illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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Leslie Ullman (review date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Ullman, Leslie. “Betrayals and Boundaries: A Question of Balance.” Kenyon Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1993): 186–88.

[In the following excerpt, Ullman offers a positive assessment of the equivocal and metaphysical nature of The Business of Fancydancing.]

Sherman Alexie's collection of poems and stories [in The Business of Fancydancing] weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride, and metaphysical provocation out of the hard realities that make up its material: the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters, all Coeur D'Alene Indians living on the Spokane Indian reservation. Alexie is a member of this tribe. This, his first published collection, is tautly written and versatile in its use of forms, which include prose vignettes, two villanelle, and several delicately constructed, songlike poems making skillful use of white space. The collection also contains so many fine moments, subtle and forceful arrivals, that I wish I could simply quote whole pieces of it here.

Perhaps it is continual presence of paradox, in many forms, which makes this collection inspire a deep thoughtfulness and awe for something enduring inside its characters, where it could just as well inspire indignation on their behalf or derision for their behavior. To the outward eye, there is not much to redeem some of them: a character named Simon backs his truck for miles down the highway, laughing wildly, until he hits a utility pole and knocks it over in a shower of sparks (“Special Delivery” 42); Thomas Builds-a-Fire holds the reservation postmistress hostage with “the idea of a gun” (“Special Delivery” 45–46); Old Man robs a bowling alley cash register of small change and then is caught because the driver of his getaway car has passed out (“Misdemeanors” 66); people accidentally wreck their cars, burn their houses, tumble down flights of stairs. Often they are drunk, but even if not, a certain ability to do the crazy thing and emerge intact seems to be part of their blood, like a drug that both kills and saves. They have become numb and pliant and indestructible. They have nothing to lose. They live in government housing, eat government food, drive cars that break down in the middle of nowhere, and are continually harassed by the law. “A drunk can survive the worst car wreck because his body offers no resistance,” Alexie observes, and this statement rings as metaphor for a condition brought about by more than liquor. He continues, “Indians are never afraid of a little gravity” (“Gravity” 82).

Both Sherman Alexie and Adrian Louis, another native American writer under review, show us people held by borders. Their reservations contain them, offering a life of dull repetition and self-derision (“‘Seymour sure is drunk tonight. / He thinks he's a goddamn Indian,’” a fellow “skin” observes in “Spokane Tribal Celebration, September 1987,” 74). They are free to leave and often do, only to find themselves facing another kind of boundary, a sense of being foreigners, bound more than they realized by a sense of where they came from and who they are: “did you ever get the feeling / when speaking to a white American / that you needed closed captions?” Alexie asks in “Powwow” (51).

Yet within this other boundary, a kind of inner reservation, resides a knowledge that is fluid and Zenlike, something not-bound, which supplies the resonant edge of paradox in Alexie's collection. His characters, including himself, remain detached in the midst of submissiveness, innocent and observant, patient, irreverent, and oddly untouchable. They are metaphysicians, and their observations nudge the mind time...

(This entire section contains 1173 words.)

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and again like a breeze passing through a stale room.

For example, Simon, holding forth in a bar in the story, “Special Delivery,” explains “the politics of time, distance, and geography” in a way that at once defines and thumbs its nose at the limitations that characterize life on the reservation:

“… there's point A, and that's where you are, and then there's point B, and that's where you're supposed to be. So it's how you get from point A to point B, how long it takes you to do it, and what you see along the way, that is politics.”

“I'm drunk now,” one of the Andrew brothers yelled out from the back of the bar, “and I plan on being drunker later.”

“My friends,” Simon said, “point A is drunk. Point B is drunker. That's politics.”


In the same story Thomas Builds-a-Fire, whose own metaphysical bent manifests itself as a need to tell and retell his “story” until it comes out right, quotes “the truth” as he has learned it from Simon:

If there's a tree in the distance and you run to get there, run across the grass with all your heart, and you make it and touch the tree, press your face against the bark, then it is all true. But if you stumble and fall, lose your way, move to the city and buy a VCR and watch cowboy movies all the time, then nothing is true.


Many characters in this book are shown in a no-win situation at the end of a scene or poem, simply waiting “for something to change” or to “happen,” like the group of Indian boys on their way home from a basketball tournament, out of food, their car out of gas in the middle of the night on a cold highway in “Traveling” (15). Other characters are caught in a kind of no-man's-land between dreams that will never be realized and memories of past glory, like the speaker's father, once “the wildest / Indian boy on the reservation” who could “drink all night long and wake up / in the morning hitting jumpshots from thirty feet / until forever” (“Love Hard” 31), and whose life is later whittled down by a chainsaw accident that leaves him crippled, by unemployment, and by years of drinking (“Father Coming Home” 63–64).

In many ways the lives in this book are stopped in their tracks between “point A” and “point B,” a place full of absences which act as presences, dreams which feed some inner flame even as they sputter down. Alexie evokes here what cannot be pinned down in statistics or diagrams: the politics of a condition. And though his book could well leave an aftertaste of bitterness, ultimately it does not, laced as it is by a humble, yet empowering sort of love. Despite the pull of the white world, which divides him as it must divide anyone living on any kind of reservation, Alexie seems sustained, and his vision deeply nourished, by the slim marginal area that is his by birthright. In the lovely poem, “Indian Boy Love Song (#3),” Alexie honors his kind of balance amidst the gridwork of borders in which he lives:

I remember when I told
my cousin
she was more beautiful
than any white girl
I had ever seen.
She kissed me then
with both lips, a tongue
that tasted clean and un-
clean at the same time
like the river which divides
the heart of my heart, all
the beautiful white girls on one side,
my beautiful cousin on the other.



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Sherman Alexie 1966-

(Full name Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.) American poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Alexie's career through 2000. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Poetry Criticism.

Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native-American writers of his generation. Best known for his bold portrayal of the harsh realities of reservation life, Alexie has become a modern voice in the continuing search for Native-American cultural identity. Alexie's works detail, with dark humor, the debilitating influence of alcoholism and poverty that pervade life on the reservation as well as the anger that results from the distortion of true Indian culture. He is recognized as an innovative realist and erudite contributor to the modern Native-American tradition.

Biographical Information

Born on October 7, 1966, Alexie was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. At birth he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and, at six months of age, underwent perilous surgery to drain the fluid from his brain. Despite pessimistic predictions, Alexie not only survived but also became a child prodigy, learning to read by the age of two. He was mocked by other children due to his intellectual superiority and the appearance of his enlarged skull, a result of his past medical condition. His family life offered little comfort or shelter. His father was an absentee alcoholic and his mother worked long hours as a trading-post clerk and quilt-maker in order to support the family of eight. The social rejection Alexie experienced drove him to become an avid reader and dedicated student. When the school in Wellpinit could not provide him with the required credit he needed to attend college, Alexie transferred to Reardan High School, a predominantly white school located 30 miles from the reservation. At Reardan, Alexie gained acceptance from other students and became the school's basketball team captain, class president, and a member of the debate team. In 1985, he graduated with honors and gained a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he began studying with aspirations of becoming a doctor. During this time, Alexie began to feel racially alienated and began abusing alcohol. This addiction greatly influenced the themes of his early writing. Alexie finally stopped drinking and began attending Washington State University. He took a poetry class taught by Alex Kuo, who encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. He graduated in 1991 and, in 1992, he published the poetry collection I Would Steal Horses and the poetry/short fiction collection The Business of Fancydancing, which was deemed the 1992 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Alexie continued to publish his poetry with Old Shirts & New Skins (1993) and First Indian on the Moon (1993). His next volume, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which is comprised entirely of short fiction, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Alexie then published his first novel, Reservation Blues, which was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1995. This was followed by his second novel, Indian Killer, in 1996, and The Summer of Black Widows (1997), a collection of poetry. After publishing in several literary genres, Alexie decided to expand his talent into a different type of media, writing the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals (1998). The film, adapted from portions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's audience award. Alexie's other notable awards include the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writer's Award, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Taos Poetry Circle World Heavyweight Championship Awards from 1998 to 2000. Additionally, he was named one of the twenty best young American novelists by Granta and The New Yorker. Alexie returned to the poetry genre in 2000 with the publication of The Toughest Indian in the World. Alexie lives in Seattle with his Native-American wife, Diane, and their son, Joseph. Alexie also remains active in the Native-American community, having served on the Presidential Panel for the National Dialogue on Race and on the board of directors for the American Indian College Fund.

Major Works

Throughout his work in several genres, Alexie often explores themes of despair, poverty, alcoholism, and racial anger—emotions that pervade the daily lives of modern American Indians. His early collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing, portrays the reality of the banal existence experienced on the reservation and dissects the notion of “Crazy Horse dreams,” or aspirations that fail to materialize. Alexie evokes a type of magical realism, in which historical and fictional characters—such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill—are awkwardly placed in modern-day situations. He also creates Native-American characters, who recurrently appear drinking, playing basketball, and often committing small crimes. Irony, which pervades Alexie's work, is used to juxtapose traditional views about Native Americans with the contemporary actuality of American-Indian life. These themes also suffuse his other poetry collections, including I Would Steal Horses and Old Shirts & New Skins. The characters in these works evoke a sense of powerlessness in their struggle for daily physical and emotional survival and in their fight to recover a lost cultural identity. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven captures this sense of a search for cultural redefinition, focusing on the pain, desolation, and bitterness that are experienced in the process. Alexie also revisits magical realism in this collection, portraying real and fictional cultural icons of the past such as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, the Lone Ranger, and Tonto amidst images of 7–Eleven stores, television, basketball, and commodity food items. The structural style of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is often considered fragmented and is constructed of introspective epiphanies, allowing characters to come to terms with past and present interpretations of Native-American culture. Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, explores the successes and failures of an Native-American rock band with lofty dreams. One of Alexie's recurring characters, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, is given a guitar that once belonged to the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. Johnson donates the guitar in order to escape from a deal he has made with the devil. As a result, the guitar is believed to be mystical. In the novel, Alexie extends characterizations of the Native-American reservation inhabitants from his other works, reiterating the adversity faced by American Indians. Alexie later experimented with the genre of mystery in his highly controversial novel Indian Killer. In this work, John Smith, an American Indian adopted by white parents, is suspected, along with other urban Native-American characters, of a series of murders in which the victims are scalped. Appearing throughout the work are Alexie's recurrent themes of racial hostility and Indian cultural distortion. The Summer of Black Widows reiterates, with dark poetic humor, the hardships experienced on the reservation, the Native-American loss of ethnicity, and the desecration of the environment, intermingled with an abject acceptance of modern American culture. Alexie entered the world of filmmaking with his debut screenplay, Smoke Signals, an adaptation of his short fiction from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The film was the first motion picture to feature—both in front of the camera and behind the scenes—an all-Native-American cast. Alexie returned to poetry and short fiction in 2000 with the publication of The Toughest Indian in the World. The work, through the diverse experiences and internal examination of its characters, attempts to define the Native American. This search for definition is left open, however, to be determined by the individual reader. In his writing, Alexie captures the hopelessness in Native-American society and explores the possibilities of forgiveness, acceptance, and reconstruction of cultural identity.

Critical Reception

Alexie's work has been almost universally received as revolutionary, bold, and realistically reflective. His poetry and short fiction have been praised by critics for their realistic portrayals of the Native-American experience in resistance to the contemporary American mainstream conceptualization of the American Indian. Critics have lauded his use of dark satire and subtle epiphany to reshape the American view of his culture. His talent, according to reviews, lies in his ability to juxtapose humor with tragedy, historical figures with modern situations, and real people with fictitious characters. He has been noted for contrasting the “movie version” of the American Indian with the banal existence led by actual modern Indians, and the aspirations of the Native American with the powerless, hopeless reality of failure. Some critics have viewed Alexie's realism as harsh and racist—filled with hatred and anger against Anglo-American culture. Others, however, have viewed his powerful emotion as a catalyst for change and admire his refusal to submit to the idealistic stereotypes placed upon Native Americans. Proponents of Alexie's work have also refuted his ireful attitude with assertions that he embraces many aspects of contemporary American culture in his writing. With regard to his unique poetic and prose structure, some have viewed his form as truncated and underdeveloped. Many critics, however, have contended that his innovative form artfully complements his themes and augments his subtle satiric undertones. While many critics have agreed that Alexie's thematics are sometimes overpowering, they also argue that Alexie is one of the foremost Native-American literary realists of his generation.

Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 18 June 1995)

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SOURCE: Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “America at the Crossroads: Life on the Spokane Reservation.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 June 1995): 2, 7.

[In the following favorable review of Reservation Blues, Klinkenborg praises Alexie's illustration of Native American life, his use of dark humor, and his consciousness of audience.]

The Spokane Native American reservation, as the novelist Sherman Alexie imagines it, surrounds Wellpinit Mountain in eastern Washington. “Pine trees blanketed the mountain and the rest of the reservation. The town of Wellpinit sat in a little clearing below the mountain. Cougars strolled through the middle of town; a bear once staggered out of hibernation too early, climbed onto the roof of the Catholic Church, and fell back asleep.” The Spokane reservation—“Population: Variable”—is almost empty of people but full of their forgetting, a place where life is ordered by “rules of conduct that aren't collected into any book and have been forgotten by most of the tribe,” but the dietary staples are beer, commodity cheese, commodity applesauce and commodity peanut butter.

