Sherman Alexie or How does #MeToo affect the Texts We Teach?

The recent events surrounding Sherman Alexie, first the accusations and then his kind of admission and sort of apology, started a conversation among a few of us at PALS. When the news broke, I was mostly indifferent. Should I have been surprised? Should I have been upset? Should I have been enraged? Should I have had some sort of pause about it all? Probably. But that wasn’t the case. I was bummed, disappointed.

My Positionality (in the world/in education)

Before I go on, I would like to take a minute to set up my perspective and the elements that influence my response to Alexie.

    • I am not a creative writer, nor am I writer of color. There is a wonderful and painful reflection about Alexie’s betrayal by a writer who identifies as both of those and as a woman. For me, however, Alexie has not had an impact on who I am. This isn’t just Alexie; I do not connect emotionally with any writers or written texts, or any “famous” people.
    • Amending point one: I am not devoid of emotion. There has been the discussion of how literature helps heal trauma. That was not the case for me; it never had that opportunity. Literature always functioned as escapism, a place not only to escape my situation but to escape all my emotions.
    • Based on my research interests, I spent years submerged in both critical race theory and criticism about representation of sexual violence in literary works, and sexual violence more broadly. So when revelations like Alexie’s come to light, I move them through a variety of frameworks to rethink how we understand it all.
    • Amending point three: this informs what I do in the classroom. My initial reaction is not to remove Alexie from the classroom. So now I am wondering, how might students benefit from reading Alexie’s work with this new information about the author?
    • Alexie’s works only makes it onto my syllabus every three years or so, and he is rarely the only Native American writer represented. Since I don’t teach Alexie heavily, not teaching his work doesn’t impact my courses nor does it serve as some sort of protest. This last part I say without judgment. If Alexie is the only Native writer you teach, there is no time like the present to remedy that. For those interested in exploring more Native writers, here is a starting point. (Note: This list is not complete. There are Native writers I teach who are not on it.) Also, we have had multiple posts here on several Early Native American writers, like Handsome Lake and protest literature, poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Haida poets.

When the question was raised among the PALS editors of whether or not we needed to make some sort of statement or amend our posts that include Alexie–Repurposing the Captivity Trope and Bookending the Survey Part 2–or to suggest alternative texts, my initial response, in my head of course because I do have a filter sometimes, was “Why?” I was confused by the discussion. Why wouldn’t we continue to teach Alexie’s works after this revelation?

My indifference isn’t because I don’t care about sexual assault and harassment because I do. It’s because it is such a normalized experience for me as a woman that I really had to take some time to figure out my relationship with authors I teach whose personal histories are deeply problematic. Also, because I am me, I took it to the streets—in academia this is also known as the classroom.

My Students’ Responses

I am currently teaching as a part of the San Diego City College CCAP (College and Career Access Pathways) program which involves teaching college courses at high school campuses, specifically targeting students who are undecided about pursuing college. I had these high school aged college students do some in class writing on a broad prompt to get us started on a discussion that took the entire hour and a half class period:

Should a person’s personal behaviors have an effect on their professional lives/achievement? Why or why not? Explain.

I intentionally kept the prompt extremely vague for two reasons. First, we had just finished a unit on social media use where students were adamantly against the practice of potential colleges and employers creeping on perspective students and employees’ social media accounts. Second, we read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Super Man and Me” just weeks before he was called out for his sexual misconduct.

Of course my students, in all of their good faith in humanity and their buying into the American promise that hard work pays off, answered “no” to the question and followed with seemingly innocuous examples. People partying or getting a little crazy in their personal lives should not take away from their hard work or achievements in their professional lives. Because social media was on their minds, I had anticipated this response. Sexual assault and other crimes did not enter their thoughts on the subject.

I put the NPR article about Alexie up on the projector and read a few of the victims’ statements. My students were shocked and sad. They really liked Alexie’s essay. I changed the prompt to get at the question I have been trying to work through:

Should these revelations about Alexie’s personal behaviors keep me from teaching his creative writing in my classes?

