Sherman Alexie is a Spokane Coeur d’Alene American Indian whose work reveals the limitations of not only reservation life but also the white urban lifestyle. As he exposes the cultural bankruptcy of reservation life he also exhibits the potential of its people. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven achieves a high moral aim by reflecting back the stereotypes of Indians in ironic ways, exposing oppression, exploitation, and self-victimization. In telling these stories, Alexie has received some criticism by those who feel he trades on stereotypes.
Victor Polatkin, for example, who begins the collection with his realization of the destructive impulses of the people around him, comes to an epiphany (albeit an enigmatic and open-ended epiphany) by the end of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” While old Indians drown in mud puddles and women are sterilized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs immediately after the births of their children, “The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue” and “Imagining the Reservation” end positively with the beauty of the half-white, half-Indian baby and the affirmation that imagination “turns every word into a bottle rocket.”
In this collection, Alexie plays off the Indian trickster tradition as well as the storyteller tradition, occasionally ironically (as with the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whom no one wants to listen to). Frequently, Alexie provides no clear ending to a given story.
Alexie won a PEN/Hemingway Award in 1993 for Best First Book of Fiction for The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and has received numerous other awards, including the 2007 National Book Award, Young People’s Literature, for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). The film Smoke Signals (1999), which was written by Alexie, is based on stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, primarily “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.”