Big Mom, a legendary source of wisdom and the best fry bread cook on the reservation, lives at the top of Wellpinit Mountain. One day, a black man appears on her doorstep. He is Robert Johnson, the great blues guitarist, who wrote a famous song about going to the crossroads. That song provides one of the epigraphs to Sherman Alexie's wonderful new novel, Reservation Blues. But Reservation Blues is not Big Mom's story, nor is it Robert Johnson's. It's the story that results when Johnson gives his magic guitar—a guitar that talks and plays itself and finds its way home when lost—to a young Spokane Native American named Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Thomas is the reservation storyteller, a teller of tales that hang “in your hair or clothes like smoke.” Thomas also writes songs, plays bass and sings. With his friends—Victor Joseph, who inherits Johnson's guitar; Junior Polatkin, the drummer, and Chess and Checkers Warm Water, two women from the Flathead reservation in Montana—Thomas assembles a rock-and-roll band called Coyote Springs. Coyote Springs comes to life, it practices, it plays, it acquires a reputation and it collapses under the weight of its own hopes. So much for the plot.

Reservation Blues is an extension, a fulfillment really, of Alexie's remarkable 1993 short-story collection called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. In both books, the setting is the Spokane Reservation and the main characters are Thomas, Victor and Junior, though the boys in the short stories have grown into their 30s in the novel. The prevailing tone in these two books is one of excoriating humor, and they are written with a hard-luck wit that is somehow darker than the mute appeal of pure tragedy and at the same time more forgiving. Alexie writes fictions of consciousness, not event. Their subject is, nakedly, ethnically, what it means to be Native American. As you read Reservation Blues, you can feel Alexie's purposely divided attention, his alertness to a divided audience, Native American and Anglo. He is willing to risk didacticism whenever he stops to explain the particulars of the Spokane and, more broadly, the Native American experience to his readers. But Alexie never sounds didactic. His timing is too good for that. Reservation Blues never misses a beat, never sounds a false note.

In the most obvious narrative sense, Thomas Builds-the-Fire occupies the heart of the novel. “With his long, black hair pulled into braids, he looked like an old-time salmon fisherman: short, muscular legs for the low center of gravity, long torso and arms for leverage to throw the spear.” Thomas is the novel's conscience, and it is Thomas's puzzlement, his quizzical outlook on the world, that the reader comes to understand best. But the central character in Reservation Blues is really the reservation itself, the crossroads of which Robert Johnson sings. It is both a land of exile and an occupied territory, a place where the Spokane Native Americans—who, like all Native Americans, have lost control of the symbols that represent them—are constantly negotiating their identity in the face of white America, trying to decide how Native American is it whenever a question of value arises. Before he dropped out of college, for instance, “Junior had learned from Freud and Jung that dreams decided everything. He figured that Freud and Jung must have been reservation Indians because dreams decided everything for Indians, too.”

Because they still expect a kind of exoticism from Native Americans, some readers will find it hard to believe how American Alexie's vision of the Spokane Reservation is. I don't mean that in this novel the Spokane Reservation somehow represents America—a trivial idea, at best. I mean that in its eclecticism, in the way it adapts what it wants from the white world as well as what the white world forces upon it, the reservation reflects with peculiar intensity the cultural incoherence of the nation surrounding it. Where a cultural gap arises, something fills in, no matter how incongruous it seems. “All they know about religion they say in Dances with Wolves,” Thomas says of Junior and Victor. When he is obliged to defend the music of Coyote Springs, Thomas says, “An Indian woman invented the blues a day before Columbus landed, and the rock ‘n’ roll the next day.” In Alexie's world, you take your origins wherever you find them.

Still, the collision between white and Native American cultures resonates throughout Reservation Blues. One of the prevailing dream-images in this novel is a 19th-Century massacre of Native American horses by the U.S. Army, a massacre that ended with the murder of one last emblematic colt. “That colt,” writes Alexie, in a way that suggests the layering of this novel, “fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner's table in a Veteran's Hospital.” Other times, Alexie wastes no time on ellipsis or metaphor or memory. Betty and Veronica are two white women, groupies of an all too familiar sort, who latch onto Victor and Junior. But at last reservation life is too much for them, and they leave for Seattle. “Can't you handle it?” Chess Warm Water asks Betty and Veronica as they get ready to go. “You want the good stuff of being Indian without all the bad stuff, enit? Well, a concussion is just as traditional as a sweatlodge. … What did you New Agers expect? You think magic is so easy to explain? You come running to the reservations, to all these places you've decided are sacred. Jeez, don't you know every place is sacred? You want your sacred land in warm places with pretty views. You want the sacred places to be near malls and 7–Elevens too.”

It's almost impossible to talk about Alexie's subject—ethnicity, cultural dominance, poverty, alcoholism—without turning serious, if only because seriousness is such a good mask for ineffectuality. Alexie himself is scathingly funny. His sense of humor ignores every cultural boundary, and its frankness is amiable and appealing. Here is an example. Near the end of the novel, after Coyote Springs has returned to the reservation, Junior Polatkin kills himself. One day, he turns up in the passenger seat of a van that Victor is driving.

Victor was nervous. He'd never talked to the dead before. It felt like a first date.

“This feels like a first date, enit?” Junior asked.

“Yeah, it does.”

“So,” Junior said, “am I going to get lucky?”

Alexie has been called a lyrical writer, but to call him that is to miss how deadpan he really is, how much his humor depends on saying what hurts, in a matter-of-fact voice. Humor never mitigates the truth, not even when it's as painful as the truth Alexie's characters constantly face. The reservation truth in Reservation Blues boils down to something Chess Warm Water discovers one night when she and her sister and Thomas are talking about their drunken fathers. “‘Ain't that the true test?’ Chess asked. ‘You ain't really Indian unless there was some point in your life that you didn't want to be.’”

Principal Works

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The Business of Fancydancing (poetry and short stories) 1992

I Would Steal Horses (poetry) 1992

First Indian on the Moon (poetry) 1993

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories) 1993

Old Shirts & New Skins (poetry) 1993

Reservation Blues (novel) 1995

Indian Killer (novel) 1996

The Summer of Black Widows (poetry) 1997

Smoke Signals (screenplay) 1998

One Stick Song (poetry and short stories) 2000

The Toughest Indian in the World (short stories) 2000

Denise Low (review date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Low, Denise. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 1 (winter 1996): 123–25.

[In the following review, Low examines Alexie's short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in relation to postmodernist theory.]

Peter Burger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde, notes that artistic works reflect the time and place, or history, of their cultures, “the unfolding of object and the elaboration of categories are connected” (p. 16). Sherman Alexie's short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven could not have been written during any other period of history. The twenty-two short tales read like a casebook of postmodernist theory—beyond surrealism and absurdity, and certainly beyond classicism. Irony, pastiche, and mingling of popular cultures occur throughout the book.

David Lehman gives one of the most succinct definitions of the cultural event called postmodernism in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle:

It revels in comedy and exalts the spirit of parody and play. It treats the monuments of tradition in particular with jubilant irreverence. The distinction between artifacts of high and low culture gets leveled. Characters and lives are confused. Poems based on intricate rules are written in a kind of partnership with the language, an attempt to bring out the poetry latent in the language rather than to impose meaning on language. … Postmodernism is the triumph of irony.

Alexie's Native American characters journey through a collage of urban and reservation referents. Postmodernism is the technique of communication—as well as survival—in this simulated world that resembles Washington state. Underlying the surface of text, though, is a very human voice.

Irony frames every piece in the book. In the story “A Drug Called Tradition,” the narrator tells of Thomas Builds-the-Fire's party, financed by lease money from a utility company, “When Indians make lots of money from corporations that way, we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees. But we never can tell whether they're laughing at the Indians or the whites” (p. 13). Much of the lease money will go for beer, and the destructive effects of alcohol are explicated in many of the stories.

Another painfully ironic tale is “Indian Education,” with vignettes for each grade, first through twelfth. Some of the best writing is in this story, so each section reads like a prose poem. Each uses the ironic situation of an Indian child within a non-Indian institution. Here the narrator parodies the traditional Spokane way of naming children, “I was always falling down; my Indian name was Junior Falls Down. Sometimes it was Bloody Nose or Steal-His-Lunch. Once, it was Cries-Like-a-White-Boy, even though none of us had seen a white boy cry” (p. 172). These names reflect incidents of violence against the child, lightened by the self-mocking, ironic humor.

Alexie makes light of traditions of all kinds. Quilts are used as a background to “A Good Story,” and the story's whimsical effect comes from its pieced-together structure. Crazy Horse is the namesake of “Crazy Horse Dreams,” but here the Sioux leader is not an inspiration, but a symbol of failure. When the character Victor tries to make love to a woman at a powwow, he falters, “His hands were small. Somehow she was still waiting for Crazy Horse” (p. 40). He knows the woman's sexual fantasy, “She thought she could watch him fancydance, watch his calf muscles grow more and more perfect with each step. She thought he was Crazy Horse” (p. 41). Victor cannot measure up to the idealized hero in any part of his life. In another story, the narrator imagines that Crazy Horse invented the atomic bomb. This displacement of histories emphasizes the failure of contemporary warriors.

Other cultural icons in the collection include Jimi Hendrix, Jesus Christ, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They all blur together as equivalent cultural images. In “Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” the narrator takes responsibility for an orphaned baby and takes on Christ-like characteristics. In the title story, the narrator and his white paramour play out the roles of Tonto and the Lone Ranger. These and other images mix in Alexie's prose to form a postmodernist backdrop of real and imagined people. They work together in the imagination to create the media-permeated scenery of the latter twentieth century.

Alexie's other writings are essays and poetry, including the acclaimed book of verse, The Business of Fancydancing. The imprint of the poet's training is apparent here in the fine tuning of language. The ending of the story “Family Portrait” shows Alexie at his best as he describes tragedy in everyday terms:

The television was always loud, too loud, until every emotion was measured by the half hour. We hid our faces behind masks that suggested other histories; we touched hands accidentally and our skin sparked like a personal revolution. We stared across the room at each other, waited for the conversation and the conversion, watched wasps and flies battering against the windows. We were children; we were open mouths. Open in hunger, in anger, in laughter, in prayer. Jesus, we all want to survive.

(p. 198)

The images of television noise, masks, insects at the windows, and children's open mouths make this a word-painting about loneliness. “Jesus” in the last line is both a plea and a curse word.

Throughout the book, the lyrical strain gives the disparate stories a continuity, even though different characters take on the role of narrator. This underlying voice lends a tone of compassion that takes away the emotional distancing of irony. By the end of the book, readers care about Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Norma Many Horses, Uncle Moses, and Victor. They care about people who laugh and age and keep trying.

Alexie ruptures narratives, confuses human and fictitious people, pastiches images, and plays with illusion. Like authors Gerald Vizenor, Ray Young Bear, and Adrian Louis, he ranges across all of Indian country. Along the way he does not leave out television, 7-Eleven stores, or other institutions of contemporary pan-Indian life. The aggregative technique of writing uses many vignettes that add up to a new kind of written storytelling that comes—often—too close to the truth.

Jennifer Gillan (essay date March 1996)

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SOURCE: Gillan, Jennifer. “Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie's Poetry.” American Literature 68, no. 1 (March 1996): 91–110.

[In the following essay, Gillan examines Alexie's work and comments on its focus on an anglicized version of American-Indian history and tradition.]

When David Bell, the protagonist in Don DeLillo's Americana, leaves New York, he heads north on a long journey into the “gut of America.”1 He arrives in a small Maine town resembling a sound stage and stays overnight in an old house, “the place where everyone's grandmother lives in television commercials.” He is told a story about a Sioux holy man, Black Knife, who prophesies that only a trip into what Bell earlier calls the swamp of our being would cure America and allow it to become, finally, “the America that fulfills all of its possibilities” (128–29). The story reassures David that he needs to travel to the “great golden West” filled with Indians to find the “big outdoor soul of America” (123, 25). Although, like many before him, he sets off on a road trip west hoping to find America in the heart of Indian country, he never makes it to his destination. Instead, he finds himself in a small Midwestern town, unable to piece together the “fragments of the exploded dream” (137) of his life and of America.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from Washington State, is even more distraught than David Bell that the authentic American landscape eludes him. He reiterates David's concern, “What simple splendors had I missed to have been born so late” (Americana, 220), but with a difference. From a tribe neither Plains nor Pueblo, which few would associate with the Hollywood version of American Indians, Alexie wonders whether his people ever had access to the authenticity all America seems to associate with Indians. Alienated from their American Indian culture as well as from America, the characters in Alexie's poetry and prose collections want to believe in the wisdom of old Indian prophets, want to return to the “old ways,” but know that doing so will just trap them inside another clichéd Hollywood narrative.

Alexie's poems and stories often careen toward these clichés, as the reader waits in stupefied patience for the inevitable impact of the meeting between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the warring factions that have often marked the poles of his life. A self-described Brady Bunch Indian, Alexie was born in 1966 on the Spokane reservation and grew up in the 1970s in the glare of the kaleidoscopic colors of a “mod” TV sitcom. His first poems appeared in Hanging Loose in 1989, and the press of the same name published his first full-length manuscript, The Business of Fancydancing, in 1992 when Alexie was just twenty-five.2 Between 1993 and 1995 Alexie published another poetry collection, Old Shirts & New Skins (1993); a poetry and prose compilation, First Indian on the Moon (1993); a book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993); and a novel, Reservation Blues (1995).3

Critical reception of his books has been positive, if limited. Some reviewers have been perplexed by Alexie's youth and productivity. Reynolds Price wondered in a review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven if Alexie might be too prolific, publishing “too fast for his present strength.”4 Complaining that Alexie “has plumbed a number of obsessive themes and relationships as deeply as they permit,” Price suggested that Alexie should slow down and “discover a new and merciful rhythm that [would] help him find new eyes, new sights and patterns in a wider world, and a battery of keener voices for launching his urgent knowledge toward us.”5 It is this urgency that fuels Alexie's writing. Always aware that the average Indian male dies at fifty, Alexie seems determined to fashion poetry out of his experiences while he can. Given the poverty level on most reservations and the fact that American Indians have the highest suicide and alcoholism rates in the country, perhaps this urgency is justified.6 Often, it is his manic pace that makes Alexie's work so wondrous, even if it is marked, as Price observed, by “moments of unrevealing monotony.”

