Indian Country and, in particular, the Native writing community, is grieving today because of the scandal (known among many Native women writers for years) that has finally publicly broken out about Sherman Alexie’s history of using his fame and position as role model and mentor to sexually harass and assault young Native women writers. This essay is not about Alexie per se—it began before the Alexie story broke as an examination of ways some Native male writers too often work to undermine Native women writers—but elements of his story are pertinent to my topic, and they illustrate the difficulties Native women writers face.
We are grieving because one of our most famous and lauded has betrayed us, because we know that to the vast majority of Americans this story of the predatory Native man with a background of drug and alcohol abuse reinforces false and negative stereotypes about our people that are much more publicly available and prevalent than the truth, and because we know that nothing will happen unless women make public complaints, for which they will be made to pay in many ways that will hurt them and, often, their families.
I was originally reluctant to write my intended essay because of all those reasons. We are a marginalized community under such attack, even to this day, in America that it seems foolhardy to say or do anything that can give ammunition, not only to the bigots, but to the well-meaning, ignorant gatekeepers of media and publishing. Despite all of our attempts to educate them, these media and publishing people-in-power persist in pushing out false images of the drunken Indian (when multiple studies show that alcohol abuse is less of a problem for Native populations than it is for white populations), of Native men as savage threats (they are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and of Native women as over-sexualized sluts who exist for white men’s fantasies (56.1 percent are victims of sexual violence, according to the National Institute of Justice, and 70% of that sexual violence is perpetrated by non-Natives).
We are also aware that our communities carry a high load of historical trauma, which in many cases is not so historical since theft of land, ecological racism, and institutional violence are still playing out in many Native communities today. This has led at times to cases of substance and child abuse within some families that have left scars on some of these high-profile Native men. As Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of California citizen, Dr. Deborah Miranda, points out in her essay on Alexie, “Inmate 99223 in the San Quentin of My Mind” (the most nuanced and powerful of the many essays Native women are writing about this right now), “Poverty, a shattering childhood of abuse, the shame of being Indian in a white world, brain damage due to seizures, brain surgery—in many ways, it really does suck to be Sherman Alexie. And yet, life has sucked for many of us in very similar ways, and we’ve managed to pull ourselves through life, write, and engage with other Indigenous writers without sexually or otherwise harassing those weaker than us.”
If you are a Native woman writer, that is a heavy weight of responsibility to bear toward your community, and community matters tremendously to us. Our cultures are varied, but in almost all cases, they differ in major ways from mainstream settler culture. One of those ways is that family, elders, and the community as a whole are absolutely vital to us.
Already, I have seen dozens of white women on various social media actually using the term “witch hunt” about the Alexie situation and saying that Native women must come out publicly with detailed and “verifiable” accusations against him. I will not even touch the fact that these same women did not use those terms and demands when privileged white women in Hollywood and New York accused powerful men of harassment and assault. The fact is that the situation is quite different for the Native women whom Alexie has wronged. He has threatened their writing careers, and in Native lit, his is practically the only voice that counts with settler-dominated publishing. If he disses these writers, even privately, their careers are effectively over. When you consider how difficult it is to even come close to getting published as a Native writer in the American literary landscape (where editors will actually say, “We have our one Native American writer for our list,” in the best cases where they might at least have one), let alone a Native woman writer, it is no wonder women are afraid to come forward publicly. And in Indian Country where successful Native men are revered—because this country allows so few of them—to be seen as publicly attacking such a man can set the community against them, hurt their families, and/or cause them to lose badly needed jobs or educational funding. Public accusations will carry even higher costs than women usually face in these circumstances.
This is a concentrated version of what happens all the time with Native women writers. Alexie is hardly the only Native male writer or leader to do these things; he is simply the most powerful and has the highest profile. Dr. Adrienne Keene, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizen, writes eloquently about this situation in her essay, “The Native Harvey Weinsteins.” These predatory men are actually a minority among Native men, but they tend to have a lot of power and to call them out draws on all the problematic elements of reinforcing negative stereotypes and damaging community that I mentioned earlier. Like Alexie, they seek out the young and vulnerable, those with the least power or resources to defend themselves or seek reparations, and usually they are drawn to those with the most talent and potential for success, often derailing that success with their actions which leave the women shamed and diminished. It is an old story, and not unique to Native culture only, though many of the special consequences are.
