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,” .

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 , 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. , he was given the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Last week, a string of comments on started a whisper mill that Alexie has for years sexually harassed and intimidated women. Alexie 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 .

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 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 , 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 who have been . 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, 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 : The more Native voices that are represented, the more useful public discourse will be around Indigenous peoples. Writers like Orange and Mailhot are .

Both are graduates of the s, 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 NewTowncarShare News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Prickly Pear Land Trust: Prickly Pear Land Trust (PPLT) is one of a handful of robust, regional Land Trusts in Montana. PPLT operates three main...
  • to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.
  • Visit our website for full description and to apply.No phone calls please. NPCA is an EOE.
  • The field coordinator will work with TU members, other fishing organizations, community leaders, businesses and elected officials to build support for actions necessary to recover...
  • New Mexico Land Conservancy (Santa Fe, NM), Stewardship Coordinator - Seeking highly motivated individual with excellent interpersonal skills to coordinate stewardship activities and support conservation...
  • One-of-a-kind gem borders public lands/West Elk Wilderness. Privacy, creek, spring, irrigation, access. $270,000. Info at https://hcne.ws/LambornMT or call 970-683-0588 or 970-261-5928.
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a dynamic, organized, and creative person with great people skills to be our Recruitment & Hiring Manager to recruit...
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is looking for a variety of positions around the West with our Clean Energy Program. Currently we are hiring a Staff...
  • We are seeking an experienced dynamic leader for a growing conservation organization; $65,000-75,000 salary plus benefits; job description and apply at hawkwatch.org/executivedirector
  • Friends of the Inyo is excited to post our seasonal job offerings for the summer of 2019! We are hiring Trail Ambassadors, Stewardship Crew Members,...
  • This position is responsible for the identification and qualification of major and planned gift prospects and assists in cultivating and soliciting donors through meetings, trips,...
  • Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Protecting Washington State's environment for current and future generations is what we do every day at Ecology. We are a...
  • Keeping Washington Clean and Evergreen Our Water Quality Program is looking to hire a Senior Stormwater Engineer at our Headquarters building in Lacey, WA This...
  • Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have leadership abilities, experience with rural land protection,...
  • University of Wyoming Foundation Haub School of ENR, Biodiversity Institute, Environmental/Natural Resource Programs https://uwyo.taleo.net/careersection/00_ex/jobdetail.ftl?job=19001001&tz=GMT-06:00
  • The Montana Land Steward develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans, and methods related to TNC's property interest portfolio in Montana. For more information and...
  • POSITION DESCRIPTION: RAISER'S EDGE DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR The Raiser's Edge Database Administrator ensures the integrity and effectiveness of the member/donor database by developing systems and processes...
  • We are hiring a Director of Development Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Bozeman,MT Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for details GYC is an equal opportunity employer
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) in Durango and Silverton, CO is hiring 3 staff: Please visit mountainstudies.org/careers for Assoc Director, Dev and Engagement Director, and Forest...