Perhaps these moments of monotony can be attributed to Alexie's flat poetic style, which relies heavily on ordinary prose to illuminate its vision. In fact, the prose-like quality of Alexie's writing often makes it difficult to differentiate between his stories and poems. The stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are crafted in this same flat style as his poems. Adopting a minimalist approach to character and setting, Alexie writes in vignettes which often begin with a fragmentary characterization and end with a flash of revelation. One of these stories, “Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” is organized into a series of short sketches, each about a paragraph in length. Because these vignettes are so fractured and the events they detail almost surreal, it is impossible to describe them in terms of plot. They seem instead to be organized around a series of epiphanies through which each narrator comes to accept his own past. In one sketch in which the narrator saves a baby from a fire and decides to adopt him, the vignette format is especially powerful: “I pick James up from the cold and the grass that waits for spring and the sun to change its world but I can only walk home through the cold with another future on my back and James's future tucked in my pocket like an empty wallet or a newspaper that feeds the fire and never gets read. Sometimes all of this is home” (LR, 114). And home, as we learn in Alexie's poetry, is a HUD house and commodity cheese, a 7-Eleven and a twelve-inch T.V., a powwow and an All-Indian basketball tournament. These mundane aspects of reservation life are pieced together in Alexie's poetry into a pattern of twentieth-century survival.

Donald Hall might have had these eclectic poetic recombinations in mind when he said, “poems embody the coexistence of opposites that together form an identity” and quoted the Roman poet Catullus to demonstrate his point: “odi et amo: I hate and I love.”7 That Alexie both loves and hates his bicultural inheritance is evidenced in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by an epigraph from musician-poets Lou Reed and Joy Harjo. From Reed Alexie takes the poignancy of the blues: “There's a little bit of magic in everything / and then some loss to even things out.” And from Harjo he summons the wondrous survival of Indians who, as Harjo says elsewhere, were not meant to survive: “I listen to the gunfire we cannot hear, and begin / this journey with the light of knowing / the root of my own furious love.”8 Alexie complements these voices with his own ambivalent song:

“VISION (2)”

No money for lunch so I rode an elevator to the top of the ONB Building, highest elevation in Spokane, where I stood at a window and witnessed 500 years of America: Over 1 Billion Illusions Served.

There is so much of this country I love, its supermarkets and bad television, the insane demands of a dollar bill in my pocket, fireworks celebrating the smallest occasions.

I am happy I can find a cup of hot coffee 24 hours a day. But, America, in my country, there are no supermarkets and television is a way of never opening the front door. The fields here are green and there are no monuments celebrating the invasion of Christopher Columbus.

Here, I imagine 1492 and 1992 are two snakes entwined, climbing up the pole some call good medicine, while others name it progress or Manifest Destiny. Maybe it's economics or an extra-inning baseball game. Maybe it's Cotton Mather and Andrew Jackson looking for rescue. Maybe it's a small-pox blanket wrapped around our shoulders in the coldest winter.

Then again, who am I to talk? In the local newspaper I read this morning that my tribe escaped many of the hardships other Native Americans suffered. By the time the 20th century reached this far west, the war was over. Crazy Horse was gone and the Ghost Dancers were only ghosts. Christopher Columbus was 500 years and 3,000 miles away, fresh from a starring role in the Great American Movie.

I've seen that film at the reservation drive-in. If you look closely, you can see an Indian leaning against the back wall. You won't find his name among the end credits; you can't hear his voice or his song. Extras, we're all extras.

(OSNS, 27)

Like “Vision (2),” most of Alexie's poems are concerned with the entwined experiences and identities that position him within cultures with different demands. Not willing simply to retreat into nostalgia for a precontact world, he wonders how to characterize the marks that the European arrival in the New World has left on his life: “I imagine 1492 and 1992 are two snakes entwined, climbing up the pole some call good medicine, while others name it progress or Manifest Destiny.” Early in the poem, Alexie declares his “furious love” for American culture. But his tone changes with the lines, “But, America, in my country, there are no supermarkets and television is a way of never opening the front door.” He still claims America as his own, but he recognizes the disparity between his reality and that represented on the screen. This discrepancy resurfaces in his later poem, “A Reservation Table of Elements”:

When the pipes froze
last winter
on the reservation
I crawled beneath
the HUD house
with a blowtorch
and discovered

(FI, 40)

By locating America in the foundation of his reservation house, Alexie demonstrates that it has always been the Indian who is at the heart of America's definition of itself. When he declares, “Maybe it's Cotton Mather and Andrew Jackson looking for rescue,” he pinpoints the ironic reversal in American history that transformed these leaders into saviors. History demonstrates that Indians actually saved them, by showing them planting techniques to survive in the New World and by having land and resources which could be exploited. Still later, Indians became a mythological safety valve, a life preserver for an American culture slowly sinking under the weight of its own industrial and technological present.

Indeed, it is consumer culture and its mediated forms of communication that DeLillo's David Bell heads west to avoid. Assuming that there is a more authentic America buried beneath all of these television images, buried perhaps somewhere on reservation land, he hopes that somehow American Indians can cure his “soul sickness” (Americana, 123). Writing about Bell's contemporary heirs, the white gurus who preside over the men's movement, Alexie wonders about this search for lost authenticity: “Much of the men's movement focuses on finding things that are lost. I fail to understand how Native American traditions can help in that search, especially considering how much we have lost ourselves.”9 Because his culture always has been outside the frame of the movie version of American history, Alexie has to cure his own “soul sickness” by recreating a relationship to his complex inheritance. Rejecting both nostalgia for Indian life as it was and a claim for his own authenticity as one who knows Indian experience, Alexie struggles against the tendency to romanticize the past that he sees in much Native American writing. This nostalgia is dangerous, he suggests, because it allows Native Americans “to admire the predictable spiritual strength of Native Americans while conveniently omitting the incredible pain and suffering endured by those very same people.”10 Thus, although he needs to create a vision of this past, he wants it to be an imaginative space not populated solely by shamans, warriors, and doe-eyed Indian maidens.

Applying his imaginative powers to an understanding of his history, Alexie approaches poetry as a modern day vision quest. As “Vision (2)” suggests, Alexie has left the tribe and ventured into the city in search of an enhanced understanding of his life and culture. This experience is a disconcerting one that changes him irrevocably; like the narrator in his story “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow,” he is left stranded in a bad dream: “Sometimes I still feel like half of me is lost in the city, with its foot wedged into a steam grate or something. Stuck in one of those revolving doors, going round and round while the white people are laughing. … Stuck in an elevator that will not move with a woman who keeps wanting to touch my hair” (LR, 207). Before he can return to the tribe he must do battle with what Gerald Vizenor has characterized as the “tragic simulations” of Indian identity, which in Alexie's life usually take the form of images of Indians from Hollywood westerns.11 The line with which “Vision (2)” ends—“Extras, we're all extras”—is repeated several times throughout Alexie's other collections, as if this peripheral position in American culture is the one against which he is constantly struggling. He realizes, however, that it may be this marginality that allows him to negotiate a tenuous survival in both worlds. Whether or not this is the case, Alexie is concerned with how to extricate himself from the scalp-lock American culture has placed him in: “How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt? How can we imagine a new alphabet when the old jumps off billboards down into our stomachs?” (LR, 152). The image of the “dismembered tongues” reminds us that despite all those savage war parties depicted in westerns, Indians were more often the hunted than the hunters in the Indian Wars. And when the government required American Indian children to attend federal boarding schools, white culture tightened its hold even further, depriving Indians of their right even to speak their own language. Tongue-tied by this history, Alexie struggles to find the words to articulate his pain.

This articulation is no easy feat for the twenty-seven-year-old narrator of “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys.” Surrounded by the dazzling transmissions that bounce off the walls of his poorly constructed HUD house and enthralled by the promises of consumer happiness he hears on TV, he has no idea how to displace the Euro-American codes and gain access to his Spokane heritage: “Twenty years ago, television was our way of finding heroes and spirit animals. Twenty years ago, we never knew we'd spend the rest of our lives in the reservation of our minds, never knew we'd stand outside the gates of the Spokane Indian Reservation without a key to let ourselves back inside” (FI, 104). Trapped in the “reservation of his mind,” he always experiences himself and his culture mediated through these television images. Through this mediation he has learned to see himself as an actor in an elaborately scripted drama, “the same old story whispered on the television in every HUD house on the reservation” (FI, 103).

“My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys” juxtaposes the representations of American history, particularly the “winning of the West,” with the American Indian interpretation of that history: “In the reservation textbooks, we learned Indians were invented in 1492 by a crazy mixed-blood named Columbus. Immediately after class dismissal, the Indian children traded in those American stories and songs for a pair of tribal shoes” (FI, 102). When the children walk out on this version of America, the reader is reminded of the powerful alternative history that tribal culture represents. In “A Good Story” Alexie employs a similar image of children who, through their continued contact with the alternate stories available to them on the reservation, still have the power to dream: “these were the children who carried dreams in the back pockets of their blue jeans, pulled them out easily, traded back and forth” (LR, 142). Continuing these reversals of standard formulations of American culture, the narrator of “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys” describes the way “cowboys and Indians” is played on the reservation: “all of us little Skins fought on the same side against the cowboys in our minds” (FI, 102). Yet, the strength they gain from this unified front cannot change the fact that in the West that exists on the wall of televisions in the Sears Entertainment Department, the cowboys always win. While this West with its cowboys who can fire fifty bullets and never have to reload is obviously fake, it has come to be accepted as “real” by American culture:

Outside it's cold and a confused snow falls in May. I'm watching some western on TBS, colorized, but the story remains the same. Three cowboys string telegraph wire across the plains until they are confronted by the entire Sioux nation. The cowboys, 19th century geniuses, talk the Indians into touching the wire, holding it in their hands and mouths. After a dozen or so have hold of the wire, the cowboys crank the portable generator and electrocute some of the Indians with a European flame and chase the rest of them away, bareback and burned. All these years later, the message tapped across my skin remains the same.

(FI, 103)

Because the reservation is saturated with these debilitating images, the poem ends on a despairing note, reiterating the final lines of “Vision (2)”: “I have no words which can save our lives, no words approaching forgiveness, no words flashed across the screen at the reservation drive-in, no words promising either of us top billing. Extras, Arthur, we're all extras” (FI, 104).

Even on the reservation, it always is John Wayne or some other Anglo-American cowboy who receives top billing. Describing Wayne's omnipresence in American fantasies, Joan Didion attributes a similar experience to all American children: “when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” In her fantasy world, Wayne represents “a place where a man could move free, could make his own code, and live by it.”12 But, for Alexie's characters, Wayne cannot be this heroic figure because the establishment of his code often means the destruction of an Indian culture. A larger-than-life figure, Wayne—and the white American paternal ideology he comes to represent—dominates the waking dreams of Alexie's characters, their relationship to his mythic status, unlike Didion's, conflicted because of their Spokane heritage. Wayne's power over their lives is so strong that in “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys” he even becomes God the judge, God the paternal overseer who measures human significance: “I asked my brother what he thought God looked like and he said, ‘God probably looks like John Wayne’” (FI, 103).

Although most of Alexie's characters are too young to have watched first-run John Wayne movies, endless looping reels of Anglo cowboys defeating Indian villains are replayed at drive-ins and on TV. As these heroes subdue dark Indians hour after hour, they convey the message of Indian inferiority, which gains strength and legitimacy with time, repetition, and syndication. By encapsulating American history into two hours of cowboy-heroes defeating Indian-villains, these movies represent the American past as an ahistorical encounter between character types acting in one continuous narrative—what Alexie calls the Great American Movie starring Christopher Columbus, Cotton Mather, and Andrew Jackson—in which those who represent colonial interests become symbolically Americanized, even if, like Columbus, they lived long before the existence of the United States as a nation. Moreover, the replication of nineteenth-century battle scenes in twentieth-century western films, the refiguring of those film scripts in TV dramas, and the reruns of both that air continuously on cable television justify American Indian dispossession and imply that Indians are unworthy and incapable of correctly using the land or of representing themselves. Other films that play at the drive-in confirm their insignificance. Overtly present in westerns, American Indian characters are absent in melodramas or TV sitcoms, erased from the site of American normalcy—the single-family suburban home. Because Anglo America is perceived as the American national norm, the Indian does not even appear absent—except, of course, to American Indian spectators.

The ambivalence of the American Indian spectators at the Star Wars film in “Reservation Drive-In” indicates how difficult it is for the Indian members of the audience to position themselves in terms of these texts. While they often do desire the version of America that is marketed on television, they realize that to accept it would be like entering into a treaty and surrendering their right to self-determination: “Every frame of the black and white western is a treaty; every scene in this elaborate serial is a promise. But what about the reservation home movies? What about the reservation heroes?” (FI, 104). A similar concern about the lack of “reservation home movies” is expressed by the speaker in “Introduction to Native American Literature”:

Somewhere in America a Television explodes
& here you are again (again)
asking me to explain broken glass.
You scour the reservation landfill
through the debris of so many lives:
old guitar, basketball on fire, pair of shoes.
All you bring me is an empty bottle.

