SANTA FE – A writer and professor who is among the women alleging sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct by famed author Sherman Alexie disputes the account of a Santa Fe college official about how her complaints against Alexie were handled by the school.
Alexie, one of the country’s most famous Native American writers, has served as faculty mentor and consultant for the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Allegations against Alexie were made public in March by Elissa Washuta, now on the English faculty at Ohio State University, in reports by National Public Radio and KUOW, a Seattle-based member station.
Washuta described an incident she says happened in January 2015 when she and Alexie were staying in Santa Fe for work with Institute of American Indian Arts. She said Alexie sent her a photo of his hotel room bed with condoms on a table next to the bed.
Washuta said Alexie later accused her of plagiarizing an essay and that she was worried about what he would do to her career. She left the IAIA program after he made the accusation.
In an interview with the Journal two weeks ago, Jon Davis, director of the MFA program at IAIA, said he had not heard about Washuta’s harassment allegations before the public radio news reports in March and thought the only issue between the two was Alexie’s plagiarism accusation.
Washuta had previously declined to comment to the Journal. But she said in an email Friday that she told Davis in an April 2017 phone call, just before she resigned and took the job with Ohio State, about the photos Alexie had sent her two years previously. During that call, she says, she also discussed Alexie’s accusation of plagiarism against her, which she described as false.
Asked for a response to Washuta’s comments to the Journal, Davis said Friday he doesn’t remember her telling him about offensive photos or his telling her he had heard rumors about Alexie.
“I don’t recall that, no,” he said, reiterating that the first time he heard about Washuta’s allegations was from the NPR reports.
In the email, Washuta stated: “He told me he was concerned about the sending of photos, asked me who else knew about it (I told him I had warned one of our students), and said he had heard vague rumors about Alexie, but hears unsubstantiated rumors about lots of people.”
Washuta added that she told Davis she didn’t want to file a complaint or speak out at that time because she feared retaliation and possible effects on her future employment.
Her email also states that Davis told her he would consult other colleagues and faculty mentors on how to handle the situation, which to her knowledge didn’t occur.
“I attempted to handle this internally but no action was taken,” she wrote.
In February, Alexie – who has won two National Book Awards for his novels and wrote the script for the acclaimed movie “Smoke Signals” – issued a statement about allegations against him.
“There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers,” he said. “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.”
IAIA recently dropped Alexie’s name from what had been the school’s Sherman Alexie Scholarship, now the MFA Alumni Scholarship, funded by a third party. Alexie formerly picked the winner, but that’s now done by a faculty panel.
IAIA’s Davis said Friday he does remember Washuta calling him about Alexie’s accusations of plagiarism. That is what he intended to consult colleagues about because he didn’t feel fit to adjudicate the plagiarism claim’s legitimacy, Davis said.
He said Washuta didn’t mention sexual harassment in her resignation from IAIA.
In her Friday email, Washuta wrote: “I have no desire to harm this wonderful MFA program in any way, but I object to (Jon) Davis’s account of my actions.”
Washuta also stated she has not heard from the IAIA’s officer on Title IX, the federal act that bans gender discrimination in education. IAIA spokesperson Eric Davis told the Journal previously that the school’s Title IX officer had reached out to Washuta after her allegations emerged.
Eric Davis said Friday that a Title IX email was sent to Washuta on March 8. He said he could not provide a copy of the email because Title IX documents are confidential.
Attempts by the Journal to reach Alexie directly and through his literary agent for comment have been unsuccessful. In his February statement, 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.”
But a majority of his statement criticized 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.”