Targeting tokenism one way to fill the gap left by author Sherman Alexie
Multiple women have accused Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, of harassment and sexual misconduct. Alexie's work has long been a staple of high school and college courses in the United States and Canada.
For Theodore Van Alst, an associate professor at the University of Montana, that question should be replaced by a different one: "What happens when you only … hold up one author?" he said.
In his essay, "What Do the Allegations Against Sherman Alexie Mean for Native Literature?" Van Alst looked at deep-rooted issues with the tokenism of Indigenous authors in the United States.
Why is there "only ever one Native author on the syllabus or in the curriculum?" he asked.
"The secondary problem … is when they say, 'Well who do we replace him with?'"
Van Alst said there are no measures in place to enforce whether or not educators are researching Indigenous authors in order to include a more diverse range of voices and stories in curriculum content.
There's this sort of American and settler desire to only ever have this single voice.- Van Alst
"It's really incumbent on teachers to know these things, to want to know these things, but there seems to be little to no enforcement," said Van Alst.
By not including "rich and varied" Indigenous literature, "I think teachers and education systems are failing our students, Native and non-Native," he said.
The attitude of cycling through one Indigenous author at a time, having only one Indigenous voice, ignores the vast diversity of Indigenous cultures in North America, said Van Alst. It's an attitude he views as a continuation of colonialism.
"There's this sort of American and settler desire to only ever have this single voice," said Van Alst. "It comes down to always just really wishing since they arrived here that there was one chief to sign one big fat treaty."
Unpacking this means moving beyond "willful ignorance" of the many Indigenous authors publishing today. Van Alst also sees a great deal of denial in how non-Indigenous communities view themselves, which plays into the problem.
"I think America has a really hard time with … if you say settler society or settlers down here, everybody's thinking about John Wayne movies," he said.
If non-Indigenous educators do the work of learning more about Indigenous authors, "there's a whole lot of voices out here that are waiting for a larger platform."
For Van Alst, it's just a matter of looking for them and including many, not one, Indigenous author at a time.