(OSNS, 3)

While Alexie certainly does not deny the rich variety of American Indian literature, as evidenced by his inclusion of epigraphs from Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, and Adrian Louis, he doubts the impact of this literature on the daily lives of reservation Indians. He describes a reservation saturated with Hollywood, Motown, and Nashville icons, not with characters from Erdrich, Silko, or Vizenor. When the TV detonates and only silence remains, the speaker asks if there is indeed an authentic Native American system of representation to replace the distorted TV sounds and figures.

Although Alexie recognizes the emptiness of these images, he still wants to believe in the world that cinema offers Americans. While surrounded by these movie images, he wants to pretend that the land of opportunity is his country. He reminds the reader, “There are so many illusions I still need to believe” (OSNS, 74). In order to maintain these illusions, he has to deny the historical relations between American Indians and white Americans. By doing so he accepts the message of Indian insignificance and the representations of Indians that have been ingrained in his consciousness, recalling these lines from “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys”: “All these years later, the message tapped across my skin remains the same.” Like Morse code, cinema does not portray actual Indian people but only a series of codes associated with “red-skin.” Thus, the message broadcast across his skin is one readable in cinematic terms of Indianness. In the American popular lexicon, the Indian has been reduced to a simple caricature of the bare-chested savage who greets the mysterious white man with the monosyllabic “How.”

But not all of Alexie's characters are simply passive audience members; often they reject their implied positioning in these representations and are not completely consumed by the images on the screen. They learn to negotiate between their desire to be the image on the screen and the recognition of their implied exclusion from that image. Their ambivalent position is related to a complex process of identification. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon explains the way natives living in a colonized state react to the colonizer's culture. He describes a group of men from the Antilles at two showings of a Tarzan movie, one at home and one in Europe. Their reaction to the representation of black characters is mediated by how they are defined in the culture and situation in which they are viewing the film, as well as by the composition of the theater's audience. Fanon challenges the idea that a spectator's identification is singular, that one will simply identify with the character closest to one's own background. Thus, when the Antilleans watch a documentary about Africa at home, they laugh at the actions of the tribesmen and try to distance themselves from the representations; Fanon implies, however, that the intensity of their laughter may betray a “hint of recognition.” Yet, when they watch the same documentary in France, they cannot separate themselves from the characters in the film because those seated around them equate the figures on the screen with any black person in the audience, regardless of cultural affiliation and background. According to Fanon, these spectators become “at once Antillean, Bushman, and Zulu” because they are associated with the codes of blackness as established by the film.13 Similarly, for white spectators at the North Cedar drive-in the American Indian audience members become at once Spokane, Sioux, and Pueblo, expected to conform to the codes of generic Indianness as established by the cinema, even if these codes are inaccurate or far removed from the particular experience of Spokane or Coeur d'Alene Indians. While Alexie and his characters are American Indians who live in the western part of the United States, they are not associated with the images of the Wild West and the Plains or Pueblo Indians. The only way the white American audience can deal with the existence of these non-Indian Indians is to translate them into the film images and erase their cultural difference.

More complicated, though, is the way the American Indian audience responds to their recognition of their own difference from the characters portrayed on the screen. The process of identification Fanon describes is precisely the dynamic at work for the Chippewa spectators in Louise Erdrich's poem “Dear John Wayne.” Wayne's blue eye fills the screen, his profile looming over a bunch of Indian boys at a drive-in. Erdrich's image refers not simply to a single shot but rather indicates that the film is seen from the blue-eyed perspective. Wayne is a figure who becomes what Ella Shohat calls a “center of consciousness” because he comes to represent a set of specific Anglo-American community discourses which mediate the cinematic narrative.14 Film can disseminate codes of American identity and culture and establish what is un-American. The blue-eyed gaze is political, intended to create and fix a narrative of unworthiness to justify Indian dispossession. When American Indian spectators in Erdrich's poem interiorize the western movie soundtrack and the implications of Wayne's “American” gaze, they learn to judge Indians and their own skin as inferior:

How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
The flip side of the sound-track still playing:
Come on, boys, we've got them
where we want them, drunk, running.
They will give us what we want, what we need:
The heart is a strange wood inside of everything
we see, burning, doubling, splitting out of its skin.(15)

When the movie voice in Sherman Alexie's poem “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys” proclaims, “win their hearts and minds and we win the war,” it recalls the voice that Erdrich's Indian moviegoers hear and internalize. Both poems indicate the pain of this splitting of the Indian self in spectatorship. Like Alexie's specific history as Coeur d'Alene/Spokane and Erdrich's as Chippewa, the teenagers' Indian heritage cannot allow them to have the same relationship to the John Wayne myth as other viewers; while the western narrative encourages them to identify with the hero, they also recognize themselves in the Indian villains. Thus when they cheer for the white heroes they are confused and angry:

Sometimes, it is too much to ask for: survival. There are too many dangers, a fresh set of villains waiting for us in the next half-hour, and then in the next, and the next. They murder us, too, these heroes we find in the reservation drive-in. The boy, Luke Skywalker, rises up against his dark father and the Indian boys cheer, rise up and fall out of car windows, honk horns, flash headlights, all half-anger until the movie ends and leaves us with the white noise of an empty screen.

(FI, 17)

Although Alexie's characters can reject the film's assumed spectator position and refuse to cheer for Skywalker, they will pay the price for this rejection. When the movie ends, they discover that the white noise of the empty screen is scarier than the barrage of sound and light that preceded it.

Written against this white noise, Alexie's broad caricatures of reservation figures like Lester Falls Apart and Seymour match the larger-than-life quality of omnipresent icons like Elvis or John Wayne. In his farcical narrative poem “Rediscovering America,” Alexie creates a stage play in which Christopher Columbus is hit by a flying beer glass accidently hurled in his direction by an irate bartender. Columbus is rushed to the Indian health clinic, where “all the Native American employees shout in unison, ‘Christopher Columbus, you've found us’” (FI, 95). They leave Columbus alone with Lester Falls Apart, who takes the opportunity to practice his method acting and begins to perform the codes of Indianness: “Lester opens his mouth wide and lets out a silent war cry.” Lester is then transported to the Plains in 1876, where he “is dressed in full traditional wardance outfit, with the addition of mirrored sunglasses and high-top basketball shoes” (96). The audience members' reactions to this tableau differ depending on their race; the whites are terrified, while the lone Indian in the back row—wearing mirrored sunglasses—smiles. Even in this humorous jibe at the construction of American history and identity, there is a recognition that many Anglo-Americans envision Indians only as historical artifacts or humorous spectacles. At the end of the poem, when Lester appears as a stand-up comic on The Tonight Show hosted by Christopher Columbus, he rejects this caricature when he “kicks the microphone over, stands half in and half out of the spotlight … clears his throat loudly and opens his mouth to speak” (FI, 97). Lester and the other Spokane characters in Alexie's poems must struggle to articulate the complexities of their circumstances as they confront legal, educational, and cinematic systems that attempt to define their experience for them.

Alexie's poems indicate the difficulty of negotiating the various systems of categorization that attempt to fix and determine American Indian identity. One method of intervention is suggested in bell hooks's Black Looks: Race and Representation. Hooks claims that African Americans need to decolonize their minds and learn to unsee the way they have been represented in cinematic discourses. This decolonization involves not only resisting images but also creating new ways to reimagine and remake the future.16 Unlike hooks, Alexie is unsure that this decolonization can be achieved. He recognizes that the structural elements of the representation of Indianness—the Indian as savage or child—are central to the narrative of the United States as a nation. It is not just one image but a whole structure of domination that needs to be challenged.

Through his ability to unsettle media versions of both Americans and Indians, Alexie intervenes in these debates about authenticity and identity. Referring to the federal government's “blood-quantum” measurement of American Indian heritage in “Reservation Mathematics,” Alexie confronts the burden of his mixed blood:

Mixed-up and mixed-blood
                    I sometimes hate
                    the white in me
          when I see their cruelty
          and I sometimes hate
                    the Indian in me
when I see their weakness

because I understand the cruelty and weakness in me. I belong to both tribes. It's my personal Wounded Knee, my own Little Big Horn. On the telephone, my friend from New York told me I drifted back into a reservation accent only when I talked about pain. How could I tell her

          that the reservation is more
                                        than pain?
          It's double happiness, too
when I watch the fancydancers
          the basketball players
          the comic book collectors
                              all dreaming

of a life larger than this one, constructed by walls everywhere. It doesn't matter if it's square, rectangle, or triangle, they all mean the same thing. They're all the direct opposite of a circle. It doesn't matter if it's a triangle, rectangle, or square. They're all the direct opposite of a circle. I've been dreaming of a life.

          with a new shape, somewhere
                              in the in-between
          between tipi and HUD house
          between magic and loss.
                    I'm always dreaming
                              of a life between
          the 3/16 that names me white
                                        and the 13/16
                    that names me Indian.
That's what has happened to us.
                    Indians have learned

to love by measuring cup. I can count up all my cousins. I can count every can of commodities in the cupboard. I can count every piece of broken glass on my reservation and I still wouldn't have enough of anything, neither answers nor love. But I can stand up in front of you and recite formulas; my voice will tremble and my hands will shake. I can stand up, like Lucille said, through your destruction. I can stand up, like Lucille said, through my destruction. I can stand up, like Lucille said, through our destruction, through

          every little war, every
                    little hurricane.
          I'll take my Indian thumb
                    and my white fingers
          on my strong right hand
and I'll take my white thumb
          and my Indian fingers
          on my clumsy left hand
                    and I'll make fists,

(FI, 43–44)

Alexie still struggles inside the reservation of his mind in an attempt to come to terms with this complex heritage. While at times he seems to move toward reconciliation or even what he calls “forgiveness,” most often he struggles with a deepening sense of ambivalence about his position as a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian in the United States of America.

In two poems with the same name, Alexie confronts the impact of “500 years of that same screaming song, translated from American” (FI, 103). The speaker in the poem “Translated from the American” in Alexie's second collection attempts to displace this song. He is sitting in the North Cedar drive-in replaying westerns. His presence is juxtaposed with the image of Indians grunting on the screen:

                                                                                                              I'll wrap myself
in old blankets           wait           for white boys
climbing fences           to watch this Indian speak
in subtitles           they'll surround me
and when they ask           “how”
I'll give them exact directions.

(OSNS, 35)

While he cannot translate the supposedly authentic Indian language of the film, he is a living translation of what “Indian” means in the twentieth century. Yet, this hopefulness that he can articulate his Indianness is ambiguous in his poem of the same name in The Business of Fancydancing. This “Translated from the American” is set on the road to the reservation and focuses on a Spokane man who can speak only the English and German he learned in Catholic schools. His girlfriend talks to him in Salish, which she cannot translate effectively into English. The speaker is an outsider to the Indian world, trying to reconcile with his past and traditions. He is far removed from any sense of collective history or a shared past and travels to the All-Indian powwow specifically because of his need to reestablish these connections. The end of the poem conveys hope for the possibilities of the powwow as a communal event yet still seems ambivalent about the ability of the speaker to translate himself, recognizing that he does not have easy access to a past that has been so distorted by time and by his Euro-American education.

The title of Alexie's first collection, The Business of Fancydancing, confronts the problematic legacy of the powwow and describes it alternately as a mode of cultural resistance or of conformity. On the negative side, the powwow makes the Indian the object of the tourist's gaze. Menominee poet Chrystos recognizes that Hollywood Indians, bedecked in feathers and dancing at a powwow, are represented as real Indians. In “The Real Indian Leans Against,” she declares her frustrated rejection of cardboard cultural reproductions:

I want to bury these Indians dressed like cartoons of our
          long dead
I want
to live
where nobody is sold.(17)

Chrystos's concern about whether the powwow is a sell-out to the commercial conception of the Indian is continued in Alexie's poem “Powwow Polaroid.” The speaker describes the impact of all those black and white photographs that fixed their Indian subjects forever in mock-ceremonial poses.18 As these tourist images were commodified, Indians were expected to embody them. The speaker in the poem describes the effect of being shot by one tourist's camera: “the flash-bulb burned, and none of us could move. I was frozen between steps, my right foot three inches off the ground, my mouth open and waiting to finish the last sound” (OSNS, 43).

The tourist's position at the All-Indian Powwow is similar to the Anglo audience's at a western film. According to Ella Shohat, the audience experiences Indian culture as so uncomplicated that it can be easily understood by any passerby.19 Yet, the simplicity of the powwow has been a performance; after the tourists leave, the atmosphere changes. The rush and noise of the festival is replaced by the even breathing of Indians. The speaker in “Snapping the Fringe” describes the peace of being surrounded by Indians whose breath is a calming song: “At three in the morning, there are no locked doors on the powwow grounds. I creep among the tipis, the breathing of so many Indians like a long and slow song” (OSNS, 58). This breathing song counteracts the soundtracks that blare from reservation televisions. The powwow brings into being shadows of a world seemingly lost to the narrator.

Even in a poem like “Powwow Polaroid,” the tourist aspect of the fancydancing event is overshadowed by an affirmation of community. The poem ends with the following lines: “My four-hundred pound aunt wept into the public address system. My uncle held his great belly in his hands, walked among the fancydancers, said this: forgiveness” (OSNS, 43). These lines are significant not only because they indicate reconciliation with the Anglo world, but also because they suggest a reestablishment of the tribal ties between extended family through the evocation of the Aunts and Uncles. Still, the tone of the poem is tentative and evokes Alexie's ambivalence about his troubled peace with his conflicting cultural backgrounds.