Lately, however, I have seen a new and disquieting wrinkle on this old, old game of patriarchy that was forced on the Native nations by their European invaders. (Most Native nations were matrilineal and matrilocal with women, if not actually sharing leadership power as they did in many nations, at least holding certain amounts of influence and being highly respected.) Suddenly, Native women writers who begin to achieve success are being accused by Native men of not being truly Native.
Identity as a Native person is a particularly fraught concept in the United States right now, because of government rules that tend to require pedigree certificates for Natives, even as non-Natives pass themselves off as Native and, because they regurgitate the errors and tropes that settler America believes and expects about Natives, are more accepted and successful as “Native artists and writers” than people who actually are Native.
In modern times, so many Americans never encounter a Native person in their lives that the concept of American Indian or Native American is wrapped in a vague cloud of nostalgic mythology. Many people actually think we have died out completely. We are in the position of the passenger pigeons. The European settlers could hardly wait to kill them by the millions but now lament their disappearance. Or more likely, we resemble the wolf in their imaginations. Settlers worked ferociously to wipe out wolves until, believing them extinct, they began to long for the imaginary wolf and re-established them. Now, those who live near where they were re-established, hate them and hunt them down with the same viciousness as in past centuries. In the areas where few Native peoples are found today, settlers long for the image of the noble Indian that their ancestors cruelly drove from the land on which these descendants now live in prosperity. In the areas where Native nations are still abundant and known, the settler community’s attitude toward the surviving descendants leads toward the organized violence at Standing Rock and the thousands of Native women and girls who have been murdered and kidnapped without outcry or investigation.
It is not hyperbole to make these comparisons between Native people and animals when speaking of the settler imagination. In the United States, Native people are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U. S. Department of the Interior, which deals with federal land, natural resources, and wildlife and game. Because of this way of thinking about and dealing with Native citizens, we are the only people in this country who must have CDIB cards issued by the federal government listing our certified degree of Indian blood—or pedigree, as with show dogs and race horses.
This blood quantum requirement adds another layer to the thorny dilemma of Native identity. Each sovereign nation (there are more than 500, though most people only know the most famous names among them—Cherokee, Navajo, Sioux) sets its own tribal standards for citizenship within the nation. Most use this settler standard of blood quantum. Some use a standard of lineage that is closer to traditional Native ways of determining tribal citizenship, but government regulations require that the lineage be computed based on U.S. government lists that were put together by settlers over a century ago with varying degrees of input from the actual members of the tribe. Consequently, with both methods, each nation has members who may not qualify for official citizenship, as required by the government, but are seen by the nation itself as familially connected to the tribe.
Native writers must deal with mainstream publishing’s mistaken concepts around Native identity. The white writer who traffics in old, error-ridden, and often destructive stereotypes when writing about Native people is much more likely to be published than a Native writer writing truthfully and realistically about her own culture. And do not let that Native writer even attempt to write about anything other than Native culture and Native people. I am reminded of Native painters I know who encounter critics and potential buyers complaining that there are no feathers or tepees in their work. If you are a Native writer, Native-specific life in the tropes with which settler America is comfortable, no matter how mistaken and hurtful, is your only allowable subject. After all, there are plenty of white people to write about everything else in the world. Stay in your lane.
This leads to a situation where people who have no Native heritage or connection can write false or misleading things about Native life (that meet these comfortable settler expectations) and be acclaimed as great Native writers, blocking the very limited access for genuine Native writers to publishing and readership. So the concept of what and who really is a Native writer wields considerable power.
