We need more Native literary giants than Sherman Alexie

In the wake of sexual harassment allegations, a look beyond the influential writer.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

In the forthcoming Tommy Orange novel There There, Edwin Black, a 20-something half-Cheyenne man desperately seeks validation as Native. Raised by a white mother, he grows up not knowing what tribe he belongs to or who his father is. Instead, Black spends years in college studying tribal histories and literature, trying to find some sign of who he is. He lives a lonely existence, creating fantasies about his heritage for anyone who asks where he’s from.

“I’m as Native as Obama is black,” he narrates. “Its different though. For Natives. I know. I dont know how to be. Every possible way I think that it might look for me to say Im Native seems wrong.”

There is so much packed into Black’s story: The importance of family and the strains they put on us; the complexities of race in America; and, perhaps most importantly for Native readers, the struggle to identify who you are in a country that barely acknowledges us.

Orange’s book, which drops this summer, is being touted as one of the most anticipated novels of the year. And rightly so. It is a stunning work that follows 12 Natives as their lives intertwine in Oakland, California, culminating at a modern-day powwow. Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, weaves the novel together through each character, changing perspective with every chapter, allowing him to write about countless issues facing Indigenous communities, from representation in Holllywood and cultural appropriation, to suicide and sexual trauma.

Literary groups are distancing themselves from author Sherman Alexie since accusations of sexual impropriety have surfaced.

“One of the reasons I wrote a polyphonic novel is that I come from a voiceless community,” Orange told Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Peterson.

There is certainly no shortage of amazing Native writers (more on that further down), but Indigenous peoples are right now searching for the next great Native literary voice — and not just for representation’s sake. That’s one of the reasons why the recent harassment allegations against Sherman Alexie, arguably the most famous writer from Indian Country, are so unsettling and damaging.

Pulling from experiences of his youth on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Alexie has garnered critical and commercial success since the publication of his 1993 short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Last month, he was given the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Last week, a string of comments on a piece about sexual harassment in children’s publishing started a whisper mill that Alexie has for years sexually harassed and intimidated women. Alexie issued a statement Thursday disputing some of the claims and addressing others.

It is unclear exactly what Alexie is alleged to have done, but major mainstream outlets are now digging into the story. Depending on what they find, the consequences could be devastating. Alexie not only found wide appeal through his Native heritage, he mentored and provided resources and inspiration to countless Native writers. He has had a huge impact on the Native literary world, but already his name is being removed from scholarships and children’s literature websites.

Not only is Alexie accused of harming Native women for years, an already vulnerable population, he is being accused of stifling careers. Knowing that one of our generation’s most influential Native authors was harming Indigenous women while publicly trying to build others up would be a particularly heavy blow.

On the other hand, it’s time for a new generation of Native writers to come to the fore. As Debbie Reese, the editor of the literary blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, wrote this week, she always felt Alexie’s work fed too much into mainstream ideas of Indigenous people, further perpetuating myth.

“Alexie’s books don’t give readers the depth of understanding that they need to know who we are, what our histories have been, what we face on a daily basis, and what gives us the strength to carry on. Far too many people adore him and think that they’re hip to Native life because they read his books,” Reese wrote. “If you’re one of those people, please set his books aside. Read other Native writers. Don’t inadvertently join him in hurting other Native writers.”

It’s a good message — and a criticism I’ve been hearing a lot from Native authors and journalists in the wake of the recent allegations. There is a plethora of truly amazing Native writers who have been writing beautifully about our communities for generations. I’ll never forget the first time I read N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain and how different it felt to me. Along with Orange’s There There, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is poised to be a huge success. (The memoirs introduction is written by Alexie, another illustration of his reach). The literary world is no different than media or politics: The more Native voices that are represented, the more useful public discourse will be around Indigenous peoples. Writers like Orange and Mailhot are adding their voices to that world.

Both are graduates of the creative writing program at the Institute for American Indian Arts, the countrys first Indigenous-focused MFA program. IAIA, where Alexie has taught, recently removed his name from a writing scholarship after the allegations surfaced. University spokesman Eric Davis told me the “program was started to find, encourage and nurture people to take the place of writers like Sherman (Alexie) and Louise (Erdrich). That second generation hadnt quite come along yet. Its time for some new voices, new perspectives and a new generation taking that agenda and moving it forward. Tommy and Terese are just the first two. There are more right behind them.”

I can’t wait ‘til they get here.

Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...