On a cold evening 20 years ago, I left my favorite historic cinema, the Harvard Exit, with a belly full of Market Spice tea and an inspired heart. It was the first time I had watched a feature film made by Native people, made clearly from an Indigenous point of view. It was strong, cleverly written, funny and poignant. I knew that night the film was an historic game-changer. The joy of seeing “Smoke Signals” was such a significant moment in my life that to this day, I still feel it in my bones. I immediately headed to our local bookstore, Bailey-Coy, to buy my first book by Sherman Alexie.
It was no picnic to grow up with pop-bottle glasses and brown skin in Edmonds during the ’70s. It felt as if I was constantly negotiating a different universe, floating through a world that I did not belong to or was necessarily welcome in. My reality felt surreal and it seemed to me that I was a constant side note in someone else’s story.
As a child, I was withdrawn and did not do well in school. None of the teachers seemed to mirror my own life experience and I felt invisible. When we see ourselves reflected in others, there is a certain sense of acknowledgement and validation. Representation matters. Positive role models can shed light on potential paths to take in life and provide windows of hope. For those of us who had challenging upbringings, we need these lifelines and heroes.
As a young single mother without a college education, I often felt stuck or alone. In many ways, I was resigned to being incapable of even having choices. My self-esteem was painfully low. My frame of mind was that of defeat and as a perpetual “other,” never belonging. I was hungry for examples of survival and resilience. By reading Sherman’s books and watching his film, I experienced a breakthrough moment in my self-acceptance. His stories made it OK to be different and to struggle with what seemed to be the norm. In “Smoke Signals,” Victor’s journey opened the door for many of us to take a first step towards our dreams and realizing our potential power in the world.
Hope matters so much for those of us who carry deeply embedded historic trauma and grief. This is why, in my opinion, the allegations of sexual misconduct against Sherman have been so devastating. His success in many ways was intimately bound with community identity and pride — signaling to many of us that if you can be yourself and follow your dreams, things might just work out.
In 2005, we started Longhouse Media, a Native nonprofit dedicated to bringing the tools of media to Indigenous communities for self-expression, cultural preservation and social change. Our focus was to work with Native youth interested in filmmaking. As we were looking for funding and legitimacy, I was over the moon when Sherman agreed to be a founding board member; his name was power and lent a certain amount of prestige to our organization. Over the six years that he served on our board, Sherman’s complex and messy nature revealed itself. I felt pity for him and could recognize the all-too-familiar trauma response that is a result of colonization, systemic racism and pervasive toxic masculinity that supports misogyny and male privilege.
We all have a lot of work to do right now. None of us live simplified black and white, good or bad, neat and tidy lives. We are human and make mistakes. But we can longer keep secrets if we want to rise to our potential and move forward in a constructive way.
I believe we can work towards rehabilitation and reintegration for those who truly want to change and are willing to put in the long-term work. What would happen, for example, if Sherman and other Native perpetrators were asked to come before a council of women? If they were asked to sincerely assess the impact of their actions and be partners in the healing? Or what if they were “thrown off the island” and made to experience the loss of community reserved only for those who’ve done the greatest damage?
Honestly, I really don’t have any clear answers but my gut intuition tells me that, as oppressed people reeling from the chains of racist policies, it’s essential to ask if we really want to enact a colonizer’s response to harmful behavior? I want to see Sherman and all men who abuse their power be held responsible in the most meaningful way possible. We need long-term change that will last beyond news headlines or hashtags.
At this point in time, I still recognize and appreciate Sherman’s contributions to literature, even though I find him more distasteful for irresponsibly wielding his power over women. His behavior cannot be condoned and the brave women who have come forward must be honored. Let’s use this very disturbing moment to challenge the literary world to take responsibility for putting him on such a high pedestal and utilize the current spotlight to educate the broader public about the many talented and diverse Indigenous writers that exist.
Let’s say their names and celebrate the fact that there’s not just one Native writer but at least hundreds who, for a long time, have written stories that also can affirm the existence of little brown girls everywhere, inspiring them to dare to dream and giving them hope.
I’m ready to celebrate Native creatives who identify as female as a way to soothe the disappointment and anger that Sherman has triggered. Join me this year in committing to discover the many voices of Native women in literature.
Let’s put our attention and money towards their stories and share with others our new inspirations and celebrate each unique author on their own terms. Let’s claim visibility and fill social media platforms, the airwaves, news, schools, blogs, libraries and our personal shelves with the likes of Terese Marie Mailhot, Sara Marie Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Elissa Washuta, Tazbah Chavez, Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Storme Webber, Debra Magpie Earling, Tiffany Midge, Heid Erdrich, Jenni Monet, Rena Priest and so many more.
Today is International Women’s Day. Its theme this year is #pressforprogress. And while the day celebrates the achievements of women, it also pushes for further advances for women socially, economically, culturally, religiously and politically. We are experiencing the fruits of labor by many generations of courageous women who pressed on to defy the odds.
The gender hierarchies of the past can’t be overturned but the sexism of today can. We can collectively do this and we need our men to be allies in holding one another accountable and correcting those who try to abuse their power or impinge on the rights of women and children.
When I think of the mass confusion and shock the allegations against Sherman have created, I can’t help but wonder how we can use this energy for constructive community dialogue and healing. We can applaud the men who have come forward to articulate their support of the women who have been victimized. We can proactively seek out and support the many talented women who do creative work. It’s a start at the very least.