Alexie's intense desire for fancydancing to be his source of redemption is most explicit in “Vision: From the Drum's Interior,” in which the powwow drumming and music are connected with the reestablishment of the community. The poem describes twentieth-century fancydancing:

Who said, “I figured drums was my best defense?” Who said, “I am in the reservation of my mind?” Was it Toni and Adrian who heard drums in words? I want to fancydance back into the reservation of my mind, fancydancing toward a vision, a 20th century measure of music, music of commodity cans and six-packs, music of stickgames: forgiveness hidden in the hands of old women who need you to choose the hand holding our future tight. “Is it the left or the right hand?” Both fancydance easily at the ends of the arms which held you as hard as they ever held this drum or any other drum. It's the drum, yes, the reservation is a drum, the music beyond Love Me Tender, the music just before A Love Supreme, drums pulling you fast from your skinny bed at 3 a.m. from dreams you barely remember, dreams echoing through the reservation night air, where you stood once at the window of the largest HUD house in the world, waiting for the music of the powwow to finish before you went back to sleep, knowing drums would button your shirt, tie your shoes, open the front door and throw you back onto the road, back into the river, changing the current as you stand in the middle of a new life, new music for the 20th century fancydancer fancydancing. Fancydancing.

(FI, 73)

Through this drumming Alexie has returned to the gates of the reservation after his arduous vision quest. Commenting on the men's movement shamans' misunderstanding of the significance of the drum in native culture, Alexie remarked, “They fail to understand that a drum is more than a heartbeat. Sometimes it is the sound of thunder, and many times it just means some Indians want to dance” (30). The drum can sometimes just be a drum, an instrument which inspires dances, not visions. Other times a drum is a versatile instrument like the one in “House (fires)” that beats “itself over the head with big sticks, a drum called drum, a drum called trumpet, a drum that sits in the bar and lies about how often it sounds like a heartbeat” (FI, 46). It is this multiple characterization of drumming that captures the ambivalence at the heart of Alexie's poetry. These repeated references to drumming suggest that it is through music—not words—that Alexie can express himself:

Music. Then, more music. Does it matter what kind? Let's say it is bagpipes. Or a grade school orchestra practicing Roll on, Columbia, Roll on. Or the blues. Or just a drum that sounds like the blues. I have heard that kind of drum at three in the morning when I pull myself from bed and my ordinary nightmares. Listen.

(OSNS, 85)

These lines from “Red Blues” explore the possibilities of crosscultural articulation, of Alexie's adaptation of the blues to express his own joy and loss. As Ralph Ellison once described it: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”20 It is Alexie's ability to improvise out of the crosscultural materials that he has been allotted which gives him this “near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” The twentieth-century fancydancer makes music by fingering all the discordant strings of his life; his survival is entwined with fancydancing, the stickgame, even alcoholism, government dependence, and basketball. And it is by playing this music that Alexie tries to find his way home.


  1. Don DeLillo, Americana (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 119–20. Subsequent page references are given in the text.

  2. His chapbook, I Would Steal Horses, was published in 1992 by Slipstream Publications.

  3. Sherman Alexie, The Business of Fancydancing (New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1992); First Indian on the Moon (New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1993); The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993); Old Shirts & New Skins (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, UCLA, 1993); Reservation Blues (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995). Throughout the essay page references to these books are given in the text using the following abbreviations: BF,FI,LR,OSNS, and RB, respectively.

  4. Reynolds Price, “One Indian Doesn't Tell Another,” a review of Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,New York Times Book Review, 17 October 1993, 15–16.

  5. Price, 15–16.

  6. See Ward Churchill, Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1994), for a discussion of these issues in contemporary native communities.

  7. Donald Hall, Poetry: The Unsayable Said (New York: Copper Canyon Press: 1993), 7.

  8. Joy Harjo, “Anchorage,” She Had Some Horses (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1983), 15.

  9. Sherman Alexie, “White Men Can't Drum,” The New York Times Magazine, 4 October 1992, 30.

  10. Alexie, “White Men Can't Drum,” 24.

  11. See Gerald Vizenor, Crossbloods, Bone Courts, and Other Reports (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1990).

  12. Joan Didion, Slouching toward Bethlehem (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), 31.

  13. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 153 n. 15. E. Ann Kaplan discussed the importance of this passage in an informal lecture at the Humanities Institute, State University of New York at Stony Brook on 14 March 1993.

  14. Ella Shohat, “Ethnicities-in-Relation: Toward a Multicultural Reading of American Cinema,” in Unspeakable Images, ed. Lester Friedman (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991), 217–18. See also Shohat's “Imaging Terra Incognita: The Disciplinary Gaze of Empire,” Public Culture 3 (1991): 41–70.

  15. Louise Erdrich, Jacklight (New York: Henry Holt, 1984), 12–13.

  16. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 5.

  17. Chrystos, “The Real Indian Leans Against,” Ms., September 1992, 28; reprinted in Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan (New York: Viking, 1994), 305–06.

  18. Edward Curtis specialized in these images. Between 1906 and 1930 he published a twenty-volume photographic collection, The North American Indian, to document tribal culture in the United States before it vanished.

  19. Shohat, 225.

  20. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 212.

Further Reading

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Cline, Lynn. “About Sherman Alexie.” Ploughshares 26, no. 4 (winter 2000): 197–202.

Cline offers an overview of the life and career of Sherman Alexie.


Alessio, Carolyn. “Sherman Alexie's Characters Struggle to Establish Their Identities On and Off the Reservation.” Chicago Tribune (4 June 2000): 5.

Alessio offers a positive assessment of The Toughest Indian in the World.

Bankston, Carl L., III. “Weaving the Line of the Spirit.” Bloomsbury Review 12, no. 6 (September 1992): 7.

Bankston discusses the characterization in The Business of Fancydancing, commenting that Alexie's poetry diverges from his usual themes of everyday life.

Cliff, Michelle. “Poetry Is a Way of Reaching Out to What Is Reaching for You.” American Poetry Review 24, no. 4 (July 1995): 29–30, 34–35.

Cliff discusses the despair and tragedy that exists on Indian reservations and their portrayal in Alexie's work.

Caro, Mark. “Strong Signals.” Chicago Tribune (3 July 1998): 7A, 7N.

Caro offers a mixed assessment of Smoke Signals, lauding Alexie's characterizations, style, and humor, but criticizing the film for failing to develop its symbolism adequately.

Kempley, Rita. “Clear Signals: No More Playing Dead for American Indian Filmmaker Sherman Alexie.” Washington Post (3 July 1998): D1.

Kempley discusses Alexie's disapproval of the stereotypes of American-Indian culture in film.

Killian, Michael. “American Indian Screenwriter's Success Opens New Doors for Him, Others.” Chicago Tribune (11 March 1999): sec. 5, p. 8.

Killian discusses Alexie's recent filmmaking success and explores his hope for the success of future American-Indian entertainers.

Lambert, Pam. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. People Weekly 43, no. 18 (8 May 1995): 35.

Lambert offers a favorable assessment of Reservation Blues, praising Alexie's use of realism.

Reardon, Patrick T. “Life on the Reservation Yields Never-Ending Losses.” Chicago Tribune (27 September 1993): sec. 5, p. 3.

Reardon examines Alexie's portrayal of the futility, poverty, and pain existing in the lives of his Native-American characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Roraback, Dick. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 November 1993): 6.

Roraback praises Alexie's sense of humor and depth of theme in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

See, Carolyn. “The Wannabe Tribe: Plundering Indian Culture and Identity.” Washington Post (18 October 1996): D3.

See explores Alexie's racial purist ideology and the obliteration of Native-American cultural endurance in Indian Killer.

Streitfield, David. “The Novelist's No-Show Blow.” Washington Post (30 January 1998): D2.

Streitfield offers an overview of the repercussions of Alexie's failure to attend the annual PEN/Faulkner reading.

Throm, Lindsay. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. Booklist 90, no. 1 (1 September 1993): 31.

Throm praises The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven for its powerful narrative voice.

Travers, Peter. Review of Smoke Signals, by Sherman Alexie. Rolling Stone (9 July 1998): 146, 148.

Travers praises Alexie's portrayal of the banality of daily reservation life and character development in Smoke Signals.

Additional coverage of Alexie's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 28; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 138; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 65, 95; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 175, 206; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Native North American Literature.

Lee Lemon (review date Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Lemon, Lee. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. Prairie Schooner 70, no. 1 (spring 1996): 185–86.

[In the following excerpt, Lemon offers a positive assessment of Reservation Blues.]

This is in part a catch-up review because some books that are too good to ignore were, for one reason or another, missed when they came out.

With three '90s novels by Louis Owens (one previously reviewed), works by Sherman Alexie, and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (also reviewed earlier), we may be witnessing the birth of a subgenre—Native North American Magic Realism. Like its southerly counterpart, the genre is fascinating both conceptually and because of the large talents of its practitioners. …

Alexie's Reservation Blues tells the story of a Native American country blues and rock band, Coyote Springs, that is formed after one of the reservation bullies receives a magic summons from the guitar of the legendary bluesman Lionel Johnson. Johnson has appeared on the reservation in search of a woman of magical powers who will show him how to break his pact with the devil—to whom he has sold his soul in return for his prodigious talent as a blues guitarist. Like Owens and the best of the new Native American writers, Alexie portrays reservation life with both honesty and compassion, recognizing both the frustrating poverty and alcoholism of his people but also their nobility as they face problems not of their own making. The mood of the novel is what one would expect from a writer whose award-winning first book of stories was titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Howard Meredith (review date Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Meredith, Howard. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 446–47.

[In the following review, Meredith examines the incorporeal motifs and the spiritual importance of the reservation in Reservation Blues.]

The art of Sherman Alexie surprises and delights the reader as the dreamlike images and hard-edged realities in Reservation Blues find a center on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Form and content act in unity to provide a captivating story of the tragic sense of life within a Spokane frame of reference. This beautifully written vision of the earth invites participation in specific patterns of existence.

Reservation Blues provides an intimate perception of Spokane tribal tenets and mood within a multicultural frame of reference. Death, alcohol, poverty, book-burning, and child abuse find their place, along with a sense of the land and the search for tradition. Thomas Builds-the-Fire speaks in a dream sequence for the community when he says, “Maybe something bad is going to happen to us if we don't have something better on our mind.” Each character provides added richness to the community in which the story is set, from the Warm Water sisters Chess and Checkers, to Big Mom the Spokane medicine woman, to Robert Johnson the magnificent blues guitarist.

Thomas loves the land. The reservation provides structural support even in its reduced state: “The reservation was gone itself, just a shell of its former self, just a fragment of the whole. But the reservation still possessed power and rage, magic and loss, joys and jealousy. The reservation tugged at the lives of its Indians, stole from them in the middle of the night, watched impassively as the horses and salmon disappeared. But the reservation forgave, too.” This spatial and temporal presence offers a solid sense of place.

Spiritual themes run throughout the novel, reflecting material and ethereal concerns of power and peace. The interior life of the principal characters is offered in their dreams and their thoughts as they are carried along by forces over which they have little or no control. Each passing moment is imbued with a strong sense of the past and future, but rarely in a sequential fashion. Cause-and-effect progressions lose their sense of direction in Alexie's artistic design and native images. The metaphors of tribal song and dance are offered as the structural pattern for understanding the layered nature of existence, even to the point when, as Alexie writes, “I think God loves to dance as much as the rest of us.”

Songs and repetitions of sounds call our attention to the rhythms of the peoples' lives. Their echoes in the text reinforce attention to the importance of the words and underline the points of the traditional sense of life patterns. Alexie's wordplay contributes to meaning, emphasizing unity in the multiplicity of the impact of cultural forces upon the lives of the Spokane Indian community. In the end, which is also a beginning, Alexie writes: “In a dream, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas sat at the drum with Big Mom during the powwow. All the Spokane Indians crowded around the drum, too. They all pounded the drum and sang, Big Mom taught them a new song, the shadow horses' song, the slaughtered horses' song, the screaming horses' song, a song of mourning that would become a song of celebration: we have survived, we have survived.” Sherman Alexie invites us to participate in this extraordinary work of art, which serves as a healing process.

Sherman Alexie and Doug Marx (interview date 16 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Doug Marx. “Sherman Alexie: A Reservation of the Mind.”Publishers Weekly (16 September 1996): 39–40.

[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his initiation into literature and his adherence to realism in writing about the American-Indian experience.]

Six years ago, as a 24-year-old student at Washington State University, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, set down his career goals at the insistence of a friend: 1) to publish ten books by age 30; 2) to see a book on the silver screen by 35; and 3) to receive a major literary prize by 40.

With Indian Killer his third prose work, a tragic thriller about the ravages of cultural dilution and dissolution, out this month from Grove/Atlantic, and The Summer of Black Widows, his seventh collection of poetry, out in October from Hanging Loose Press, the first goal will be achieved. Three of Alexie's books—his first short-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, his novel Reservation Blues and Indian Killer—are the subject of ongoing film negotiations. As for a major literary award, if review acclaim from such established masters as Reynolds Price, Leslie Marmon Silko and Frederick Bausch, not to mention inclusion in the recent “Best of Young American Novelists” issue of Granta, means anything, Alexie could well win his prize.

