Clockwise, from top left: Whitney Rencountre, Sherman Alexie, Adam Beach and Evan Adams participate in a "Smoke Signals Edition" broadcast by the very popular Social Distance Powwow group on April 26, 2020.
A once celebrated Native author who was the subject of sexual harassment allegations two years ago reappeared on the very popular Social Distance Powwow group on Facebook, frustrating many leaders in the #MeToo and missing and murdered Indigenous women movements.
Administrators for the group, which now boasts nearly 172,000 members after launching amid the worst public health crisis in Indian Country in decades, later apologized for the decision to include Sherman Alexie in the broadcast on Sunday afternoon, Eastern time. The live show also featured actors from the 1998 film Smoke Signals: Adam Beach (Victor Joseph) and Dr. Evan Adams (Thomas Builds-the-Fire). Alexie wrote the short story upon which the movie was based.
“The Social Distance Powwow would like to formally acknowledge concerns that were raised about the Smoke Signals Edition of SDP,” they wrote after the broadcast generated significant controversy on Facebook. “The invitation for this session went only to Dr. Evan Adams, and he invited Adam Beach and Sherman (Alexie)."
"Note that Sherman (Alexie’s) attendance was not known to the SDP Co-Founders until shortly before the live show, as evidenced by the posters that were put up for this event, and want to sincerely apologize for any anger, hurt, upset, or other bad feelings due to his presence,” the administrators said.
The live broadcast was removed from the Social Distance Powwow page later in the day, and one of the page’s co-founders, Dan Simonds, told Indianz.Com that he planned to host a second live show on Monday evening addressing the concerns raised by Alexie’s inclusion in the earlier show.
“It was all a surprise to me,” he said of Alexie appearing in the broadcast. A flyer posted on the Social Distance Powwow page promoting the broadcast didn’t mention Alexie, he said, because no one knew Alexie would be appearing until the last minute.
“I didn’t know Alexie’s past, or it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind,” said Simonds, a Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation citizen living in Bozeman, Montana. “This wasn’t intentional on my end.”
Whitney Rencountre, a Crow Creek Sioux tribal citizen living in Rapid City, South Dakota, and one of the three administrators for the Social Distance Powwow page, moderated on Sunday’s broadcast with Adams, Evans and Alexie. He said he asked Adams to serve as a guest host on the page and didn’t know he was going to include Alexie until shortly before the show started.
“We understand everyone’s sentiment on that,” Rencountre told Indianz.Com.
He said he knew Alexie had been the subject of criticism in the past but didn’t know the details of those concerns.
“I knew there was something that happened historically,” Rencountre said. “I didn’t have any role in inviting him. I let Evan Adams host a show and that’s how that came about.”
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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, was the subject of a social media campaign and news articles in 2018 detailing allegations of unethical behavior toward female fans and co-workers.
Those allegations began that January with anonymous comments made on a story about sexual harassment in children’s publishing on the School Library Journal’s website.
Within weeks, other allegations culminated with a statement being released by Alexie in which he admitted to having treated some women badly but also criticized a Seattle author and freelance journalist, Litsa Dremousis, for leading the public attacks against him.
A March 5, 2018, story by National Public Radio presented the first public allegations of harassment against Alexie. The story quoted three of 10 women who were interviewed by NPR about their encounters with Alexie.
The women described a pattern of behavior by the married author that ranged from inappropriate comments to “flirting that veered suddenly into sexual territory, unwanted sexual advances and consensual sexual relations that ended abruptly,” according to NPR.
Following the NPR story, the American Indian Library Association rescinded the Best Young Adult Book it gave to Alexie in 2008 for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” citing sexual harassment claims against the prominent Native author.
Since the allegations surfaced two years, Alexie has remained reclusive, and his appearance Sunday on the Social Distance Powwow page was a shock to some.
Jacqueline Keeler, who is Diné and Yankton Dakota and a journalist and editor-in-chief of Pollen Nation Magazine, said she attempted to educate people about the allegations against Alexie during Sunday’s broadcast but was quickly banned from commenting.
Keeler wrote about the allegations against Alexie for YES! Magazine and spent weeks interviewing women who claimed to have been harassed by Alexie. She said she also interviewed women whose careers Alexie hurt after they declined his sexual advances, including one woman whose book manuscript was never published because of Alexie’s efforts to prevent that from happening.
“He acted as a gatekeeper to publishing,” Keeler told Indianz.Com. “I don’t think he ever did apologize.”
She said allowing Alexie to appear in such a light-hearted program without addressing the allegations against him sends a powerful and damaging message to victims of sexual assault and harassment.
“Are we telling young women that they don’t matter?” Keeler said. “This is not believing women.”
So, Sherman Alexie is rehabilitated after his numerous #MeToo allegations?
She said she’s concerned that the Social Distance Powwow page is beginning to mirror real powwows, where sexual predators are often allowed to participate and are even glorified.
“It’s just sort of a way of silencing us and making our issues go away,” Keeler told Indianz.Com. “It’s an aggressive act.”
Stephanie Hebert, a Mi’kmaq living in Ennis, Texas, and one of the Social Distance Powwow page’s administrators, said she and Simonds and Recountre plan to revisit their policies regarding guests in light of the backlash to Sunday’s Smoke Signals show.
“None of us condone violence of any kind, towards any person, at any time,” Hebert told Indianz.Com. “If we were aware of the status of Sherman, we would have strongly reconsidered this broadcast and whom was featured. We sincerely apologize for any and all hurt this may have caused, and our intent was to uplift the community, and to provide a positive outlet for our communities.”
A time for the Social Distance Powwow broadcast on the evening of April 27 hasn't been confirmed as of late Sunday afternoon. Plans originally called for one to take place later on Sunday but administrators held off after taking advice from leaders in the missing and murdered Indigenous women movement.
"We want to be sure we have qualified individuals to speak appropriately and in an informed way, and not in a rushed manner," Hebert told Indianz.Com.