Like me, this took a lot longer for students to process. There were a couple immediate “stop teaching him” answers. I was asked if I knew about his actions before I had them read his essay. Others said if they had known that going in, then they would not have read his work. Another student asked about the time frame, because if he had changed his behavior, then shouldn’t we give him a second chance?

Then the conversation shifted into one that involved understanding sexual assault. Not a single student in the room knew the name Harvey Weinstein or anything about the #Metoo movement. So we pulled up a list of films he has a producer credit on and the list of his accusers. Again, my students were surprised at how many of those names they recognized. This led down the road of how it happened to so many women over such a long period of time. Eventually we discussed the attitudes that dismiss or make light of women’s experiences and how all of it is compounded with race, class, and sexual orientation among other factors. And somehow we ended up talking about the back log of unprocessed rape kits and other logistical elements involving sexual assault.

We went down this long road in order for students to ask the question, “If we stop reading Alexie, does that mean we don’t watch any of Weinstein’s 300+ films?” I offered a few more comparisons for consideration: Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Even though I know my audience, I wasn’t sure if those examples were going to hold up, especially R. Kelly. But my students still listen to R. Kelly and still watch at least short clips from various Bill Cosby shows on Youtube, knowing about the allegations and charges against both of them. Why? Their answers: Because they still find enjoyment or connection with the art.

Do We Still Teach Alexie?

Bringing it back to the educational space, I asked them the question that particularly nags at me. Why Sherman Alexie? Why not others? Who else do we consistently teach despite their problematic behaviors and attitudes?

Ahem. Is it Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Racist? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Rapist? Does Sally Hemings’ posthumous #Metoo count? What about Jefferson’s musings about race in Notes on the State of Virginia? Did I miss the memo about no longer teaching him in early American literature or history courses?

The first time I read parts Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was in a southern history course among texts of white male southern historians. However, that wasn’t the first time I was exposed to the content of it. I first read about Notes in David Walker’s Appeal. And this is the way I teach Jefferson. Since I structure my courses thematically or by genre, teaching texts chronologically doesn’t come into play that much. So I teach Walker and include the excerpts from Jefferson along with it to enable students to see in writing what Walker is calling out. Students get a lot out of seeing this side to Jefferson that is sadly entirely new to them.

In grad school I did a research project for a film pedagogy course that involved D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I strained a muscle from the amount of eye-rolling I did as critic after critic tried to downplay Griffith’s racism. I’ve read Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, and Griffith added his own racist elements to the adaptation, in addition to claiming the film as representational of historical fact. Why is there the need to suggest Griffith wasn’t an awful person in order to acknowledge what he did for cinematography during the time period? Back to the classroom, I would not teach this film in an intro to film studies course. I might pull clips from it when teaching cinematography. I would possibly include it in an upper division film course. I would probably include it in a course that focused on the representation of race in film, along with proper set up and DJ Spooky’s remix Rebirth of a Nation.

Lakota woman

Likewise, I wonder about the importance of teaching Alexie in different ways. In another course, I often teach excerpts from Mary Crowdog/Bravebird’s Lakota Woman, primarily “Aimlessness.” Students LOVE her memoir. The chapter I bring in focuses quite a bit on the sexual assault of Native Women by both Native and white men. Perhaps one approach is pairing Alexie with narratives like Bravebird’s and bringing his sexual misconduct into the conversation of the course. What does it mean that Alexie is writing against power structures as he participates in and uses them himself? How many of his characters try to do that, and to what success? We don’t need to sing endless praise of those whose texts we choose to teach or try to explain away their transgressions in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about still finding merit in them. We can change the way we teach them. And, we can choose not to teach them.

Let’s not forget the presence of sexual assault on college campuses and all the times it has gone ignored or been swept away by the power structures that be. As a college student, I also saw plenty of inappropriate behavior between professors and both undergrad and grad students with respected professors looking the other way as though the power structure at play there didn’t exist or wasn’t a problem. Sherman Alexie who makes it a point of identifying as teacher and mentor in “Superman and Me” also opens up this conversation.

Whether or not we continue to include Alexie on our syllabi is an individual decision. But we should all take a moment to reflect on the personal backgrounds of all the writers we teach and continue to make purposeful decisions in our course designs.