When asked how sudden success has affected him, Alexie flashes a quick smile and quips: “I like room service.” The remark—even coming from a sometime stand-up comic—is revealing. Self-described as “mouthy, opinionated and arrogant,” Alexie betrays no squeamishness about the mix of art and commerce. He loves the limelight, and his readings are known for their improvisational energy, costume changes and singing. Six years sober after a six-year binge that began the day he entered college, he explains: “Today, I get high, I get drunk off of public readings. I'm good at it. It comes from being a debater in high school, but also, crucially, it comes from the oral tradition of my own culture. It's in performance that the two cultures become one.” Then he laughs, adding: “The most terrifying phrase in the world is when an Indian man grabs a microphone and says ‘I have a few words to say.’”

Alexie has more than a few words to say. His memory runs deep. Whether cast in poetry or prose, his work offers a devastating and deeply human portrait of contemporary Indian life. Greeting PW in the modest Seattle apartment where he lives with his wife of two years, Diane, a beautiful, private woman of Hidatsa/Ho Chunk/Pottawatomi descent, Alexie proves to be affable and generous, ready to sit down around the kitchen table and talk about his life and art.

Tall, handsome, his long black hair tied in a ponytail, dressed casually in a beige knit shirt and khakis, Alexie, who played basketball in high school, has a shooting guard's easy movements and soft touch. One would never suspect that he was born hydrocephalic, endured a brain operation at six months that should have left him mentally retarded—if not dead—and for his first seven years was beset with seizures and medicated with regular doses of lithium, phenobarbital and other sedatives.

The son of Sherman Sr. and Lillian Alexie (his father is Coeur d'Alene, his mother Spokane), Alexie was born and reared in Wellpinit, the only town on the Spokane Indian Reservation—a place he describes as a landscape of “HUD shacks and abandoned cars”—which lies some 50 miles northwest of Spokane, Wash. Alcoholism, a central concern of Alexie's work, afflicted his family, but there was love in the house, along with a mix of traditional and contemporary culture. “I've come to realize my parents did a damn good job, considering the cards they were dealt,” he says.

Then there was his maternal grandmother, Etta Adams, who died when Alexie was eight, and who appears as the eternal, wise and practical “Big Mom” in Reservation Blues. “She was one of the great spiritual leaders of the Spokane tribe,” Alexie says, “one of the most powerful figures to visit the Northwest, and in her last days thousands came to pay their respects.” The need for female strength and wisdom is a primary theme of Alexie's, sounded early on in “Indian Boy Love Songs,” four poems collected in The Business of Fancydancing.

Alexie began reading in earnest at an early age. Because he was unable to participate in the wild athleticism of a young male Indian's rites of passage, books became his world. “I knew what a paragraph was before I could read the words,” he says, claiming that at age six, he began working his way through The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck's final image of a starving man being breast-fed is fixed in his mind: “Ah, so that's the way a story's supposed to end,” he recalls telling himself. “With that kind of huge moment, which is the way the stories we tell ourselves end.” Through grade and high school, he devoured every book in the school libraries, reading and re-reading Steinbeck until the copies fell apart in his hands. “I was a total geek,” Alexie recalls, “which automatically made me an outcast, so in order to succeed I had to be smarter than everybody else. My sense of competitiveness came out that way. I was fierce in the classroom, I humiliated everybody and had my nose broken five times after school for being the smart kid.”

Alexie's view of Indian life acquired more complexity when, in 1981, he enrolled at an all-white high school in Reardan, a reservation border town unfriendly to Indians. With his world turned upside-down, he became the “perfect Reardan kid”: an honor student and class president and the only ponytail on the crewcut Reardan Indians basketball team. “I kept my mouth shut and became a good white Indian,” he acknowledges. “All those qualities that made me unpopular on the reservation made me popular at Reardan. It got to the point where I don't think they saw me as Indian.”

The hard work and conformity earned Alexie a scholarship to Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he enrolled with vague intentions of becoming a doctor or lawyer—“the usual options for a bright, brown kid”—and promptly fell apart. Feeling lost, lacking a life plan, he began drinking heavily. His misery found consolation in poetry, which he began to read avidly—Keats, Yeats, Dickinson, Whitman. “I didn't see myself in them,” he says, “so I felt like I was doing anthropology, like I was studying white people. Obviously, something was drawing me in that I couldn't intellectualize or verbalize, and then I realized that the poems weren't just about white people. They were about everybody. I also realized that the poets were outcasts, too,” he chuckles.

After two years, Alexie packed his bags and left Gonzaga for the University of Washington. Newly arrived in Seattle, he was robbed and soon found himself back in Wellpinit, on the verge of joining the long history of young Indians who come home to a slow death by alcohol. Waking one morning on the steps of the Assembly of God Church, hungover, his pants wet, he staggered home to mail off an application to WSU in Pullman. It was a poetry class at WSU taught by Alex Kuo that finally helped him to get his bearings as a writer, he recalls.

The boozing didn't stop, but the words poured out. Kuo, who became a father figure to Alexie, gave him a copy of the anthology Songs of This Earth on Turtle's Back. “In an instant I saw myself in literature,” Alexie recalls. A line from an Adrian C. Louis poem called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” changed his life forever: “O Uncle Adrian! I'm in the reservation of my own mind.” “I started crying. That was my whole life. Forget Steinbeck, forget Keats. I just kept saying that line over and over again. I sat down and started writing poems. And they came. It was scary.”

Under Kuo's guidance, his first semester manuscript became his first book, I Would Steal Horses, which was published by Slipstream in 1992. With Native poets such as Louis and Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo and Linda Hogan as models, he began to write his own story in his own voice. Lyrical, angry, poignant, socially engaged, the poems found their way into small literary magazines such as Brooklyn's Hanging Loose. Eventually, Hanging Loose Press brought out The Business of Fancydancing, which received a strong critical reception and has sold 11,000 copies, an astounding number for a book of poems from a small press. Serendipitously, the letter accepting the manuscript for publication arrived the day Alexie decided to quit drinking.

During his student days, and at Kuo's urging, Alexie began to experiment with prose—some of which appeared in Fancydancing. Other fictions were later collected in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, half of which was written in a four-month burst when agents, alert to his poetry, began calling with requests for fiction.

A friend introduced Alexie to Nancy Stauffer, who remains his agent to this day. “Nancy's really been good at helping me develop a career,” he says. “We really have a plan. We're not just going book to book. First and foremost, I want to be a better writer, and I want a larger audience.” In short order, Alexie found himself with a two-book, six-figure contract with Morgan Entrekin at the Atlantic Monthly Press at a time when, he says, he “didn't even have an idea for a novel.”

The idea did come, in the guise of Reservation Blues, a novel that imagines legendary bluesman Robert Johnson arriving on a reservation seeking redemption from “a woman,” in this case Big Mom. Johnson's magic guitar carries four young Indians off the reservation and into the world of rock and roll. The book explores differences between reservation and urban Indians and the effects of the church on traditional people, among other themes. It's also a bleak novel that's leavened by Alexie's signature black humor. “I'm not trying to be funny,” he explains. “I don't sit down to write something funny. In my everyday life I'm funny, and when I write it comes out. Laughter is a ceremony, it's the way people cope.”

There isn't much laughter in Indian Killer, which depicts John Smith, an Indian without a tribal affiliation. Adopted off the reservation and reared by a white couple, he becomes a suspect in a string of brutal scalpings that terrify Seattle. Tangent to Smith are a host of characters, including a racist talk-show host, a white professor of Native American studies and a defiant female Indian activist, all of whom are struggling with their senses of identity. The picture is of a man divided by culture, a culture divided by its tragic history, a city divided by race, and a nation at war with itself. And it is a vision Alexie paints with excruciating clarity.

The perception of being an outcast among outcasts contributes to Alexie's complex portrait of reservation life, a view rife with ironies and a sense of complicity that has come under fire from Indian writers for its apparent emphasis on hopelessness, alcoholism and suicide. “I write what I know,” he says, “and I don't try to mythologize myself, which is what some seem to want, and which some Indian women and men writers are doing, this Earth Mother and Shaman Man thing, trying to create these ‘authentic, traditional’ Indians. We don't live our live that way.”

Well aware that his poems and novels have angered Indians and whites alike, Alexie enjoys walking a kind of cultural highwire. “I use a racial criterion in my literary critiques,” he says. “I have a very specific commitment to Indian people, and I'm very tribal in that sense. I want us to survive as Indians.”

That said, Alexie's Indian characters are never guileless victims. Echoing Big Mom, who continually reminds her neighbors in Reservation Blues that their fate is in their own hands, he explains: “It's a two-way street. The system sets you up to fail, and then, somehow, you choose it.”

Madison Smart Bell (review date 17 November 1996)

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SOURCE: Bell, Madison Smart. “Native Son: Sherman Alexie Explores the Confusion and Anger Born of Oppression.” Chicago Tribune Books (17 November 1996): sec. 14, p. 3.

[In the following review, Bell explores the rage experienced by the Native-American characters due to the loss of their cultural identity in Indian Killer.]

Over the course of writing several novels, Sherman Alexie has evolved a style that might be called modern Indian magical realism: a melange that combines grindingly realistic portrayals of reservation life today with swift and deft satirical sketches of the rest of modern American society, connected by natural and supernatural events and interpenetrated with episodes from the one-sided, 19th Century struggle between embattled Indian tribes and the encroaching white people. At his best, Alexie can integrate all these disparate ingredients into some fascinating, and fantastic, conceit.

Suppose, for instance, that Spokane Indians got hold of musician Robert Johnson's guitar, a magical instrument that would both play itself and tell the Indians what to do. Such is the premise for Reservation Blues, Alexie's previous novel. At the beginning, Indian Killer, his current work, looks as if it will be more staidly and steadily realistic.

John Smith is born to a 14-year-old Indian mother and adopted at birth by a white couple in Seattle, Olivia and Daniel Smith. While raising John in a wholly white world, his adoptive parents also take pains to educate him in a general Indian heritage, though neither he nor they know what tribe he belongs to by blood. A couple of chapters present his very detailed imaginings of the reservation childhood his adoptive parents stole (as he comes to feel) from him. At prep school, he's isolated by hostile and benign prejudice, though on the surface he's “a nice trophy for St. Francis, a successfully integrated Indian boy.” As an adult, he declines to attend college and becomes a high-rise construction worker because, “He figured it was the Indian thing to do.” Brown on the outside, John is a mystery on the inside, even to himself. “When asked by white people, he said he was Sioux, because that was what they wanted him to be. When asked by Indian people, he said he was Navajo, because that was what he wanted to be.”

Cut off from Indian and white communities, John drifts further into a confusion that seems to take on elements of clinical psychosis (he refuses medication that would stop him from hearing voices) and that Alexie sometimes describes with an inspired simplicity, which is the strongest of his several styles. “‘Father,’ said John, his voice rising, his hands gesturing wildly. ‘All the anger in the world has come to my house. It's there in my closet. In my refrigerator. In the water. In the sheets. It's in my clothes. … It's in my hair. I can feel it between my teeth. Can you taste it? I hear it all the time. All the time the anger is talking to me. It's the devil. I'm the devil. If I could I'd crawl into a hole if I knew God was in there. Where's the hole? You know, I just killed two white boys on the bridge. They were there on the bridge. They wanted to hurt me. They were the devil. I killed them. … They can't hurt me anymore. They hurt me. They wanted to steal my eyes. They wanted everything. …”

A couple of other figures in the novel are given the same thorough characterization as John, notably Marie Polatkin, an Indian college student and activist who's especially infuriated by white misappropriation of Indian culture: the white writers who recount “Indian legends”; phalanxes of New Age flakes with their dream catchers and medicine bags; her white professor, Clarence Mather, who's teaching a Native American literature course with a reading list by white authors pretending to be Indian. Most of the people in the book, however, are not characters but caricatures: Mather, John's adoptive parents, local radio host Truck Schultz. Some figures, such as Jack Wilson, a wannabe-Indian novelist particularly loathed by Marie, begin as fully realized characters but deteriorate into caricatures later. The caricatures are skillfully rendered and deployed in witty satirical set pieces, but because they are also the mouthpieces for the sort of ideology that the novel seems to oppose, one is uncomfortably reminded that paper tigers are easy to slay.

Meanwhile, the eponymous Indian Killer (who may be John Smith or Marie Polatkin or even Jack Wilson) is killing white people around Seattle and marking the corpses with bloodstained owl feathers. Although the thriller plot line is too perfunctory to be interesting, the brief sections from the unknown killer's point of view exercise an eerie fascination. The real question has less to do with whodunit than with why, and the novel presents it as justifiable that Indians should kill white people simply because they belong to the group that has perpetuated so many atrocities against Indians. To bolster this case, Alexie's techniques of interpenetration allow for brief reprises of such events as the Sand Creek Massacre and the assassination of Crazy Horse. But what adds insult to injury is white theft of Indian culture, which infuriates John and Marie (and perhaps their author) more than anything. The motif of stolen eyes eventually works itself out in an unpleasantly visceral way.

The justification of the Indian Killer makes the same kind of rhetorical sense as the violence often alluded to by Malcolm X or the rapes of white women recounted by Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice. Some of the other propositions voiced are less logically constituted. “ONLY INDIANS SHOULD TELL INDIAN STORIES,” proclaims a sign hoisted by Marie and others to protest a reading by Jack Wilson. Sounds reasonable (especially after 30 years of Tonto), but if it's true in principle, what right does Sherman Alexie—a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian—have to portray white characters, or to write from within the black musician Robert Johnson as he does (quite convincingly) in Reservation Blues?

This story is not told as well as it might be. It often reads more like an author's notebook than a finished novel: sketches for characters, sketches for plot. There is a strange randomness to everyone's behavior; relationships between characters are suggested, then abandoned; plot movements are implausibly twisted or simply dropped. Alexie's hybrid style depends on an arbitrary manipulation that works wonderfully sometimes but often does not work at all.

