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 when he fainted in a human anatomy class. His poetry workshop teacher, Alex Kuo, encouraged his writing, and with the assistance of a Washington State Arts Commission fellowship in 1991, he finished his first books of poetry. In his review of The Business of Fancydancing for The New York Times Book Review, James Kincaid hailed Alexie as “one of the major lyric voices of our time.” Following this initial acclaim, Alexie gave up drinking, and he has spoken out against alcohol abuse, particularly on the reservation, both in his public appearances and in his subsequent writings.
Alexie married Diane Tomhave, of Hidatsa, Ho-Chunk, and Potawatomi heritage, in 1995. They would have two sons, Joseph (born 1997) and David (born 2001). Alexie’s move to Seattle is reflected in the shift of settings in his first two novels, from the Spokane reservation in Reservation Blues to Seattle in Indian Killer, which was published one year later. His involvement in film, which started with Smoke Signals in 1998, is consistent with his flair for public performance and stage presence. Alexie takes pride in having won the World Heavyweight Poetry Bout (slam poetry) in 1998 and each of the next three years as well, and his credits include stand-up comedy and various television appearances, including the Public Broadcasting Service’s program A Dialogue on Race with President Clinton in 1998. With Colville Indian musician Jim Boyd, Alexie has also collaborated on several musical recordings.
Owing to an administrative oversight, Alexie’s bachelor’s degree was not awarded by Washington State University until 1994; his alma mater recognized him in 2003 with a Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award. He also holds honorary degrees from Seattle University and Columbia College (Chicago).