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Teaching Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered” as Protest Literature

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Copyright Kim Smith

I am currently teaching a 200-level topics course entitled “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature.” The class starts with excerpts from Alexander Hamilton’s 1775 pamphlet Farmer Refuted and ends Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this class, we take our definition of “protest literature” from John Stauffer’s foreword to American Protest Literature: Protest literature “critiques some aspect of society, but also suggests, either implicitly or explicitly, a solution to society’s ills” (xii). In class discussion and assignments, students analyze how protest literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “functions as a catalyst, guide, or mirror of social change” (xii). My syllabus includes literature of the American Revolution, the early anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement as well as working class and American Indian literature from the antebellum era.

In the unit on “American Indian Rights,” the class considers the role of transcribed oral texts in the protest literature tradition of the United States. One of my favorite texts to teach in this unit is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.” Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a Seneca prophet whose teachings were passed down and later recorded by Seneca anthropologist Arthur Parker in the early twentieth century. An excerpt of “How America Was Discovered” is found in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and can be incorporated into survey courses on early American and nineteenth-century American literature. I’ve also taught it in a topics course on “American Origin Stories.” The narrative is about one-page long and re-tells the well-known Columbus story from a Native perspective. Because it is short and seems to tell a familiar story, it is very accessible to students. However, the reading is incredibly rich and needs to be taught in the context of Handsome Lake’s revivalist religious movement.

Handsome Lake: Background and Context

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Some instructors may be hesitant to teach “How America Was Discovered” if they are not specialists in American Indian literature—which I am not. Indeed, teaching the cultural and tribal context of the literature is vital, as Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac reminds: “When talking about an American Indian story you need to be specific about what particular Native nation owns that story. Always acknowledge the nation and the individuals who have shared that story. Remember, too, that stories are embedded in a cultural matrix” (39-40). I always have students read scholar Andrew O. Wiget’s introduction to Handsome Lake in the Health Anthology, and in class lecture, I provide additional information on Handsome Lake and the Longhouse Religion inspired by his visions and prophecies. Sometimes, depending on the goals of the course, I also have students read chapters from Bruchac’s Our Stories Remember to provide my students with a context for reading and approaching Native literature.

Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a leader in the League of Iroquois, a confederation of several tribes located in what is now upstate and central New York. After the American Revolution, the Iroquois lost most of their land and were forced to live on reservations as retribution for siding with the British. Removal from their homeland, disease, war, and  encroaching settlement by white colonists resulted in loss of cultural cohesion and autonomy. Due to so much change and loss in such a short period of time, some Iroquois turned to the alcohol introduced by whites, further eroding the traditional way of life.

Handsome Lake also succumbed to alcohol and illness, but had a powerful religious vision in 1799. Three messengers of the Creator—possibly representing three Quaker missionaries who were admired by the Iroquois—appeared to him in Iroquoian dress. From this vision, Handsome Lake developed the “Gaii’wiyo,” or the “Good Word” which centered on two teachings: Cede no more land to the whites and revitalize the old traditions. If not, destruction would soon follow. These visions were called the Code of Handsome Lake and developed into the Longhouse Religion, a combination of Quaker teachings and Iroquoian traditions. “How America Was Discovered” is just one prophecy from this code, published in 1923 in Parker’s Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. As Wiget explains in his introduction in the Heath Anthology, the narrative exposes the “Columbian consequences” of European exploration and colonization of the Americas.

“How America Was Discovered”: Summary and Analysis

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The story opens with a “great queen” who “had among her servants a young minister.” Students can always ascertain that the “great queen” refers to Isabella of Spain, yet as the narrative progresses, students find that the young minister is not Columbus. He does not enter the story until almost the end, thereby downplaying the centrality of Columbus to the European “discovery” of America. This counters the traditional American discovery story that most of my students learned in elementary school, of Columbus heroically “sailing the ocean blue” with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.