Reading Indian Killer is rather like listening to someone so strangled with anger that he has become half incoherent. The lesson this book teaches is that the rage engendered in a people by a couple of centuries of oppression, mistreatment and betrayal cannot be blithely smoothed away by good intentions—and that is a lesson worth learning. It's also worth remembering that anger is a force, like fire or flood, which, if left unharnessed, can only destroy.

Sherman Alexie and Erik Himmelsbach (interview date 17 December 1996)

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SOURCE: Sherman, Alexie, and Erik Himmelsbach. “Reluctant Spokesman.” Los Angeles Times (17 December 1996): E1, E6.

[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his hesitancy to serve as a representative of the Native-American community at large, his tribe's often bitter attitude toward him, and the film industry's preconceptions about Native Americans.]

Sherman Alexie is ready to play cards with Satan.

The 30-year-old author is hunkered down at the Beverly Prescott, in town to discuss the film rights to his latest novel, Indian Killer, a slyly subversive potboiler about a serial murderer whose actions spark a modern battle of cowboys and Indians in Seattle. It may seem like perfect big-screen fodder, but Alexie, a Spokane Coeur d'Alene, harbors no illusions and is prepared for the inevitable raw deal from Hollywood.

“The real problem is that there's no white hero in my book,” he says. “They want loincloths. They want sweat lodges and vision quests. They want Dances with Wolves, and I don't write that.”

If producers aren't sensitive to the particulars of the late 20th century American Indian, at least no one's mentioned Lou Diamond Phillips.

“I think he's done with the Indian thing,” Alexie says with a grin. “He's done four or five of them, and they all flopped. Hopefully, he hasn't read the book and won't be interested.”

While they're busy keeping Diamond Phillips off casting lists, Hollywood types also would be wise to avoid calling Alexie a “Native American.” The author dismisses the term as meaningless, a product of liberal white guilt.

“I'm an Indian,” he says. “I'll only use ‘Native American’ in mixed company.”

Indian Killer is Alexie's second novel; the first was Reservation Blues. (He's also written an acclaimed book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and several volumes of poetry.)

It's a multilayered work. While it satisfied Alexie's desire to explore the mystery genre, it also highlights the tenuous thread of civility that exists between white and American Indian cultures, how we are only a flash point away from igniting a racial powder keg—even in progressive Seattle, where Alexie lives with his wife, Diane.

“If you look at the history of the U.S. and chart what's happening, we are brewing a revolutionary stew,” he says, comparing the present disparity among classes and races to France just before the French Revolution. “There's a tremendous level of anger out there, and the anger in the Indian community has not really been talked about. There's a huge open wound.”

Healing would require apologies and reparations from the U.S. government, but Alexie isn't holding his breath. “It would change the whole myth of America, the rugged individual, the courageous pioneer, this whole American dream,” he says. The government “would have to admit that there were terrible evils committed here, comparable to any evils ever.”

Alexie has done his share of myth debunking. His earlier work, especially Lone Ranger and Tonto, is notable for its honest and humorous character studies of modern tribal life. His stories are candid snapshots of a culture that has long been ignored.

In Indian Killer, he leaves the reservation to examine the plight of the urban Indian, like himself, displaced from the tribe. He notes that 60٪ of the Indians in this country live in urban areas. But that presented new challenges, as Alexie struggled to develop some of the characters, especially white characters, whose life experiences are foreign to him.

“I grew up in a culture where you are taught that songs and stories have specific owners and you can't tell them without permission,” he explains. “Growing up with those cultural constructs, the whole idea of the artist as the individual is totally outside my concept of who I am. I'm always operating with some sort of tribal responsibility, so here I am writing about people way outside my tribe, and it got uncomfortable.”

While Alexie has enlightened the world at large about the contemporary American Indian experience, his tribe has essentially shunned him. Back at the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, people have strong, often unfavorable opinions about the author who, as a child, often whiled away his days alone in his room playing Dungeons & Dragons or Nerf basketball.

“I was a divisive presence on the reservation when I was 7,” he recalls. “I was a weird, eccentric, very arrogant little boy. The writing doesn't change anybody's opinion of me. If anything, it's intensified it.”

Alexie says one tribal elder resents him not for anything he's written, but because he was a “ball hog” on the tribe's basketball team.

Part of the animosity stems from Alexie's decision to leave his tribal school and transfer to Reardan High, a virtually all-white school 20 miles from his home.

Alexie was terrified when he arrived at Reardan—he was the school's first and only Indian until his twin sisters joined him after a year. To assimilate, he had to abandon certain characteristics, including his reservation accent and some of his hair, which fell far below his shoulders.

“People think it's a trivial thing, and it's not,” he says. “The physical act of cutting parts of yourself off to fit in, that's what it is.”

Ultimately, though, Alexie succeeded at Reardan for the same reasons he was outcast by his tribe—his “insane ambition.”

He drew on his experiences at the school when developing John Smith, a central character in Indian Killer. Unlike Alexie, however, Smith was tormented by his lack of tribal identification: He was adopted by a white couple and never knew his heritage.

“Indian children adopted by non-Indian families have tremendous social problems,” Alexie says.

Although ostracized by his tribe, Alexie has been embraced by many other American Indians, judging by the number of events and commencements he's asked to speak at.

He jokes that his “little books about one little reservation in Washington state” have come to represent all Indians everywhere. As such, he's not allowed to merely write books. He has had to become a poster boy.

“It's very interesting. Nobody ever asked Raymond Carver to speak for every white guy,” Alexie says. “I end up having to be a spokesperson for Indian people. I've become a politician and a sociologist and psychologist and cultural critic, and all these jobs I have to fulfill simply based on the fact that I am an Indian writer getting a lot of attention.”

Being selected as one of Granta magazine's “20 best American novelists under 40” has added to the author's laundry list of accolades, although he takes this sort of recognition with a grain of salt.

“There are hints I got on there because of some affirmative action policy,” he says. “How many spots are reserved in the literary world for Indian people? None. If I was on there because of some newly invented Indian quota in the literary world, great. I hope we get lots more quotas.”

While he doesn't shun his profile-building extracurricular responsibilities, Alexie prefers the solitude of his craft. “Writers and artists are by and large selfish bastards. It's isolated, individualistic. In that sense, it was a job I was perfectly suited for.”

In this way, Alexie identifies with Indian Killer's Marie Polatkin, an angry, righteous Indian who will grant no quarter to the white intellectuals who think they understand the Native American experience.

But sharing his writing with the world has had a profound effect on this self-proclaimed selfish bastard. “I had no idea about the very quiet ways in which art works,” he says, explaining the letters of support he receives from all over the country.

“I was in the Seattle airport, and this 10-year-old Indian boy came up to me and he said, ‘I like your poem,’ and he told me which poem he liked,” Alexie says. “And at that moment, all the wonder and magic of what art is supposed to be about is contained there. For just a few moments, you forget about slogging through airport after airport. It sounds clichéd and romantic and sentimental, and it is, but it's great. It's those little moments that save you.”

As the day turns dark, and Hollywood's bright lights wink seductively at Alexie from his 11th-floor view at the Beverly Prescott, his thoughts suddenly turn from idyllic to pragmatic. Nothing, it seems, can save him from the dread of the meetings with the movie people. He'll hear about how his writing can be sliced and diced and marketed and compromised in the name of mass-market entertainment.

It's times like these that he wraps himself in the security of what he considers his true calling: poetry. (His latest book of poems, The Summer of Black Widows was published in September.)

“There is no possible way to sell your soul because nobody's offering,” he says with a laugh. “The devil doesn't care about poetry. No one wants to make a movie out of a poem.”

Judith Bolton-Fasman (review date 6 January 1997)

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SOURCE: Bolton-Fasman, Judith. “One Author's Effort at Myth Killing.” Christian Science Monitor (6 January 1997): 13.

[In the following review, Bolton-Fasman praises Indian Killer for Alexie's skillful character development and his blunt treatment of racism in America.]

Sherman Alexie is a native American who discounts that designation as a “guilty white liberal term”; he prefers to be called Indian. Indian Killer is his second novel and it is the literary thriller at its best.

Alexie transforms the genre into a sharp, multilayered format that enables him to engage his readers on a number of levels. It's a terrifically readable whodunit with a fascinating group of suspects. It's also a complex history lesson that is eloquently expressed in fantasy, myth, and fact.

The plot centers on the random murders of white men in Seattle; all of the physical evidence points to a killer of Indian heritage. But the trouble really begins years earlier with a questionable adoption. A baby boy is wrenched from his 14-year-old Indian mother and handed over to a well-meaning white couple named Olivia and Daniel Smith.

Although they try to keep their son connected to his heritage, they are so clueless about his Indian identity that they name him John Smith.

John grows up culturally disoriented, searching for his mother, constantly guessing which tribe he belongs to. His rage eventually develops into a psychosis. I'm not giving anything away by identifying John as the Indian killer. The reader knows it from the beginning. And it speaks well for Alexie that despite this, he's able to keep his audience interested, actually edgy, for more than 400 pages. He cleverly supplies a perfunctory list of suspects to introduce the various types who occupy the margins of Indian culture.

There's the half-Indian whose frustration leads to violence. There's the militant Indian student, Marie Polatkin, who disrupts a course in native American literature. And there's the wannabe Indian, Jack Wilson, a writer of Indian-based mysteries who fraudulently claims Indian ancestry, a self-proclaimed expert on all matters Indian.

Within the highly accessible format of the thriller, Alexie has profound things to say about the identity and the plight of the American Indian through Marie. She challenges her white professor's “right” to teach native American literature with a reading list of mostly white authors.

“If the real Pocahontas came back, do you think she'd be happy about being a cartoon?” Marie asks.

Alexie also presents a controversial case against mixed adoption and fiercely defends the concept of self-preservation by condemning intermarriage. He offers a strict and unequivocal definition of who is an Indian.

Alexie's Seattle also contributes to the ongoing brutality. Even this reportedly civil city is vulnerable to the racial violence that plagues other urban areas. Tensions between whites and Indians boil beneath what turns out to be the city's thin veneer of tolerance—a condition that Alexie describes as “surface liberalism.”

He skewers this liberal mecca and spotlights its homeless Indians surviving under bridges, sleeping in parks, and staying warm in doorways.

In spare, unflinching scenes Alexie takes a metaphorical knife to the heart of American racism and, like the Indian killer, he does so to redeem his Indian brethren.

Robert L. Berner (review date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Berner, Robert L. Review of The Summer of Black Widows, by Sherman Alexie. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 430–31.

[In the following review, Berner offers a positive assessment of The Summer of Black Widows, commenting favorably on Alexie's portrayal of the true Native-American cultural experience and his use of dark satire.]

In Sherman Alexie's title poem, black widow spiders, appearing on the Spokane reservation in miraculous numbers, become a metaphor for stories. The summer is full of spiders and thus rich in stories, and even after the spiders disappear, their evidence is found in every corner of a place that remains rich in poetic possibility.

The Summer of Black Widows includes some of the most powerful poems in our literature about the experience of living on an Indian reservation surrounded by the world its tribe has lost. Consider three examples: a poem about Spokane Falls, “That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump,” in which the loss of the salmon to urban and industrial concrete relates to women mourning for children who cannot return home; “The Exaggeration of Despair,” a catalogue of horrific cases of social and cultural disintegration; and “The Powwow at the End of the World,” a denunciation of crimes against the environment and against Alexie's tribe which succeeds as a poem even though those who attempt to do this kind of thing usually fail.

Alexie shows a variety of other strengths as well. He is, for one thing, a richly comic poet—in a reference to Norman Mailer writing “yet another epic novel” he says, “Somebody needs to teach Norman about the haiku”—and he often reveals a keen satiric sense. (“How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” is a splendid marshaling of the stereotypes which too often substitute in our culture for the reality of American Indian experience.) But as always in the greatest comic art, the humor that makes us laugh is always underlaid with a sad wisdom. For example, some of the cases of “people who die in stupid ways” (in “Elegies”) are obvious (George Armstrong Custer, people who kill themselves smoking), but some are more complex (a Brinks guard dying under an avalanche of coins) and some are painfully personal: a sister who appears frequently in Alexie's poems because, too drunk to awaken, she died in a trailer fire.

Alexie's devotion to basketball, familiar to readers who have followed his career, is seen in the present collection in yet another light, united to his appreciation of Walt Whitman. The title “Defending Walt Whitman” refers not only to Alexie's defense of Whitman as a poet and personal hero but also to defensive strategies in a basketball game in which Walt is one of the players. The poem's real subject, therefore, seems to be the complexity of literary influence—that is, the need to resist it even in the act of homage.

In this, as always in the best American Indian writing, its relation to American culture as a whole is a primary subject; but Alexie also suggests that the influences are mutual, and in “Tourists” he suggests just why America needs Indian traditional tribal culture. One of the “tourists” is Marilyn Monroe, who, to become a person, something more than a beautiful piece of female flesh created by popular culture, comes to the reservation, where she is stripped by the women and led into a sweat lodge to become one with them, to be at last healed and made whole again, a person rather than a cultural artifact: “Finally, she is no more naked than anyone else.”

In previous collections Alexie has earned an important position among American Indian poets, but the quality of almost all the poems in The Summer of Black Widows suggests that his significance now must be more broadly defined.

Peter Donahue (essay date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Donahue, Peter. “New Warriors, New Legends: Basketball in Three Native American Works of Fiction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 44–48, 51–55, 57–60.

[In the following excerpt, Donahue discusses the significance of basketball in Native-American culture as evidenced in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues.]

