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Sherman Alexie, a Native American whose ancestry includes both the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, emerged in the 1990s as one of the most prominent American Indian writers of his generation. In his critically acclaimed poetry, short stories, and novels, he writes about the hardships and joys of life on contemporary reservations. Alexie’s works are celebrated for their detailed descriptions of the psychology and environment of the reservation. The author does not shy away from exploring the ravages of alcohol abuse that is often part of life on the reservation, but he includes a broad, universal message of hope and perseverance in his works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised on a Reservation
Alexie was born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation located in Wellpinit, Washington. He was the son of Sherman Joseph and Lillian Agnes (Cox) Alexie. His father was a Coeur d’Alene Indian and an alcoholic who was often absent from the home, while his Spokane Indian mother helped support the family by selling her hand-sewn quilts and working at the Wellpinit Trading Post. She later became a social worker. Though Alexie was raised in an environment often characterized by depression, poverty, and alcohol abuse, he was an exemplary student from elementary school forward. An avid reader from an early age, he read every book in his elementary-school library as well as most in his local public library.
During Alexie’s childhood, Native Americans were demanding greater civil and property rights, and were inspired in some ways by the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. From 1969 to 1971, a group of Indians of various tribes claimed Alcatraz Island, where the famous penitentiary was still located, by right of discovery and offered to pay for the land. In 1972, there was a famous march on Washington, D.C., by American Indians. Three years later, a shoot-out between the FBI and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) took place at the Pine Ridge Reservation. AIM had been founded in 1968 to demand legal reforms to benefit Native Americans.
Encouraged to Become a Writer
After graduating from Reardan High School, Alexie was admitted to Gonzaga University in 1985. There, under intense pressure to succeed, he became dependent on alcohol. Two years later, Alexie transferred to Washington State University in Pullman, where he majored in American Studies and began writing poetry and short fiction with the encouragement of his creative writing teacher Alex Kuo. A selection of Alexie’s work was published in the magazine Hanging Loose in 1990, and more poems were soon published in other periodicals. This early success provided Alexie with the will and incentive to quit drinking and to devote himself to building a career as a writer.
In 1991, Alexie earned his BA summa cum laude from Washington State, then won a Washington State Arts Commission poetry fellowship. The following year, he was awarded a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. Also in 1992, Alexie published his first poetry collection, the award-winning chapbook I Would Steal Horses, and a collection of short stories and poetry entitled The Business of Fancydancing. The latter collection grew out of the first writing workshop he attended at Washing-ton State and received critical raves as soon as it hit print. Focusing on what he termed ”Crazy Horse Dreams”—a metaphor for aspirations, either farfetched or close-at-hand, that succeed or fail without any apparent logic—The Business of Fancydancing introduced a broad range of characters, many of whom repeatedly appeared in his works.
An Important Anniversary
Alexie entered the literary world at a time when the reading public wanted to hear from Native American writers. The publication of his first books coincided with the five hundredth anniversary of explorer Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America. While many American history books claimed Columbus ”discovered” the Americas, many Native American writers have pointed out that a land with people on it does not need to be discovered and that Columbus and his men murdered and enslaved the native populations they met while searching for gold. This anniversary sparked controversy about the way European-based culture has remembered the history of the Americas. Alexie’s writings helped to express the anger many people felt about the quincentennial.
Continuing to be prolific, Alexie published three books in 1993, including two collections of poetry as well as the highly acclaimed short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The stories in Lone Ranger were often autobiographical in nature, primarily set on the reservation and in Spokane, and focus on survival and forgiveness as major themes.
Novels and Screenplays
In the mid-1990s, Alexie continued to regularly put out poetry collections but also turned to novels. He published Reservation Blues in 1995, then Indian Killer in 1996. The former focuses on the trials and tribulations of an all-Native American rock band while the latter is a thriller which features a killer who scalps his victims. Later in the decade, Alexie returned to a focus on poetry, turning out three collections, including The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998) and One Stick Song (1999).
Alexie branched out into a new writing form in the late 1990s with a screenplay entitled Smoke Signals (1998), based on stories found in Lone Ranger. It was the first film to be produced, directed, and acted by Native Americans. While filmmaking continued to be an interest for Alexie, who made his directorial debut in 2003 with The Business of Fancydancing, he still focused much of his time on writing. Alexie published more lauded collections of short stories, including The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), which featured heartbreaking tales of hope and love amidst pain and chaos, and Ten Little Indians: Stories (2003), which focused on the Native American-white conflict with a darkly comic tone.
Continuing to challenge himself, Alexie published his first book for young adult readers, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), which won a 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle, Washington, gives hundreds of readings of his work every year, and continues to write.
Works in Literary Context
As a writer, Alexie draws on the oral, religious, and spiritual traditions of his Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian heritage, as well as bits and pieces of his own life. His works repeatedly underscore the importance of retaining tribal connections and the wandering story lines of his novels often employ non-mainstream organizational structures, shifting time settings, and multi-leveled connections between people.
