscript] 60 seconds, no more. That’s an awfully high barrier for an unknown to leap. My guess is that people who know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody might get 90 or even 120 seconds, which might make all the difference.”

Besides lacking connections, there is also the issue of the disparity of wealth, and the cushion wealth provides to help young people pursue extremely speculative careers like writing. Native Americans have some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment.

What does all this mean for Indian Country, that for so long Alexie has had the token status and singular voice on behalf of an entire people.

In the March 2016 issue of College & Undergraduate Libraries, editor Eric Jennings wrote in his column, “I saw Sherman Alexie speak, and one of the things that stuck with me is that there’s always some truth to a stereotype. He was talking specifically about how the stereotype for many Native Americans is that they are alcoholics. And, in fact, most of his family members are alcoholics. He even went on record as saying that the whole race is filled with alcoholics and that pretending that alcoholism is a stereotype among Native Americans is a form of denial.”

In her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature Debbie Reese, a former American Indian Studies professor at the University of Illinois enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, refuted this with recent research showing alcoholism rates for Native Americans are the same as that of the white population. The study also found Native Americans have higher rates of abstinence.

Once again, reliance on a singular perspective and narrative has its limits.

This also brings up a frequent criticism of Alexie’s writing by the Native American community itself, that he promotes negative stereotypes about Native Americans for the enjoyment of a primarily White audience. Many Native people have come forward on social media with personal stories about eagerly attending his lectures to find inspiration from places as far afield as Harvard to a remote community in Nunavut, Canada. They came away feeling hurt that the things he said were not helpful to Native Americans, particularly, the youth. They felt he encouraged the White audience members to laugh at, not with, Native Americans.

In his essay, “Laughing Indian” published in 2012 in The New Inquiry, trans Diné writer and futurist Lou Cornum asserts, “Despite cycling and recycling the same old tropes told in the same voice, [a Sherman Alexie book] has received not one poor review. Is Alexie really such a flawless writer that critics cannot go beyond praise as repetitive as his oeuvre itself? Or are most reviewers seduced by the charming prose of an Indian who eases their guilty consciences? The latter seems much more likely...For both [Vine] Deloria and Alexie, humor is about survival. The difference however is that Deloria sees survival in asserting tribal Indian identity, Alexie sees it in chuckling distance.”

The late Vine Deloria Jr. was a highly respected Dakota historian and author of such groundbreaking books like Custer Died for Your Sins and God is Red. What Cornum’s criticism illustrates that no writer can be all things to all people. We need a diversity of Native American viewpoints to even begin to express that. A diversity that has long been unfulfilled by the mainstream publishing industry.

War Pony Pictures on Vimeo: United By Water -- official trailer with reading by Sherman Alexie

Listening to Women

So what does the success of #MeToo really mean? What do we do with the cultural furniture we must reconsider now that we know more about their makers?

“This reality is,” Britni de la Cretaz wrote in Medium in 2016 as memorials to David Bowie’s life and art were everywhere, “in no way meant to take away from what his music meant to people, but to hold up victims and not celebrate people who abuse women. Because when you celebrate or excuse rapists, you tell people like me that I don’t matter; you tell all survivors that they don’t matter.”

In this case, women are being heard. Not only are culturally prominent institutions like IAIA taking a strong and decisive stand, but individual Native American artists and representatives are, too.

Derrick LaMere, a Colville/Chippewa Cree filmmaker, heard about allegations against the author the day his film won a grand jury prize from Native American Documentary Challenge. His documentary United by Water opens with Alexie reading a poem, and now LaMere is considering removing him completely out of respect for the Native women featured in the film.

At the University of South Dakota, undergraduate Tristan Chasing Hawk, Lakota, has already decided to stop using Alexie’s writings in his speech and debate competitions. “It would be like watching a Woody Allen movie or Roman Polanski movie or supporting Harvey Weinstein after the allegations come out,” he told the Associated Press. “There was no question in my mind.”

Hollywood moved slower, but did eventually move.

Mira Sorvino, who has accused Weinstein of blacklisting her after she refused him, wrote an open letter to Dylan Farrow apologizing for not believing her allegations of sexual abuse at the age of 7 by her father Woody Allen. Sorvino won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Allen’s 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite, three years after Dylan’s accusations were made public. Natalie Portman, a leader in the #TimesUp movement, admitting in a Buzzfeed interview in February that now she regrets signing a 2010 petition supporting Roman Polanski’s release for the 1977 sexual assault of a minor. “It was a mistake,” Portman says. “The thing I feel like I gained from it is empathy towards people who have made mistakes.”

A Facebook commenter also expressed this hope on NPR’s Sherman Alexie #metoo article:

“You know, stories like these are more common than people want to believe or think. It’s part of the power dynamic between men and women in a sexist, patriarchal culture. It needs to change. I believe it will over time, certainly as women gain more control over their destiny.”

Jacqueline Keeler wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Jacqueline is Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota and editor of The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears.

This article originally appeared on YES! Magazine. It is published under a Creative Commons license.

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