The queen asks the young minister, to “dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest” where he finds a “wonderful book,” a reference to the Bible. Like Columbus himself, the importance of the Bible is also diminished in the discovery of America, discarded and apparently forgotten by even the Queen and her ministers. In this “wonderful book,” the young minister reads that it was the “white man” who “killed the son of the creator,” a direct reference to Christ. The Seneca probably would have known the story of Jesus’s crucifixion from their contact with Quaker missionaries. Nonetheless, in Handsome Lake’s version of the crucifixion, it is emphasized that white men kill Christ. The implied question remains: If the whites killed Jesus, then why should Indians be implicated in and beholden to the story of sin and repentance told through Jesus’s crucifixion?

The young minister reads that Jesus didn’t return “after three days and again after forty,” and that his followers despaired.  Instead of having faith, the young minister “was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived” and asks for advice from the “chief ministers.” They counsel him to “seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now.”

In his quest to find the Lord, the young minister eventually come to a gold palace with a “handsome man” who tells of “a great county of which you have never heard.” It is “across the ocean” and the young minister will receive fame and wealth if he will bring five things to the “honest and single-minded” people there: cards, money, the fiddle, whiskey, and blood corruption. In other teachings, Handsome Lake warns against alcohol and gambling. The handsome man in this story hopes that the fiddle will speak to the base and lower natures of the innocent people across the ocean. Students may not understand that “blood corruption” is a reference to sexually transmitted disease, which could affect fertility and reproduction. Indeed, the handsome man explains that the blood corruption will “eat their strength and rot their bones,” a possible reference to the degenerative nature of syphilis.

Although the young minister is promised “wealth,” “position,” and “power” if he introduces these corrupting influences to the virtuous people, he is worried and begins to “wonder if he had seen the Lord.” But when the young minister warns Columbus to not seek this land, Columbus still decides to “fi[t] out some boats and sai[l] out into the ocean.” Although the other ministers have seen through the “handsome man’s guise,” Columbus does not. In Handsome Lake’s account of how America was discovered, Columbus is not a hero but rather a misguided, foolish young man who does not listen to those with more wisdom and experience. It turns out that “that land was America.” Soon, more ships with white men flood the new land, bringing “cards, money, fiddles, whiskey, and blood corruption.”

The handsome man who told the young minister about the innocent people of America was the devil, and “when afterward he saw what his words had done he said he had made a great mistake.” In short, the discovery of Americas by Europeans was not part of God’s providential design, but rather the work of devil. And even the devil regrets the evil that he caused by convincing the Europeans to go to the Americas.

With this narrative, Handsome Lake offers a “re-evaluation of Christian elements” and a “negative evaluation of the motive and influence of Europeans,” thereby exposing the contradictions at the heart of the Columbus story, one of the organizing myths of the United States.

Legacy and Present Day Connections

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Photo by Indian Country Today Media Network

Although Handsome Lake’s prophecies were never realized in his own time, they were an inspiration for other Native revitalization movements such as the Sun Dance of the Great Basin later in the nineteenth century.  Handsome Lake’s Longhouse Religion is still practiced today.

I try as much as I possibly can to responsibly teach what Bruchac calls the “cultural matrix” of tribal specificity, although I know I sometimes fall short due to my own lack of knowledge and cultural blind spots. I am always learning and trying to do better. However, I think that it is important for my non-Native students in rural north Texas to learn about Native resistance and protest as an on-going historical process, not a short-lived moment in the past or an isolated present day phenomena.

In the protest literature class, my students link Handsome Lake’s narrative to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, particularly Handsome Lake’s insistence that his people cede no more land to whites and the Dakota people’s protest of the environmental degradation that would be caused to their homelands as a result of the pipeline. In fact, some students note that in terms of pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian nation and the greed at the heart of America’s origins, Handsome Lake’s protest is needed now more than ever.

Questions for class discussion and assignments:

  1. What is the significance of downplaying the role of Columbus in “How America Was Discovered”?
  2. How does altering the American origin story help Handsome Lake achieve his religious and political purposes?
  3. What makes Handsome Lake’s story a form of “protest literature”?
  4. How can this narrative sharpen our thinking about present day protest movements and protest literature?