Sherman Alexie Biography

At a Glance

Sherman Alexie read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at the age of five, despite the fact that doctors predicted he would be mentally challenged. Alexie was born with hydrocephalous (water on the brain) and underwent several brain surgeries, but he grew up to be exceedingly intelligent. As a child, he lived on a Native American reservation near Spokane, Washington, and ended up transferring to an all-white school when his peers bullied him for being interested in education. Alexie has used that experience in much of his writing, focusing on the harshness of reservation life. In 1993, an award-winning collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published. He has gone on to write sixteen novels as well as numerous short stories, poems, and screenplays.

Facts and Trivia

  • Alexie originally hoped to become a medical doctor, but he decided to change career goals because he kept fainting during human anatomy class.
  • Alexie left college before completing his degree because he claimed he didn’t finish his U.S. History course. He said that once discussion of American Indians stopped in the first few weeks of the class, he left.
  • Alexie competed in the World Poetry Bout Association in 1998 and won the World Heavyweight division. He became the first poet to successfully hold the title for four years in a row.
  • Alexie occasionally performs stand-up comedy and was the featured performer at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival in 1999.
  • Alexie collaborated with Chris Eyre, a fellow Native American, on the film Smoke Signals, based on a short story by Alexie. The film won a Christopher Award.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sherman Alexie was born in Spokane, Washington, on October 7, 1966, the son of Sherman Joseph Alexie and Lillian Agnes (née Cox) Alexie. Alexie was hydrocephalic, necessitating brain surgery at the age of six months. The surgery was successful, but he had seizures throughout his youth which were likely related to the birth condition. The seizures, a long history of bed-wetting, and a voracious appetite for reading all conspired to separate him from his childhood peers.

Alexie frequently acknowledges both his Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribal heritage, even as he notes that he is a “breed,” not a “blood,” being 13/16 (as the poem of the same name from The Business of Fancydancing describes) Indian. Alexie’s alcoholic father was absent most of Alexie’s youth, while his mother worked in the Wellpinit Trading Post and sold her handmade quilts. It may or may not be true that he had read all of the books in the Wellpinit school library by the end of the eighth grade. He attended Rearden High School, where he excelled academically and on the basketball court, earning a scholarship to Gonzaga University. After two years at Gonzaga, a drinking problem and a girlfriend at Washington State University caused him to transfer there, and he received his B.A. in English in 1991, benefiting there from the mentorship of one of his teachers, Alex Kuo.

Within a year of graduating from college, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Alexie has said that receiving the two...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexie has made significant and original contributions in a number of related literary and visual genres, and his prolific output has given him well-earned status as a significant literary figure. Although his characters are generally Indians from the Pacific Northwest, his themes of loss, substance abuse, identity, and poverty are readily understood and appreciated by a wide cross section of writers and critics. Alexie shows every indication of continuing to produce significant work in poetry, short fiction, and screenwriting, meriting the attention which he handles so well.

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A self-described Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who believes “Native American” is a “guilty white liberal term,” Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr., grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His father, an alcoholic, spent little time at home, and his mother supported the family by selling hand-sewn quilts at the local trading post. Born hydrocephalic, Alexie spent most of his childhood at home voraciously reading books from the local library. He later attended high school outside the reservation. His academic achievements there secured him a place at Spokane’s Jesuit Gonzaga University in 1985. While there, he turned to alcohol as a means of coping with the pressure he felt to succeed. His goal to...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Sherman Alexie is a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on a reservation. He acknowledges that his origin and upbringing affect everything that he does in his writing and otherwise.

Alexie’s father retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and his mother worked as a youth drug and alcohol counselor. The first of their five children to leave the reservation, Alexie attended Gonzaga University in Spokane for two years before entering Washington State University, where he studied creative writing with Alex Kuo. He was graduated in 1991.

Among the five books Alexie produced between 1992 and 1995, the seventy-seven-line free verse poem “Horses,” from Old Shirts and New...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr., was born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in northwest Washington, where he spent his childhood. When he was six months old, he underwent surgery to correct congenital hydrocephalus. Although the surgery put him at risk for mental retardation, Alexie suffered no ill effects and became an avid reader in his youth. He attended Reardan High School, twenty miles south of the reservation high school, excelling both in the classroom and on the basketball floor. He earned a scholarship to Gonzaga University and, after two years, transferred to Washington State University, from which he graduated in 1994 with a B.A. in American studies.

At Washington State University, Alexie was influenced by poet...

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