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

Sherman Alexie caused hurt even before sexual harassment scandal

'I think he has to pay some kind of price'

Sherman Alexie faced questions long before sexual harassment apology
By 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.

* * *

Last week, allegations against the author reached a fever pitch, culminating in a statement being released by Alexie in which he admitted to having treated some women badly but also criticized a Seattle freelance author whom he blamed for leading the public attacks against him.

He said Litsa Dremousis was spreading "accusations, insinuations and outright falsehoods" about him. He further said the two once had a "consensual" relationship.

Alexie, who has not responded to Indianz.Com's requests for comment, ended the statement by saying he was "genuinely sorry" for the people he had hurt but did not detail any of the behaviors for which he was apologizing.

On Monday, a 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, including those who chose to remain anonymous, all 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.

One woman, poet and teacher Jeanine Walker, described being told by Alexie that he was interested in her poetry after he visited her classroom. She sent him a few poems but never heard back from him about her writing. But they still became friends.

After a game of basketball, Walker went into a restroom in his office to change her clothes. Alexie, she said, walked into the restroom and asked if he could kiss her, according to NPR. She said no and backed away, but he continued to move toward her, telling her she reminded him of his high school girlfriends. “Well, we’re not in high school, Sherman,” Walker told him.

* * *

Throughout Indian Country, the accusations against Alexie have sparked conversations about power, abuse and the enigmatic nature of truth.

Several prominent Natives have expressed skepticism about the primarily anonymous accusations against the author. What about due process?

They have labeled Dremousis a scorned woman, lashing out at a former lover by attacking his professional reputation.

But many other Natives have spoken out in support of Alexie’s accusers, including poet Joy Harjo, activist Dallas Goldtooth and journalist Mark Trahant.

And others have begun talking about celebrity and the responsibility that the handful of Native people who have reached the pinnacles of their chosen professions have to help other Natives and support Native causes.

Alexie has long endured criticism by those who believe his depiction of reservation life is too harsh, too unforgiving to his Native characters, who often are portrayed as drunk and abusive. In his typically unapologetic manner, Alexie has shrugged off those who say he owes Native people a responsibility to portray their lives in a more positive manner, saying his art is an individual expression and beholden to no one.

In an 2003 story for the Honolulu Weekly, Native Hawaiian journalist and activist Anne Keala Kelly said "interviewing Sherman Alexie is like interviewing a bear." Source: Honolulu Weekly. Volume 13, Number 34, 2003-08-20

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.

Photo: K. Kendall

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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.”

* * *

Prominent Native actor Gary Farmer isn’t entirely convinced by the accusations against Alexie.

He said he’s never seen the side of Alexie being described by his accusers, despite having played the role of Arnold Joseph in Smoke Signals, which was written by Alexie.

The 64-year-old self-described “working actor” said he also worked with Alexie for many years teaching students at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a congressionally chartered college in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“I’ve never heard anything about Sherman in that regards,” he said. “He’s worked with a lot of university kids over the years because he is well-versed and college-educated himself.”

He said Alexie has had a profound impact on Native literature and film over the past 20 years.

Gary Farmer. Photo: Laura Avellaneda-Cruz

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.

* * *

Native actor, musician and motivational speaker Shawn Michael Perry said he’s not surprised Alexie is now accused of abusing others.

The 51-year-old Salish and Maya man said he met Alexie in 1998 at a film festival in Missoula, Montana, where Alexie had been invited to speak to nearly 800 Native youth, many of whom were aspiring actors and writers.

Alexie was fresh off the set of Smoke Signals and a hot commodity in Indian Country.

“We were really excited to see Sherman Alexie, because he was the guy,” Perry said.

A student poster examining the influence of Smoke Signals, a 1998 film based on a screenplay by Sherman Alexie. Photo: San Diego City College

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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