What The F**k, Sherman? by Cliff TaylorTweet
Sherman Alexie used to be my hero but is he still? And if not, what is he now?
* * *
In 1999 I was a depressed, self-cutting high school Senior with writing dreams, held captive in my small Nebraskan hometown, son of a drunk, statistically destined to probably fall through the cracks. But I had some older art friends who believed in me and that wound up making all the difference.
During that Senior year I worked at a bookstore and it was probably one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had. One time I was facing the Romance section and one of these older art friends paid me a surprise visit, driving back from Ames, Iowa, where she was going to college, for the weekend. She said she was worried about me because of the last couple letters I’d sent her. I was so touched; somebody out there really cared about me! She also said she had something for me. “Here,” she said, handing me a paperback book, “I got this for you.”
I looked at it. An Indian and a cowboy battling in the clouds. It was The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven.
“It’s by this real great Native writer named Sherman Alexie,” she said. “He gave an awesome reading at my college. Afterwards, I got him to sign this book for you. I told him I had a Native friend back in my hometown who wanted to be a writer. He thought that was cool.”
I opened it up and read it, smiled. It said: “Peace and Hope, Cliff!”
That was my introduction to Sherman Alexie. I read that book of his and just about every other one he wrote and never looked back.
* * *
That was almost 20 years ago. Sherman has been in my life and experienced as the greatest living Native writer, to me, that whole time.
In college we watched Smoke Signals and read Lone Ranger and Tonto in our Native Lit. class and we all connected and related and laughed and thought and talked about Indians with all the seriousness and true consideration and heart that we all maybe should have been doing all our lives -or at least me as one of the two actual Native kids in the class- but that we hadn’t ever done until then, and it was in large part Sherman’s book and movie that opened that door for us. Get the right person to tell the story and people can’t help but listen because the truth is a real thing that maybe the most real part of us is always kind of on the lookout for, sniffing thoughtfully in the air for. Sherman captured a lot of the TRUTH of our Indian people in his work and we responded, we responded noticeably, excitedly, compassionately, and profoundly. Sherman came along and he did it. He told our stories and more ears heard him than had ever heard any other Indian before.
I spent my twenties writing short stories and poetry, getting involved in my people’s community and culture. I turned 30 and wrote a memoir. Half a decade clicked by and I wrote a book about our people’s spirituality, a book of short stories about Standing Rock, a long book-length poem and thousands of other poems. I became the writer I’d dreamed of being back when I was a broken teenager in Columbus in the late 90s. None of my books are published but I’m proud of them and I believe they will be someday. People believed in me and I wrote my books. I pulled off my dream.
I met Sherman at a reading in Nebraska a few years ago but I was too nervous to tell him that I was a writer too and that he’d inspired me like so many others all these years with all of his books. Instead, I told him I was a Ponca and he said, “I think you’re the first Ponca I’ve ever met.” He signed my book, “To the coolest Ponca I’ve ever met!” “It’s true, too,” he said, laughing, “because you’re the only Ponca I’ve ever met!” It was a surreal experience. He was a master-level storyteller and reader and comedian. He made me feel so proud to be Indian. He was a wet dream of representation. We were all rolling on the floor, blissed-out. In person, he was even more dynamic and fire-breathing and spot-on and unbelievable. I felt so lucky to have finally seen him and talked to him for a minute. I felt so blessed to have finally made contact with this hero of mine in the flesh. He was proof that what I was doing was possible. Someday, I too would be a cool, rad, funny, published Native writer using his words to help his people. Someday, I would be following right in his footsteps.
