Commentary Violence

Sherman Alexie and the Longest Running #MeToo Movement in History (Updated)

Mary Annette Pember

Privately, Native women share many stories about Native men who hurt friends, our families, and us.

UPDATE, March 7, 9:09 a.m.: On Monday, NPR published its story featuring some of the women who have accused Sherman Alexie of unwanted sexual behavior “ranging from inappropriate comments both in private and in public, to flirting that veered suddenly into sexual territory, unwanted sexual advances and consensual sexual relations that ended abruptly. The women said Alexie had traded on his literary celebrity to lure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.”

Sherman Alexie, a well-known, successful Native writer, recently has been accused of sexually harassing a number of women, mostly Native.

Although none of Alexie’s victims have come forward publicly yet, Alexie issued an apology on Wednesday, acknowledging that he has “done things [over the years] that have harmed other people, including those I love most deeply.”

Litsa Dremousis, Alexie’s former longtime friend (now described by Alexie as a spurned lover), has been writing about allegations against him on her Twitter account. She said she is not a victim.

Some of Alexie’s alleged victims have shared their stories with NPR, according to Dremousis. NPR has not yet aired the interviews.

“He seemed to view Native women as the easiest prey,” Dremousis wrote.

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Alexie isn’t the only man, Native or non-Native, who has been accused of viewing us as easy prey. Native women are 2.5 times more likely than any other ethnicity in America to be sexually assaulted, according to the Department of Justice.

Although we’ve been yelling about this for a long time, the non-Native world has only recently begun to listen. In the legacy media, perhaps fueled by public attention garnered by the #MeToo movement, our high rates of sexual violence are covered as though they are a recent epidemic.

In fact, one might describe our story as the longest running #MeToo movement in U.S. history; our movement, however, predates social media by about 150 years.

But no matter; I’m grateful for any opportunity to elevate our cause.

(For the remainder of this editorial, I will mention Alexie’s name only in passing, because he is the least important part of this story. This boorish man’s comeuppance offers a much-needed opportunity to shed light on a story that has occupied only the periphery of mainstream awareness for generations.)

According to findings in the 2016 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the National Institute of Justice, 84.3 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes; 56.1 percent are victims of sexual violence.

Although data indicates that most of the perpetrators are non-Native, the outing of Alexie exposes a shameful open secret in Indian Country; our men are also guilty of using the privileges and protections of wealth, power, and social status to prey on people they perceive as vulnerable.

Privately, Native women share many stories about Native men who hurt friends, our families, and us. Victims and bystanders struggle terribly over how to respond.

I’m not suggesting that non-Native victims don’t struggle over how to respond to assault and harassment. Reporting a perpetrator is a courageous, daunting step, regardless of one’s ethnicity or station in life.

For Native women, reporting one of our own adds a uniquely sickening challenge.

“Indian Country is so marginalized that when we see someone do well and receive recognition, we don’t want to participate in anything that would take them down,” said a Native woman friend I’ll call “S.”

S. recently reported a well-known Native man for sexually harassing her and has requested anonymity. The man is lauded in his profession, both in and outside of Indian Country. He supervises many people in his job.

“It’s hands off when it comes to reporting one of our own, regardless of his actions,” S. said.

S. spoke of her painful self-talk as she grappled with her decision to report the perpetrator. “He’s so important; he’s done so much for Native people. Maybe I need to take one for the team,” she told herself. “I wrestled with my importance versus his. I didn’t want to embarrass or hurt his family,” S. said.

S. was tormented with layers of self-doubt. Perhaps she should remain silent, she thought. Soon the quality of her work and life began to suffer. She began to isolate herself. The turning point came when she learned that the man had been accused of victimizing many other women, all single mothers for whom a job loss would be tragic.

S., who considers herself an outspoken advocate for women, told herself, “How can I remain silent knowing he’s preying on others, women who have fewer resources and support than I.”

S. reported the man to supervisors. A subsequent internal investigation found that there was not enough evidence to launch an investigation. The man was cleared of wrongdoing.

“They told me their decision was final,” S. said. “The whole experience has utterly impoverished my body and spirit. The unjustness of the process has almost been worse than his actions.”

“The amount of power yielded by men in high-profile positions is shocking. They can manipulate the process and outcome because they have money, influence, and a network of supporters who enable them,” she said.

Most Native communities are small and tightly knit. Publicly accusing a man in authority of sexual harassment or assault can open up one’s entire family for retribution. Housing, employment, access to services, and even enrollment in the tribe might be jeopardized.

“They use their power to silence and attack women,” S. added.

Subsequently, emboldened by her actions, other women are coming forward. S. is hopeful that leaders will no longer be able to ignore the man’s actions.

As we learn about more and more famous men who are known to sexually harass and assault women, the question arises about how we should treat their accomplishments. Some people advocate for erasure of all awards, creations, and recognition.

Students at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas are grappling with how to handle the art of a famous Cherokee painter whose work hangs in the schools library. In 2009, the artist, Don Secondine Jr., pleaded guilty to aggravated indecent liberties with a child.

I can’t help but wonder that if we removed all the books and art created by men who’ve also done despicable things in their lives, our shelves and walls would be mighty empty.

In the Western influenced worldview, winning trumps all else. Rising to the top of the heap absolves, mostly men, of behavior that would otherwise be intolerable. The winners, the powerful, are elevated to a divine status in which exploiting subordinates is almost a perk.

Alexie’s fame allowed him unfettered access to young people and admirers under the pretext of mentoring and education. In, Dremousis shared an anecdote in which Alexie allegedly inappropriately hugged female students during a visit to their college campus. When one of the young women reported the incident to her adviser, he said, “That’s just Sherman being Sherman.”

The Sherman Alexies and Harvey Weinsteins of the world are only able to exist and flourish because they are aided and abetted by participants in a sick system, one that holds out the promise of reward for ignoring what we know to be wrong.

“We need to acknowledge that Native men in positions of power, even those doing righteous work, can be perpetrators too. We have to be able to engage with that fact and hold them accountable,” S. said.

In my tribe’s Ojibwe worldview, all life, especially humans, contains a dual spirit, rendering us capable of great achievements while also harboring a terrible capacity to wreak pain and havoc on others.

Maybe the greatest fault lies in overlooking that fundamental truth.

Alexie wrote some good books; I would hate to deny them to the world. Preventing him and others like him from continuing to hurt people, however, requires us to clean house. First, rather than dismissing and ignoring complaints about sexual harassment and assault, we need to insist that bosses and leaders take them seriously. We should assume that victims wouldn’t come forward with these charges unless there is a genuine basis for complaint. Reporting harassment opens victims up to a host of unpleasant possibilities, including job loss and limited future employment.  This is not something victims take lightly.

With any allegation, we should assume there is a problem if there are complaints. We have to stop letting people off the hook for comments and actions that diminish and demean.

And the rules have to apply to everybody, even the rich and famous. The rest of us have to be brave enough to take these men off their pedestals and stand with the victims until they’ve received justice, whatever that might look like for them.

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