Sherman Alexie Biography

Sherman Alexie Biography

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...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Sherman Alexie Biography

(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.

Sherman Alexie Biography

(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 become a medical doctor was derailed by fainting spells in human anatomy class, and Alexie later transferred to Washington State University in 1987, where he began writing and then publishing his poetry and short stories. During a 1992 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, he wrote his award-winning The Business of Fancydancing and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. With this success came sobriety.

Based on his collection of short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie wrote and directed the award-winning Smoke Signals (1998), the first feature film ever made with an all-Native American cast and crew. Alexie, his child, and wife Diane, a member of the Hidatsa nation and college counselor, settled in Seattle, Washington.

Sherman Alexie Biography

(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 Skins, typifies the passion, anger, and pain in some of his most effective poems. Focused on the slaughter of a thousand Spokane horses by General George Wright in 1858, the long lines echo obsessively: “1,000 ponies, the United States Cavalry stole 1,000 ponies/ from the Spokane Indians, shot 1,000 ponies & only 1 survived.” The poem is one of Alexie’s favorites at readings, where it acquires the incantatory power of the best oral poetry.

Although Alexie’s poems often have narrative and dramatic qualities, he is also adept at the short lyric, and his published work includes examples of the sestina and the villanelle. “Reservation Love Song,” from The Business of Fancydancing, reflecting on the poverty of reservation life, with its government-built housing and low-quality food, begins:

   I can meet you   in Springdale buy you beer   & take you home   in my one-eyed Ford.

First Indian on the Moon is largely composed of prose poems. “Collect Calls” opens with an allusion to Crazy Horse, who appears often as a mythic figure in Alexie’s writing: “My name is Crazy Horse, maybe it’s Neil Armstrong or Lee Harvey Oswald. I am guilty of every crime; I was the first man on the moon.” As in his fiction, Alexie tempers the anger and pain of his poems with satiric wit, as in “The Marlon Brando Memorial Swimming Pool,” from Old Shirts and New Skins, in which activist Dennis Banks is imagined as “the first/ Native American real estate agent, selling a 5,000 gallon capacity dream/ in the middle of a desert.” Not surprisingly, there is no water in the pool.

Sherman Alexie Biography

(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 and English professor Alex Kuo. Soon after his graduation, he earned multiple poetry fellowships and began to publish collections of his poetry with Hanging Loose Press. Alexie claims that although he struggled with alcoholism throughout his college years, he quit drinking when he received his first acceptance letter from Hanging Loose Press and has been sober since 1990. Alexie began writing and publishing short fiction, then novels, in the mid-1990’s.

Alexie has continued to be creative, branching out in multiple genres in addition to fiction and poetry. He has written and directed films and has made many personal appearances before audiences throughout the world. In these appearances, he reads his poetry, short stories, and excerpts from his novels and performs stand-up comedy, sometimes accompanied by musician Jim Boyd, whose work appears in both of Alexie’s films, Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing (2002). Alexie won the World Poetry Bout Association competition four years in a row, 1998 through 2001. He has appeared many times on television, including on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Sixty Minutes II, and The Colbert Report. Alexie married Diane Tomhave in 1995, and the couple have two sons, Joseph and David.

Sherman Alexie Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr., grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. His father was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, his mother a Spokane. An operation when he was six months old placed him at risk of mental retardation, but Alexie survived to become a voracious reader early on. Feeling ostracized on the reservation, partly because of his intellectual pursuits, he transferred to the all-white high school in Reardan, twenty-two miles away, where he was a popular student and starred on the basketball team. After two years at Gonzaga University, Alexie transferred to Washington State University, where his initial interest in pursuing a medical career ended...

(The entire section is 394 words.)

Sherman Alexie Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr., is a prolific writer, most of his work reflecting the nature of life on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, and the life of down-and-out American Indians in cities such as Seattle and Spokane. His poetry and short fiction are both marked by a robust humor, which ranges from slapstick to a dry self-deprecation; it is this characteristic tone that generally engages readers and stays with them after the book is finished.

Alexie was born on October 7, 1966, near Spokane, Washington, the son of Sherman Joseph and Lilian Agnes (Cox) Alexie. After graduating from high school in 1985, he attended Gonzaga University for two years, dropping out briefly. Once back...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Sherman Alexie Biography

(eNotes Publishing)

Sherman Alexie was born October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Like the protagonist of Part-Time Indian, he was born with hydrocephalous (i.e., water on the brain) and was not expected to survive long. Even after he had an operation to correct the condition, doctors thought that Alexie would suffer mental deficiencies. Defying those predictions, however, Alexie learned to read by age three and developed a voracious intellectual curiosity that often made him the butt of jokes from his peers. Also like his protagonist Junior, Alexie chose to leave the Spokane Reservation to attend the more advanced and better supplied Reardan High School twenty miles away. He later attended both Gonzaga...

(The entire section is 260 words.)

Sherman Alexie Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Acknowledged by The New Yorker in June 1999, as one of the top writers of the upcoming twenty-first century, Sherman Alexie is a...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Sherman Alexie Biography

(Novels for Students)

Poet, novelist, and screenwriter, Sherman Alexie has helped to reshape conventional images of Native Americans through his lyrical, yet blunt...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Sherman Alexie Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Alexie was born on October 7, 1966, in Spokane, Washington. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the...

(The entire section is 495 words.)