Our number one Josephy Library volunteer, Elnora Cameron, just returned from a trip across the North, and into the Midwest. She spent a few hours in Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books (https://birchbarkbooks.com), and came back with a very interesting box of books by and about American Indians.Read Rich’s Post →
When I first heard the news about Sherman Alexie’s treatment of women—especially of Native women writers—I thought immediately of Bill Clinton. Poor kid from wrong side of tracks with extraordinary smarts fights his way up the white male-dominated American ladder of success. And decides he deserves what those already at the top by dint of birth, family, and place of origin effortlessly have.
But Sherman is Indian, and everything Indian in this country is immediately more complicated. Starting with the name itself—“Indian,” an early European mistake that has been followed by 500 years of them.
Nevertheless, Sherman Alexie, by all accounts and by his own admission, is responsible for demanding sexual favors for career assistance with many women. It’s a charge that has become so routine in recent months that we barely flinch as we go on to the next accusations, the next TV expose, the next admission of guilt.
But Sherman Alexie is not Bill Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s long-ago carefully crafted admissions of extra-marital sexual misconduct and current stunning silence about issues of harassment and assault strike me as huge roadblocks in the national battle for respect and fair treatment of women.
But that is for another day. Sherman has in fact offered some sort of apology, and, if I know Sherman at all through his writings and brief personal contact, he is now in deep and profound self-examination of how he got where he is.
I am NOT excusing anything; I am exploring.
I just finished listening to his memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. The story is painful, from the tortured relationship with his parents—mother especially, to athletic and academic successes in a white world he purposefully pursued from a very young age, and on to a sparkling literary career. I say that because there is continuing pain through the successes. Sherman willed his way off the rez when he was very young and different. He excelled at an all-white close-by school in debate and basketball, had white friends and white girlfriends, found his way to college and literary success. There are periodic visits back to family and friends and childhood torturers on the rez—some of the visits around funerals. All of the visits, the phone calls, and the recollections are permeated with stories of Indian tragedies—failures, breakups, and diseases; deaths by alcohol, car crash, and suicide. At one point he recognizes that he is the only one in his grade school cohort to still be alive.
The light in Sherman’s memoir is his wife and child. Which make the charges and admissions of guilt all the more painful. Why would a man with a beautiful, understanding, Indian wife he expresses the deepest love for in his book resort to harassment and sexual demands of other women?
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Sherman came to Fishtrap one time. I got a phone call from Bob Greene, the owner of that fine Moscow, Idaho bookstore, Bookpeople, suggesting that Sherman Alexie was about to explode on the national scene, and if we were going to get him to Wallowa Lake, we should do it now. A story had just been published in Esquire, and two books, The Business of Fancydancing and Old Shirts and New Skins, had been published by small houses. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was about to come out from a major publisher.
Sherman came, and he delighted. I chided him for not sending a photo, said that I had to cut one off the back cover of one of his books. He laughed and did a quick stick drawing self-portrait in the book in return.
I could not get him back to Fishtrap—he had indeed gone on to major fame, and once, when I saw him in Portland and asked about it, he described an uncomfortable scene in a Wallowa County gas station—he’d been asked to pay for his gas before the attendant would fill the tank. It’s too hard being brown out there, he said.
In many ways, it’s hard being brown anywhere in this country, especially in the current climate that permits overt racism. But Sherman will continue to be a brown American Indian, and in these times when harassment and assault are being openly talked about, he will continue to be known for his abuse.
Can anything good come of it?—he’s one step ahead of Bill Clinton with his acknowledgement and apology. But I am going to expect more from him than from Clinton or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or all the others in the parade of white male aggressors. I am going to look for words from Sherman. Words have been the tools of his trade from reservation grammar school to today. I want to know from him how and why, want an explanation of these terrible infidelities and sexual demands as muddy and clear as Indian humor and Indian resilience are muddy and clear in his movie, Smoke Signals.
I won’t go back and read the old books, but I might have to watch that movie again, remember how much it made me cry even as I laughed. I’m crying for you now, Sherman, and I can wait for the laughs as you spill out the pain that put you into this awful mess. But write it out—maybe show women they’re not to blame, and show white men how to begin making things right.
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I think a lot about the Euro-American treatment of Indians. It’s impossibly complex—from the “noble savage” to the “savage savage”; from the Mohawk chiefs paraded before painters and courts in England, named “King Philip” and “Prince Hendrik,” to Squanto, captured off the Atlantic coast and sent to Europe as a slave; from conquest by war and by meticulous—and quickly broken—treaty making to reservations and boarding schools; from admiration to forced assimilation through missionaries and schools forbidding of religion, dress, language, and even hair style. As Alvin Josephy said, prior to the Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978, what Indians in the United States had was not religion, but “mumbo jumbo.” That is 19 and 78!
Euro-American treatment of African-Americans is often lumped together with the treatment of Indians. Even by sympathizers. Josephy said that liberals who had worked hard during the Civil Rights campaigns of the 60s sometimes offered to help Indians secure civil rights—and the Indians often told them that they were not as interested in civil rights as they were in their treaty rights.
For all its complexities, and for the complexities wrapped around the Euro-American enslavement of African-Americans (Indians were enslaved by the Europeans prior to importation of Africans, but this “other slavery” is a story too big to address here), the routine discrimination and occasional brutal racism against Indians and African-Americans shares much. Today brought two reminders. One, a quote from Sherman Alexie talking about his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me:
“So my mother and her mother, in being raped physically, were also raped spiritually. They had salmon taken away from them by the Grand Coulee Dam. They had their entire history shrunk by being placed on a reservation. And despite all that, their love shone through despite all that. I’m here. My siblings are here. And we’re pretty good people.”
The other, from a NYT op-ed piece by Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture:
“The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.”
I think that what all Americans can continue to learn from African Americans and Indian Americans is resiliency in the face of discrimination. And, in these times, when overt racism is loose again, it is important that all Americans acknowledge this history of racism and discrimination, from the slave sales of Jamestown to today’s nooses in Washington D.C.; from the treaty breaking at Standing Rock in the 1800s to the disregard for treaty and water rights at Standing Rock today.
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