Study Guide

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel

by Sherman Alexie

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” is one of Alexie’s most notable and fully realized poems. It has enjoyed a second life as the poem that Seymour Polatkin reads in its entirety at a Seattle book store early in the screenplay and film of The Business of Fancydancing (2003). In two-line stanzas that build toward an inevitable but depressing conclusion, Alexie lists a series of supposed assumptions implicit in the title that are requisite in such a work: “The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably/ from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.” There is a connected cluster of cultural assumptions even in those two lines, but in the poem Alexie does not examine deeply each cultural presupposition. Instead, he heaps additional cultural presuppositions onto the ones just uttered: “If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender/ and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man/ then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.”

Such absolute statements demand response and argument, but Alexie purposefully continues to state new stereotypes that are increasingly disturbing. Such large-swath stereotyping isolates images of Indians as artifacts from a past America, even as it allows Anglo-Americans to develop themselves as Indian wannabes with little real understanding of the patronized culture. Alexie’s conclusion reveals that if all of these stereotypes are perpetuated in such a novel, “all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.”

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brill, Susan Berry. Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.

Caldwell, E. K. Dreaming the Dawn: Conversations with Native Artists and Activists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Vickers, Scott B. Native American Identities: From Stereotype to Archetype in Art and Literature. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.