illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie Biography

Sherman Alexie read John 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 hydrocephalus 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 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.


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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 fellowships, followed by a book contract with Hanging Loose Press to publish The Business of Fancydancing, motivated him to quit drinking and that he has remained “sober” ever since. The following decade revealed his talent and determination to excel in a number of different literary genres, and he was named on multiple lists as one of the most promising writers under the age of forty.

Following strong critical praise for The Business of Fancydancing (1992), Alexie published a number of poetry chapbooks in addition to four full-length collections of poetry: First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirts and New Skins (1993), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), and One Stick Song (2000). He has published three collections of short stories, all to critical acclaim: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), and Ten Little Indians (2003). He has published two novels: Reservation Blues (1994) and Indian Killer (1996).

Alexie moved on his own into the area of screenwriting, adapting the short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” into the screenplay of Smoke Signals and persuading Cheyenne/Arapaho Chris Eyre to direct the film. The unheralded film won both the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, causing Miramax Films to agree to distribute the film. Alexie wrote, as well as directed and produced, his second feature film, The Business of Fancydancing (2003), which won awards throughout North America, most notably the Best Narrative Feature Film at the 2002 Durango Film Festival and Audience Awards at the San Francisco and Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festivals.

Alexie is a funny and engaging interviewee on television and in front of a variety of audiences. He continues to perform as a stand-up comedian and as a garage-band musician (with other notable writers in a band called The Remainders), even as he continues to produce works of fiction, poetry, and film. Alexie repeatedly refuses to be considered a spokesman; he claims simply to be providing his own...

(This entire section contains 652 words.)

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personal vision. However, it is difficult for readers and critics not to look toward Alexie as one of the most promising writers in the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century and certainly a writer who, if he does not speak for Indian people, certainly provides insight and worthy reflection on what it means to be an American Indian in the modern world.


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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 University and Washington State University. His own medical experiences might have influenced his desire to take premed classes, but his inability to actually stay awake when studying human anatomy quickly changed his mind. Alexie eventually turned to literature and found his true calling as a writer.

Alexie had published two volumes of poetry before his first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, brought him international fame in 1993. The movie Smoke Signals (1998) was based on one of the short stories contained in this collection. Alexie’s first full-length novel, Reservations Blues, was published in 1995; and his second novel, Indian Killer, followed one year later.

Multitalented, Alexie has appeared on stage as both a singer and a stand-up comic. He also teaches writing and ethnic studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two children.


Critical Essays