As in oral tradition, Alexie’s narratives aim for sudden brief insights as connections that initially elude readers gradually take meaningful shape over time. He often employs dark humor in his stories, and one of his goals is to debunk what he sees as political and cultural myths. In addition to drawing on his Native American background, Alexie, a prolific reader, has found inspiration in a number of authors, including Stephen King.
Shifting Time and the Web of Life
Greatly influenced by his Native American heritage as a writer, Alexie’s story lines—particularly in his novels, but also in many short stories—reflect organizational structures, approaches, and attitudes as they shift time settings (mythical, historical, and modern), place, and person to gradually reveal tribal, family, and personal connections in keeping with the Native American philosophical framework: the web of life. The interconnected nature of his narrative writings can be seen in such stories as “Distances” in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The story typifies the crossover vision of intersecting times as Alexie’s modern characters successfully reenact the failed nineteenth-century Plains Indian Ghost Dance. Alexie’s dystopian vision captures the futility of yearning for a return to the past, asking if modern technology and anyone with white blood were willed away, as the Ghost Dance promised, who and what would be left on the reservation?
Native American Life on the Reservation
Many of Alexie’s stories and novels are set on the reservation— primarily the Spokane Indian Reservation in which he grew up—and they explore the harshness of life for Native Americans. Beginning with the collection The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie introduced many recur ring characters who evoke the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often pervades the lives of Native Americans on reservations. The novel Reservation Blues extends Alexie’s literary use of the locale and inhabitants of the Spokane reservation, reiterating his focus on the conditions of life on the reservation and the hardships faced by many Native Americans.
While Alexie’s poetry collections are not always specifically set on the reservation, such books as I Would Steal Horses and Old Shirts & New Skins unblinkingly explore Native American life. Alexie’s poetry evokes sadness and indignation by showing Native Americans struggling to survive the constant battering of their minds, bodies, and spirits by white American society as well as their own sense of self-hatred and powerlessness. While Alexie does not shy away from depicting involvement with crime, alcohol, and drugs, his poems also evoke a sense of respect and compassion for characters who are in seemingly hopeless situations.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have generally responded positively to Alexie and his writings, regarding him as a major literary voice who is especially praised for his keen insights into the plight of
Native Americans living on reservations. Reviewers have noted that his characters are not clichéd, stone-faced people who accept their lot in life, and that Alexie draws on the rich sense of humor that Indians commonly use to deal with their problems. In addition, critics have praised the energy and emotion he brings to his work in all genres as well as his ability to help non-Native Americans recognize the issues that Indians face and dispel old notions of who Indians are.
Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, focuses on a group of native Americans who form a rock band after coming into possession of legendary blues musician Robert Johnson’s magical guitar. Critics generally praised the book and its ability to appeal to both American Indian and white readers. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Verlyn Klinkenberg concludes that although Alexie makes a point of educating his readers about particulars of Native American life, he ”never sounds didactic. His timing is too good for that. Reservation Blues never misses a beat, never sounds a false note.” Similarly, Abigail Davis in The Bloomsbury Review states, ”The reader closes the book feeling troubled, hurt, hopeful, profoundly thoughtful, and somehow exhausted, as if the quest of the characters had been a personal experience.”
The Toughest Indian in the World
The nine short stories contained in Alexie’s The Toughest Indian in the World were also praised by critics. In Seattle Weekly, Emily White commented that the collection ”proves once again that [Alexie] is the real deal: a master stylist, a born storyteller as well as a writer of inspired formal innovations and experiments.” Denver Post contributor Ron Franscell found two stories—”Dear John Wayne” and ”South by Southwest”—particularly inspiring, writing that he was impressed by the way Alexie ”puts himself inside the heads and hearts of non-Indians. The result is tender, touching and erotic.” Describing an aspect of the appeal of The Toughest Indian, Ken Foster of the San Francisco Chronicle concludes that Alexie ”doesn’t feel the need to instruct his readers in the details of contemporary American Indian culture, and why should he? The lives he portrays are so finely detailed . . . that even the most culturally sheltered reader is transported.”
- Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
- James, Meredith K. Literary and Cinematic Reservation in Selected Works of Native American Author Sherman Alexie. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005.
- Coulombe, Joseph. ”The Approximate Size of His Favorite Humor: Sherman Alexie’s Comic Connections and Disconnections in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” The American Indian Quarterly (Winter 2002): 94.
- Davis, Abigail. Review of Reservation Blues. Bloomsbury Review (July/August 1995).
- Franscell, Ron. ”Alexie’s Tribal Perspective Universal in Its Appeal.” Denver Post (May 21, 2000).
- Foster, Ken. Review of The Toughest Indian in the World. San Francisco Chronicle (May 21, 2000).
- Klinkenberg, Verlyn. Review of Reservation Blues. Los Angeles Times Books Review (June 18, 1995): 2.
- White, Emily. Review of The Toughest Indian in the World. Seattle Weekly (May 11-17, 2000).
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