Two years ago I moved to Seattle, the city Sherman calls home, and I got to see him speak and read a few more times. The experiences were always revelatory. He was such an inspiring example of what an Indian writer and poet could be when they were working at full power, touching people’s lives, contributing to the aspirational fires of young Natives by the uncountable thousands, so successful, prolific, passionate, charitable and generous with his time, and altering America’s consciousness of who our Indian people are as undeniably and irreversibly as he was medicinally articulating our own truths for us in an unmatched poetic way that we, as modern Natives, are all kind of dying for. I grazed past him once at Elliot Bay Bookstore and decided to just leave him alone as he was quietly browsing the graphic novels for stuff to add to his nearby stack of books. He wasn’t in celebrity Native writer mode, he was in regular person mode. My roommate said, “You didn’t introduce yourself?” “No,” I said, remembering the uncomplicated look on his face, like a boy on the hunt, “he was just being a dude and not any sort of big-shot and I felt like I shouldn’t bother him, like I should just let him be. It’s probably tough being Sherman Alexie. I thought I’d express my gratitude by just leaving him alone.” A missed opportunity? Who knows…
At the beginning of the year, I moved to New Orleans, joining my girlfriend in this other great American city. I started writing a second memoir, about the first two years of my Sundance journey and everyone back then who helped me with all of those precious experiences, and I got to writing some more poems, which I had been feeling like I hadn’t be writing enough of for quite a long time. 2018. New Orleans. What was the story of this year going to be? And then, three weeks ago, up before my better half and lying in bed, looking at my phone and scrolling through Facebook, I came across a shockwave of the #metoo movement that hit terribly, bafflingly close to home: Sherman Alexie had numerous women coming out to report a slew of sexual harassment and abuse-of-power incidents. The story was developing. I stared out the window. “Rape…?” I wondered, unable to formulate any real thoughts, too much in shock that our great hero Mr. Sherman Alexie was also one of these men about to fall from grace and have his reckoning with all of his shadowy wrongdoings that had caught up with him. “How bad is it? What’s the extent? How could he?” Like everyone else, I waited for more details to come out. I waited to hear what all he was guilty of.
* * *
A few years ago, desperate for some new blood in my social life, I met this wonderful, hardcore, blistering, beautiful-souled poet named Amanda in Lincoln, NE, where I was then living for going on 15 years, and we became fast, intense, hanging out for what felt like all the time, friends. She was a tough, work-in-progress, blazing feminist and she schooled me up, made me think about a ton of things I’d only passingly thought about in-depth and very seriously. I had my awakening to feminism, the patriarchy, gentrification, racism, classism, and really that whole frequency of issues and realities, through and because of her. I became a more complete and better person because of her. I became a deeper thinking Indian because of her. I took her seriously, not agreeing with everything she said, and she did the same with me; we opened and changed each other’s worlds. I owe her a lot. I am so glad that when I was looking for a new friend during that stale period in my life that I found her. What a stroke of grace that/she/those times were. What beautiful, beautiful luck.
But I remember when we first met her telling me about the sort of hipster poetry and art community she ran in, saying many times, “It’s a total boy’s club. The men are the kings and the scene is organized around them and all of these young women are just like the prey of so many of them, theirs for the picking and then tossed aside when they’re done with them or whatever. It’s disgusting. They reward each other. They pat themselves on the back. They tilt the culture towards the sating of their desires with no real awareness or sensitivity for the demeaning, diminishing, bullshit-propagating patriarchy-reinforcement they are doing, if not perpetrating. It’s a scene that doesn’t sit well with anybody who can really see what’s going on and yet no one changes it, it does not change.”
Following her into this new social scene, I clearly, almost absurdly and tragically, saw that she was totally right. It was an open boy’s club and an unsettling number of the guys did seem to skew if not outright gloat and brood and roar right in the direction she spoke of. It was so unappealing, ridiculous, exasperating, eye-opening, maddening, and disheartening. The problem was clear but the solution was not. “Over time this shit has to change,” she said. “In time, it has to.”
When #metoo happened last year I was stunned at the number of high-profile men who were outed as creeps, predators, abusers, and rapists but also not stunned because just as we all know that the political world is permeated with very real shady and ignominious and corrupt dealings and maneuverings, so too do we all know that Hollywood is up to its neck in behind-closed-doors abuse and uncoolness and tragic stories aplenty and we also all know that important men in power pretty regularly abuse that power doing all manner of unconscionable and unforgivable and disappointing things to the people around them; this shadow side may not define politics, Hollywood, or men in power, but it is very much an ever-present part of their realities, a daily one, one that everyone who’s right in there really in some way knows about. #metoo was an eruption of pained, righteous revolt against the culture of silence that keeps so much of what allows for these abuses and assaults and crimes to continue on in a heavily present and insanely unchallenged, by and large, way. #metoo was a reckoning. It was time for all these fuckers and sorry cases and long-time predators to face the music of what they had done, of how they had hurt people and really traumatized these women for the totally selfish gratification of their own desires and sickenesses. Like so many following the latest celebrities being dropped because of multiple women coming out with legitimate reports of line-crossing behaviors or worse that they’d done, I, not without feeling the emotional complexity of it all, basically felt like, “It’s about time. If they’re guilty then they’re just getting what’s coming to them. This all has been going on for far too long. It does need to end here. It does.”
Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Charlie Rose. Garrison Keillor. Louis CK. I read the stories. They were all people I was aware of, big presences in the mainstream culture, popular, recognizable people, faces, voices; they were in the backgrounds compositely of probably most households in America. I read what their wives had to say, their publicists, their bosses and colleagues. Over and over again, we saw men who couldn’t help themselves when it came to taking advantage of their power to do things to women in their lives that once publicly confronted with they couldn’t defend or really do anything but go down for, lose their job, be shamed, in some cases face criminal charges and, ultimately, lose their power because of. Good riddance. Whatever. The men didn’t have much of my sympathy, that was all for the women they abused and assaulted and raped. 86 them. Kick them out of the car on the road somewhere. Get them some help but get them out of here and if they committed a crime then prosecute them and may they get the punishment they deserve. The long-suffering oppressed part of us all, I think, was wearily ready to see the delivery of some justice and get some more equality and decency and compassion and humanity in this historically rigged, greed-driven, blood-soaked country we’re living in. What an unfortunate, outrageous mess. But I processed it with a degree of distance because none of these dudes were really important to me; I didn’t care if they fell, if their careers ended. They really didn’t mean much to me personally. But then, there I was in bed that morning with my girlfriend, and I saw that someone who did mean something to me, who for 20 years had been a big hero of mine, who had done so much for my people, was one of these bad men too, was about to be stripped of his position and status, too. I saw that Sherman Alexie was possibly a predator, if not worse, too.
* * *
It’s been about a month since that morning where social media alerted us to the story of Sherman Alexie’s own disappointing (enraging?) place in the line-up of guilty head-hanging #metoo men; that morning I was in shocked disbelief, trying to search out as much information as I could about it all, but now I think I have a sense of the gist of his transgressions and the extent of them, enough to maybe answer the question that this essay generated from: Sherman Alexie used to be my hero but is he still? And if not, what is he now?
NPR did the most substantial piece on Alexie, speaking with 10 women, 3 of whom were willing to speak on the record, giving us a good feel for what has been standing behind Alexie in his past for maybe the last 20 years or so, his own indefensible, shameful, harmful behavior. It looks like he is not guilty of rape or sexual assault -and thank God for so many reasons- but he has apparently had a long-running history of sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and pretty regularly exploiting his fame to have untold hook-ups and affairs that press into that entire range where the women involved have felt his power-differential was totally, consciously abused and every kind of reprehensible aftermath imaginable has come after, from nasty, silencing emails to possible intentional professional career harm. On one hand, he apparently isn’t as bad as the most deplorable of his #metoo peers but on the other hand, it seems that he is self-admittedly guilty many times over of being a creep, an asshole, a jerk, a self-inflated, disrespectful, power-abusing piece of crap, and overall, not as completely the all-around great Native guy so many of us experienced him as and believed him to be. A week after the story broke, he released a statement. In it, he said, “Over the years, I have done things that have harmed other people, including those I love most deeply. To those whom I have hurt, I genuinely apologize. I am so sorry.” He also said, “There are women telling the truth about my behavior…I have made poor decisions and I am working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.”
Long story short, Sherman’s most probably guilty of a strong percentage of what the women who have come forward have stated; he fucked up, a lot, and probably for as long as he’s been a public figure, for as long as he’s been a hero and inspiration to so many of us.
In a perfect world, our Indian people’s story and the true horrific history of what has happened in the course of our Nation’s founding and growth is so deeply known by all of us Americans that a miraculous, proud, culture-transforming healing has occurred and everyone is walking around with a sensitive awareness of how not to live and how to honor the First Peoples of this beautiful, sacred country where we all live. This is the ideal that many of us Native people carry our own versions of in our reflections and the prayerful quiet of our minds. Presently, most, in my experience, haven’t ever even met a real Native let alone had a really personal, memorable conversation with them or actively chosen to educate themselves about the indigenous peoples of this land. We Natives and our history are unknown and so the disregard, disrespect, ignorance, cultural appropriation and harm, sacred site desecration, taking and trauma, continues. Isn’t it an astonishing thing how pivotal, how game-changing, how revolutionary awareness can be? Or how its lack or absence so disastrously and tragically isn’t?
