What Do the Allegations Against Sherman Alexie Mean for Native Literature?

When white readers and scholars look for a replacement, they’re asking the wrong question

Recent accusations and revelations have made their way to the fore of discussions in the Native/Native American/American Indian literary world: we are now aware that a number of women say they’ve been harassed or abused by Sherman Alexie, the writer whom the white literary establishment has anointed as what Alexie himself has referred to as the “Indian du jour for a very long day.” After weeks of Twitter discussion, some of Alexie’s accusers went public yesterday, talking to NPR about what they endured. Though many of us look forward to the clarity of having this mistreatment out in the open, we find ourselves at an hour where we can see the gates from every side, and all that’s rushing against them.

At the moment, Sherman Alexie has addressed some allegations of abuse and abusive behavior, and refuted others. But this is also a time of reckoning for the literary world’s treatment of Native writers. As an extremely popular writer in the mainstream who has written a number of young adult works, Alexie is often the only Native voice heard in many social studies, language arts, and English curricula. White writers and scholars may find themselves wondering, “who should we get to replace him?” They may not even realize that this question highlights the gates that tend to surround Native lit, their complicity in maintaining them, and the consequences of their actions — actions which are akin to literary colonialism.

This question highlights the consequences of their actions — actions which are akin to literary colonialism.

I’m not comfortable writing this, but none of us should be. Many of the women in my community are too upset to talk about this yet, and I’ve been asked to speak up — but how do I write about what this means for contemporary Native literature? I want to make it reflective of our work; respectful, joyful, and solemn, and funny, imaginative, and caustic, far-reaching and future-looking, mindful of the past yet anti-ossificative in nature, punk and classical, both non-traditional and deeply so, conflicted, chock full of pain, irreverent and angry acknowledging all the relatives while selfish for our field and ourselves, deeply in love with who we are and more so who we need to and can be, acknowledging the fuckedupedness of it all while we eat tradish for supper and zingers and twinkies for dessert and we laugh.

We’ve been brought to what is likely a singular moment in the history of “Native lit,” whatever that might be, one that our kids will teach and write about some day. How do we adapt to this moment in ways that work for all of us, that honor what we all (note, all, of course) do?

How do we adapt to this moment in ways that work for all of us, that honor what we all (note, all, of course) do?

But before that, an apology. From me. Alone. Not for all men, because that’s just lazy. They can do it themselves. They should do it themselves. Because we are relatives and family and kin and colleagues and know better, can do better, will do better, better do better. I am also sorry, yet again, that this collective weight has fallen on all of you, and I think we men hope that you will ask us to share whatever bits or entirety of it you would like us to. And if you’re hesitant to ask because you’re worried we’ll get it wrong, well you’ll be right about that. So as an aside, I’ll ask any men reading here to get it together. Be ready to do some work when asked. Get. Your. Shit. Together.

Now. The question we’re being asked, directly or indirectly, by the white establishment is: “What do we replace it with?”

“It” being the one text, the one book, even the one writer.

That “one?” That’s a problem. That one definition of Native, the one arbiter of taste, the one writer of the moment, the NDN du jour, the one chief to sign all the treaties.

That’s America’s problem.

Since Day One, Europeans have been incapable of seeing the diversity of nations and communities and people in this hemisphere.

And it hasn’t changed.

So here’s what I’m proposing.

Maybe this time, we’ll tell you. When we’re ready. (Some of us have already begun — see, for instance, Elissa Washuta’s constantly expanding thread of Native writers on Twitter. One isn’t going to be good enough anymore.) Again, you’re asking for a whole lot of unpaid labor, countless hours of research and reading, talking, tending, and listening goes into our “field,” our work as the makers. And in this moment, we have an opportunity to change a whole lot of rules. And since, just as in 500 years of settler mismanagement of their stolen spaces on these continents, we are about to need a whole lot of indigenous science and knowledge to bring things back into balance, so are we going to need to decide what this particular segment of cultural production and art needs to have for balance, and for health. Because right now there’s a whole lot of words and stories pushing up and forward. And I think the pin that’s been holding it and us all back is loose enough to fall out at any minute.

Which means you’re gonna have to sit down, settlers.

While you’re doing that, maybe ask yourselves why you have no backup plan for your selection, your one text, book, writer, in what you do, what you teach. Maybe ask if you need to rethink what and why you do what you do.

Ask yourselves why you have no backup plan for your selection, your one text, book, writer, in what you do, what you teach.

It’s gonna take some lifting from you too.

In the meantime, we’ll get back to you on all this. Women will of course be figuring it out. Like they always have, like they always do, like they always will. Men, step in where and when asked. Be ready. And listen.

On the listening? I’ll be listening for the one thing I know is coming. The one thing I always wait for.

Laughter.

But we won’t laugh until the women do. If they can’t, or won’t, we don’t deserve to.

Because when they do, it’s the finest sound the world has known. It’s how we know it’s going to be okay.

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