Into this scenario enter a handful of strong young Native women writers who are actually achieving some success and visibility with work that is original and true—and suddenly, I find some Native male writers trying to sabotage their success with accusations that they are not truly Native, not “Indian enough.” For me, the puzzling factor is that each of these women is an enrolled citizen of her tribe, which should have made these accusations completely untenable, but nonetheless they persist—and they are damaging.
We are all too used to having mainstream American society, especially publishing, tell us Native writers that we are not “Indian enough,” because we do not/will not write in the tropes and stereotypes they expect or think the readers expect from Native writers, because we “don’t look Native” to their eyes (not like Iron Eyes Cody’s great masquerade), because we live in urban areas rather than on reservations (ignoring the fact that over 70% of Natives live in urban areas—in large part due to US government policies of the mid-20th century). There is a special sting, though, when it comes from our own community.
Success as a Native writer is not a zero-sum game. When one of us achieves success, that should open eyes and doors for more of us. We are a tiny group of writers surrounded by a mainstream literary community with a few staunch allies, a lot of often destructive ignorance about us, and a surprising number of people with knives out when it comes to us and our writing and needs. We should never be carving up our own and tossing bloody pieces out to appease them. We should be celebrating and lifting up our own writers who attain success and supporting each other as we all work toward greater things for each of us individually and our community as a whole.
In truth, the community of Native women writers does just that. They are a network of support and encouragement for other writers, of succor and defense in times of trouble. That community rallied around the women who were accused of not being truly Native, just as it is now rallying around the women who have been damaged by Alexie. There are discussions taking place of the best ways to handle this situation to get some kind of restoration and healing for these young women writers without forcing them into difficult and dangerous public declarations. And in fact, most Native male writers are also supportive, community-minded people who will aid in this situation. It seems important to explicitly make that distinction because I know how easy it is for mainstream Americans to read about Alexie and these others and say, “yes, dysfunctional Indians, yes, savage Indian men.” No one trashed all white men for the Harvey Weinsteins, but I know that danger exists for our Native men if we do not clearly point out that Alexie and his ilk are in the minority. In fact, the Native writing community, as a whole, is a warm, strong community, and we will get through this.
What would help us—what would help to keep this kind of thing from happening—is for the publishing industry to wake up and truly educate itself about Native people and Native writers. Instead of anointing one charismatic male as “the Indian du jour,” as he called himself in a recent interview, and handing him all that power over our entire community of writers, become aware of the wide variety and breadth of the Native writing community. The publishing industry today penalizes readers by limiting them to old, error-ridden tropes and denying them vibrant stories of great power and heart that come from a variety of Native cultures and individual viewpoints.
Give readers access to the work of LeAnne Howe, Allison Hedge Coke, Layli Long Soldier, Natalie Diaz, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Erika T. Wurth, Janet McAdams, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, Heid Erdrich, Tiffany Midge, Kim Shuck, Deborah Miranda, Kimberly Blaeser, Linda Hogan, Lois Red Elk, Marcie Rendon, Diane Glancy, Shauna Osborn, Luci Tapahonso, Odilia Galván Rodriguez, Kimberly Becker, Linda LeGarde Grover, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Laura Da’, Therese Mailhot, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Cassandra Lopez, Susan Power, Margaret Noodin, Jennifer Foerster, Elissa Washuta, Denise Low, Frances Washburn, and to that of Sherwin Bitsui, Bojan Louis, Craig Santos Perez, Geary Hobson, Tim Tingle, Trevino Brings Plenty, Santee Frazier, Stephen Graham Jones, Eric Gansworth, Chip Livingston, Joseph Bruchac, and Bryan Bearhart, to name only a few published authors. The Indigenous Writers Caucus maintains a set of up-to-date bibliographies of published Native authors, categorized by date of publication, gender, genre, and more. Visit it and check out the wild variety of Native writing. Stop limiting Native writing to the “Indian du jour,” and you will do an immense service to Native writers, especially Native women writers, as well as to the broader American reading public.
LINDA RODRIGUEZ‘s Dark Sister: Poems has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in August, 2018, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in November, 2018. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart’s Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.
Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at http://lindarodriguezwrites.blogspot.com