But there is a whole motley, radiant, wild population of Native artists, writers, poets, painters, activists, academics, storytellers, filmmakers, and such working their asses off to rectify this most crucial failing of Native life and history awareness in America and in our own Native homes, and the gap, the chasm, between that perfect world ideal and the past horror-show of propaganda and lost culture is shrinking magnificently and brilliantly more and more by the day. This is why our Native relatives using their talents to tell our stories are so important and essential, so liberating and healing: they are turning the tides of grief-perpetuating trauma and shame and introducing the happiness and healing that comes with the return of self-respect, dignity, value, and sacredness when it comes to how we Natives view and understand ourselves. The awesome storytelling we encounter in all of these creative forms and media doctor us bit by bit and make us feel proud and happy to be Native; they make us feel empowered, inspired, hopeful, strong, good, and closer to being whole than we were before we encountered their medicine. All our Native artists out there of every kind are healing us, changing the entire landscape, positively altering both American and Native cultures, doing the essence of the work that needs to be done to address all the atrocities and injustices that have been committed to indigenous peoples since that heartless explorer stumbled across this land a little over 500 years ago. This is why our Native artists mean so much to us. They’re changing the things that need to be changed.
And Sherman Alexie was to many Indians and non-Indians one of the greatest storyteller-doctors in this beautiful, incredibly necessary work. He has been our most successful, well-known, and talented voice in the overcrowded, junk-saturated arena of American culture. In Indian Country, to many, he was beloved like no other Native writer. (It’s all more complex than that too but this is all pretty much, in my opinion, true.) And this is why it has been sad to see Sherman turn out to be a man who’s biography is somewhat strongly streaked through by a history of mistreating and disrespecting women in his private life, up till now, out of the public’s eye. Now we have to reckon with the fact that one of our great, prolific, ambassadors, heroes, writers, poets, and storytellers is also a kind of fucked-up dude with ‘feet of clay.’ Now we have to see that our favorite Indian writer is kind of just like a lot of troubled people we know (including ourselves?): imperfect, with a rough past, regrets, guilty of hurting people, guilty of things that it may take some or a lot of time to forgive. What the fuck, Sherman? What the fuck?
* * *
I used to have this fantasy where I’d publish my first book and meet Sherman and tell him about my friend and that book he signed for me back in 1999, how I’d made good on that small kindness he arrowed my way and actually became the writer my friend told him I wanted to be and that I deep down knew I was; I’d thank him for his encouragement and hopefully he’d get a reassuring sense of all the thousands of similarly blessed kids and adults he’d momentarily crossed paths with and some piece of my own mythology would come full circle and everything would be unimprovably great in my life for a moment in time. That was the encounter I imagined having with Sherman Alexie, one of my writer heroes, someday.
Is Sherman Alexie still my hero? I guess? I think of my old Seattle roommate who always used to say, with a salty, pessimistic gleam in his eye, “Beware of meeting your heroes. They’re better off never met.” Remembering the times when he said that and thinking of Sherman, I hear him differently now; it’s haunting, sad, because I know how sometimes it is true. Beware of meeting your heroes for they might not be the people you expect them to be; not at all.
I think Sherman is still a hero of sorts of mine because there’s no denying the real impact his work has had on my life and the lives of so many others but those energies that move in us when we think of our heroes have certainly cooled down within me in his regard. I look up to him for his writing but now simultaneously have his failings and the harm he’s caused who knows how many women mixed in, like some birdshit in my coffee, with my feelings about him as well. He’s still a hero of mine but smaller now, chopped down some, kind of sad, with more dimensionality, and complex truth and brokenness to him than I’ll ever be able to overlook or forget.
I wonder what he’ll write next but I kind of care less.
I just wish, like maybe everyone, that he wouldn’t have done what he had done.
I wish he had considered the full lives of these women and done better.
By Cliff Taylor
Cliff Taylor is an enrolled member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. He has written a book on Native spirituality, The Memory of Souls, a book of short stories about the stand for water in Standing Rock, Standing Rock Stories, and a memoir about coming-of-age in Nebraska, Special Dogs, all of which are unpublished. His dream is to see those books in print and to use his words to help his people. He currently resides in New Orleans, where he is hard at work on his next book. Contact Cliff @firstname.lastname@example.org