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Prominent Native American author accused of sexual misconduct

SANTA FE, N.M. — Earlier this year, as the #MeToo movement built momentum, accusations of sexual harassment against author Sherman Alexie began to surface.

Alexie, of Spokane-Couer d’Alene heritage, is probably the country’s best-known Native American writer. He was the screenwriter for “Smoke Signals,” the acclaimed 1998 film directed by Chris Eyer, and his novels “Reservation Blues” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a PartTime Indian” won National Book Awards.

Alexie has had connections to Santa Fe, mainly through the Institute of American Indian Arts – a connection that came up as the allegations against the author emerged.

One of the women who came forward said she was working for IAIA when Alexie acted inappropriately toward her.

Before her story was published, the college had already started cutting its ties to Alexie. A scholarship for Master of Fine Arts candidates in creative writing that was created in his name was awarded this week under a new name.

In interviews with National Public Radio and its Seattle-based affiliate KOUW last month, Cowlitz Indian Tribe member and writer Elissa Washuta was one of three women to accuse Alexie.

Washuta and Alexie were in Santa Fe, she said, when he tried to get her to come to his hotel room. The two writers had both contracted to work with the IAIA’s low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

In the interview, Washuta said that, while both were staying in town for work with IAIA, Alexie sent her photos of a hotel room bed with condoms on a nearby table.

According to the news report, Alexie later accused her of plagiarizing his work, and she was afraid of what he would do to her career. She left the IAIA program after that alleged incident. Washuta is currently on the faculty of Ohio State University’s English department.

IAIA MFA program director Jon Davis confirmed that Washuta was a contracted faculty mentor at the Santa Fe school from July 2015 to May 2017.

“I think we did some really good work there,” Washuta told NPR. “And I’m sure they continue to do really good work there. But I’m not a part of it. And that feels so lonely. I’m incredibly sad about it.”

Washuta declined an interview with the Journal via email last week.

Davis told the Journal he hadn’t heard any accusations against Alexie until they surfaced earlier this year. He said he knew Washuta didn’t get along with Alexie, but he thought the issue was his accusation of plagiarism in one of her published essays.

He also recalled Erika Wurth, a writer-in-residence at IAIA from 2007-2008 who also went on the record with NPR, being vocal about disliking Alexie while she was at the school. But Wurth did not work at IAIA the same time as Alexie.

“I was surprised, to say the least,” said Davis, who described Alexie as a friend, of the accusations about the writer. While he was reluctant to predict what could happen in the future, Davis said that for now Alexie’s relationship with the MFA program is “completely severed.”

While Alexie was working as an independent contractor with the institute, there were no official complaints about his behavior, according to IAIA spokesperson Eric Davis.

“We would have had investigations; we would have gone through all that stuff,” Davis said. “If anyone said anything, ever, we would have been all over it.”

As for Washuta’s account of a run-in with Alexie during a work trip to Santa Fe, he said a Title IX officer reached out to Washuta after the news reports and has not received a response.

IAIA connection

Alexie’s contracted work with IAIA began when its low-residency MFA program in creative writing – low-residency meaning participants can work from home or elsewhere but come to the campus from time to time – was formed in summer 2013. He was associated with the program until October 2017.

In 2013 and 2014, Alexie was a faculty mentor for the program, which is mostly conducted online with students corresponding with assigned faculty. After that time, Davis said, the writer was a consultant for the program when he wasn’t taking time off for health reasons. The Sherman Alexie Scholarship was established in early 2017.

Davis downplayed Alexie’s role with the program and the school in recent years. He said Alexie played a large role in getting the MFA program off the ground by agreeing to be a faculty mentor, but in subsequent years he acted as more of an adviser as needed. In total, Alexie had visited the school only about four times since 2014, Davis said.

“He was a supporter of the program but wasn’t at the heart of the program,” he said.

Alexie told Davis in fall 2017 that he was withdrawing from the program for mental health reasons. In the summer of that year, Alexie cited similar reasons for canceling part of the book tour for his memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which focuses on his complicated relationship with his mother.

Alexie had taken time off from his work with IAIA for health reasons before – once for issues with his back and once to recover from a surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, Davis said. But Davis added that this time, his exit felt more final.

“When he withdrew from the school, I thought something like this was going to happen,” Davis said.

He cited a Facebook post by Wurth about two weeks before Alexie’s departure from IAIA that alluded to her writing an article about Native American men in the wake of the #MeToo movement. He thought the post might be about Alexie, but he said at that point it was still a “wild guess.”

Alexie had already left IAIA by then, but spokesperson Eric Davis said school officials didn’t consider the fact that Alexie’s name was still on the MFA scholarship until it was up for renewal in February, “in the middle” of all of the allegations coming out about the author.

The Sherman Alexie Scholarship, funded through a third party, was renamed the MFA Alumni Scholarship. The winner was formerly picked by Alexie but is now chosen by a panel of IAIA faculty.

“Everyone decided it was for the best,” said Eric Davis, who said Jon Davis renamed the scholarship in agreement with Alexie and his team. “We’re very student-focused and student centric environment, we didn’t want to put the student under the microscope for accepting this scholarship.”

Alexie’s response

Attempts by the Journal to reach Alexie for comment were unsuccessful. Several numbers listed under Alexie’s name were either disconnected or not accepting phone calls. His literary agent, Nancy Stauffer Cahoon, did not return phone calls or emails.

As accusations were mounting against him in late Februrary – but before the three women went on the record with NPR – Alexie released a statement saying, “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.”

A majority of Alexie’s statement was devoted to denouncing one of his first public accusers, author and essayist Litsa Dremousis, who encouraged others to come forward. He said he rejects her “accusations, insinuations and outright falsehoods.”

He went on to say, “There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers. That would be completely out of character.

“I have made poor decisions and I am working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.”