In basketball, we find enough reasons to believe in God …

—Sherman Alexie.1

… In the past two decades, basketball has become an obsession on many American Indian reservations. This obsession has brought exuberance and dejection, pride and shame, and hope and despair to the many Indian youth who play the game as well as to spectators. As played by Native Americans, the game has been influenced by various traditional customs, beliefs, and legends. At the same time, it has exerted its own reshaping influence upon these cultural forces. Throughout Welch's The Indian Lawyer and Alexie's Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues, the two writers scrutinize the profound cultural significance that basketball has on Native American residents of Indian reservations, recognizing both the perils and the promise that the game offers.

The establishment of origin stories is integral to cultural processes. The relationship of Native Americans to basketball means replacing the standard history of the game's origin with a new one. … The establishment of a Native American origin story for basketball begins in Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

In the work, two young Spokane Indian men, Junior and Adrian, sit and watch the day pass from a front porch. When a teenage boy walks by, the men recognize him as Julius Windmaker, “the best basketball player on the reservation” ([The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, hereafter cited as LR] 45). Junior then explains that “Julius Windmaker was the latest in a long line of reservation basketball heroes, going all the way back to Aristotle Polatkin, who was shooting jumpshots exactly one year before James Naismith supposedly invented basketball” (LR, 45). The two qualifiers, “exactly” and “supposedly,” lay out the relationship of Polatkin and Naismith to basketball's origins. The first affirms the certainty of the claim concerning Aristotle Polatkin, while the second undermines the historical record concerning Naismith which the claim challenges. For Alexie's characters—people who harbor a profound distrust of white people—the legend of Aristotle Polatkin (mentioned nowhere else in the book) provides proof enough that basketball is a game of Indian origin. The Polatkin legend, which benefits from the tradition of being orally transmitted, has more validity for Junior and Adrian than all the history books in all the libraries. And if the evidence of the legend itself is not enough, it is reinforced by firsthand evidence. Later in Lone Ranger and Tonto, one of the book's many narrators is shooting baskets with several Indian kids when, impressed by their grace and skill, he remarks, “I see these Indian kids and I know that basketball was invented by an Indian long before that Naismith guy ever thought about it” (LR, 127).

Such claims would have been dismissed outright twenty years ago, and today many people continue to condemn them as fanciful historical revisionism. Nonetheless, such claims warrant investigation—including a reexamination of the history books. Given recent understanding into the cultural hybridization that occurs when two cultures meet (as in the adoption and mastery of the horse by tribes soon after its introduction by the Spanish), combined with a recognition of the suppression of minority histories that often takes place in the name of acculturation (as resulted with the prohibition of tribal languages in the Indian schools), claims such as Junior's—that basketball originated with Indians—demand attention. …

The claims of Alexie's characters—that basketball is an authentically Indian game—find possible corroboration in Oxendine's examination of several aboriginal games which may have served as forerunners to basketball—games which Alexie's legendary Aristotle Polatkin might have played, and with which James Naismith, a student of sports, may have been familiar. …

Even if basketball has little connection to hoop-and-pole or Pok-Ta-Pok, the sense of sportsmanship that Indians brought to the two traditional games survives in the attitudes they bring to contemporary sports such as basketball. Oxendine notes that Native American games significantly lacked the kind (and degree) of standardization and quantification that organized sports in America insist upon.2 Throughout Lone Ranger and Tonto and Reservation Blues, past reservation basketball heroes are recalled not for the number of points or assists they racked up or the important games they won, as sports heroes are typically remembered by statistics-crazed Americans. Rather, they are remembered solely for the special quality of their play. For this reason, the Indian sports hero need not be a well-established performer. In Lone Ranger and Tonto, Junior recalls “the famous case of Silas Sirius, who made one move and scored one basket in his entire basketball career. People still talk about it” (LR, 47). Junior and Adrian recount in detail the single miraculous move Silas Sirius made to immortalize himself. After making his move—of which Adrian says, “I don't mean it looked like he flew, or it was so beautiful it was almost like he flew. I mean, he flew, period” (LR, 47)—Silas walked off the court and never returned. The game was not even a particularly important one. So while Wilt Chamberlain is remembered for such statistical feats as his one hundred-point game or Larry Byrd for restoring the Boston Celtics to their former championship glory, Silas Sirius becomes legendary among the Spokane people for a single move in an otherwise forgettable game. Reflecting on this phenomenon, Junior says:

In the outside world, a person can be a hero one second and a nobody the next. Think about it. Do white people remember the names of those guys who dove into that icy river to rescue passengers from that plane wreck a few years back? Hell, white people don't even remember the names of the dogs who save entire families from burning up in house fires by barking. And, to be honest, I don't remember none of those names either, but a reservation hero is remembered. A reservation hero is a hero forever. In fact, their status grows over the years as the stories are told and retold.

(LR, 48)

What enables the legend of Silas Sirius to endure is not the numbers he accumulated in the record books or the championships he won, but rather his single move on the basketball court and the mythological proportions it assumes in its retelling. Junior adds one more detail to the myth when he concludes his reminiscence of Silas by recalling how he “was smiling. Really. Smiling when he flew. Smiling when he dunked it, smiling when he walked off the court and never came back. Hell he was still smiling ten years after that” (LR, 47).

The lack of standardization and quantification appears also in the grudge-match that Samuel Builds-the-Fire and Lester FallsApart have with the Tribal Cops in Reservation Blues. According to Oxendine, “One area in which flexibility was a decided advantage was in establishing the number of players on a team. The simple solution was that everyone played, so long as the teams were relatively even.”3 In their game against the Tribal Cops, Samuel and Lester take on all six members of the Spokane Tribal Police Department. For the next twenty-three pages, the score is regularly noted in bold print, yet when the game comes down to the last point Alexie withholds the final score, leaving the game's outcome uncertain. In a game from which particular moves are remembered years later—“‘That shot was the best story I ever told,’ Samuel said” ([Reservation Blues, hereafter cited as RB] 121)—the score recedes in significance. “In American Indian culture,” Oxendine observes, “winning and losing were important, but no importance was placed on the magnitude of the victory.”4 The game's outcome can only be inferred—in favor of Samuel and Lester—since they remain on the reservation, indicating that they won their wager to leave it if they lost. …

The religious associations that basketball assumes for many Indians are not lost on Sherman Alexie. In Lone Ranger and Tonto, Junior observes that “Indians kind of see ballplayers as saviors. I mean, if basketball would have been around, I'm sure Jesus Christ would've been the best point guard in Nazareth. Probably the best player in the entire world. And in the beyond” (LR, 52). In Reservation Blues, Father Arnold, the reservation priest, is accused by his monsignor of devoting too much time to the church basketball league and not enough time to his “commitment to God” (RB, 268). The monsignor does not understand that basketball serves more than a recreational purpose in Father Arnold's ministry. Throughout Alexie's two books, several instances of the spiritual association of basketball with Christianity appear, but more relevant are the associations which Alexie makes between basketball and Native American spiritual beliefs and practices.

Oxendine explains how games have traditionally had a “religiomagical” aspect for Native Americans. He cites the example of the Hurons who played lacrosse to bring on favorable weather conditions.5 In Lone Ranger and Tonto, one of the narrators says, “I play and I play until the sweat of my body makes it rain everywhere on the reservation” (LR, 115). The rhythms of the game seem to replicate the rhythms of ceremonial dances. The same narrator goes on to say: “I play and I play until the music of shoes against the pavement sounds like every drum” (LR, 115). Later on, another character remarks that “A ball bouncing on hardwood sounds like a drum” (LR, 147). The association between basketball and spiritual forces is strong among Indian fans and players alike. …

Since athleticism connotes healthiness, basketball often takes on healing qualities in Alexie's work. Oxendine states that in Native American cultures, games historically “were used for preventive as well as curative purposes and for both individual and group healing.”6 Among contemporary Indians, a people who suffer from extremely high rates of alcoholism, malnutrition, depression, and diseases such as diabetes, it is not surprising that anything associated with good health might assume a prominent place within the community. In Lone Ranger and Tonto, Junior, who was once a reservation basketball star, tells us that as a child he suffered from juvenile diabetes—prior to his basketball playing (LR, 221). He also relates the terrible experience of having once played basketball while drunk: “I felt disconnected the whole time. Nothing seemed to fit right. Even my shoes, which had fit perfectly before, felt too big for my feet. I couldn't even see the basketball or basket clearly” (LR, 51). He notes that it was the first and last time he played drunk. Junior also sees the potential healing power of basketball when he comments upon the current reservation basketball hero, Julius Windmaker: “I'd only seen Julius play a few times, but he had that gift, that grace, those fingers like a goddamn medicine man” (LR, 45).

The spiritual and healing aspect of athletics has long existed in the Native American tradition of running, a tradition which profoundly influences the kind of basketball that Indians play. Peter Nabokov explains that tales of running, from a wide range of North American tribes, “function as chalk talks, teaching runners how to measure their stride and energy, use their heads, and seek spiritual assistance.”7 For many tribes, running has traditionally served as a “link between worlds, a way of communicating with timeless spirits and powers.”8

Running remains today an important sport among many tribes, for traditional reasons as well as for the fact that, as Alexie's character Victor sarcastically puts it, “the only famous Indians are dead chiefs and long-distance runners” (LR, 73). From Jim Thorpe to Ellison Brown to Billy Mills, Indian runners have long distinguished themselves internationally, although they suffered the same conflicts arising from the clash of community values with individual success experienced by today's Indian basketball players.

In many ways, basketball has subsumed running to become the favored Indian sport. Hero legends seem to have shifted from those about runners to those about basketball players. … Today, in Lone Ranger and Tonto, there are Junior and Adrian, sitting on the porch remembering “all of our heroes, ballplayers from seven generations back, all the way back” (LR, 52). … Unfortunately, as with many Indian running heroes in the twentieth century, such as Ellison Brown who died drunk and destitute, Indian basketball heroes often meet tragic fates. In Reservation Blues, the legend of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, “Washington State High School Basketball Player of the Year in 1956,” amounts to little when he ends up passed out drunk on his son's kitchen table (RB, 97). …

Indian basketball is renowned for being a running game. Beyond all other aspects of the game—execution of plays, aggressive defense, flawless parameter shooting, individual acrobatics—running is the quality that most distinguishes Indian basketball from other styles of play. … In Lone Ranger and Tonto, a white player is admired because “he played Indian ball, fast and loose, better than all the Indians here” (LR, 188). Smith says that of all the “games” the white man brought with him, such as earning degrees and making money, “here was the one [basketball] that the lean, quick men on the reservations could instinctively play.”9 Referred to as racehorse ball, Indian ball, or blur ball, Indian-style basketball thoroughly integrates the Native American tradition of running into its game.

Part of this tradition involves running as a means of resistance. … As one of the narrators says in Lone Ranger and Tonto, expressing his exultation in the game, “I played and all of us warriors roaring against the air and the nets and the clock that didn't work and our memories and our dreams and the twentieth-century horses we called our legs” (LR, 118).

It is particularly the running aspect of Indian basketball that ties the game to Indian identity, pride, and resistance. … In Lone Ranger and Tonto, the basketball court becomes the venue for Junior, a Spokane Indian, to challenge the BIA chief's son, a white kid who represents more than just another basketball opponent: “I was Indian … and this BIA kid needed to be beaten by an Indian, any Indian” (LR, 189). …

In Reservations Blues, basketball becomes the means of resistance in the grudge-match that Samuel Builds-the-Fire and Lester FallsApart have with the Tribal Cops. The match is sparked by the antagonisms between Samuel and Lester, both full-blooded Indians, and Spokane Tribal Police Officer Wilson, “a white man who hated to live on the reservation. He claimed a little bit of Indian blood and had used it to get the job but seemed to forget that whenever he handcuffed another Indian” (RB, 101–2). One of Wilson's teammates is William, whom Samuel and Lester also consider white. Throughout the game, Samuel and Wilson exchange racial jabs. At one point, after dunking the ball, Samuel says, “That was for every one of you Indians like you Tribal Cops. … That was for all those Indian scouts who helped the U.S. Cavalry. That was for Wounded Knee I and II. For Sand Creek. Hell, that was for both the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X” (RB, 117). Contrary to criticism that Alexie's characters conform too closely to the mainstream's preference for vanishing Indians, Alexie demonstrates resistance on a very local level, the basketball court, where politics turns acutely personal for these men. Through basketball—and particularly the slam dunk, basketball's most aggressive offensive play—Samuel takes revenge on the oppressive elements of American culture he sees embodied in the Tribal Cops. While his action can never undo the harm done by the offenses he cites, it enables him to express his outrage and exert his pride. And in more real terms, winning the game enables him to stay on the reservation, in effect thwarting the efforts of the Tribal Cops to further colonize tribal lands. In this instance, at least, Samuel refuses to vanish.

Whether Samuel's efforts—or efforts like his on any reservation basketball court—amount to genuine progress for Native Americans nonetheless remains debatable. Dale Old Horn is adamant that it does not: “It's not a real victory. It doesn't decrease bigotry. It doesn't lessen alcoholism. It doesn't remove one Indian from the welfare rolls or return a single acre of our land.”10 In Reservation Blues, Samuel's own son, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, comments on the problems that arise from the inordinate faith Indians often place in basketball. Speaking of his father's younger days, before alcoholism consumed his life, Thomas says:

He was such a good basketball player that all the Spokanes wanted him to be more. When any Indian shows the slightest hint of talent in any direction, the rest of the tribe starts expecting Jesus. Sometimes they'll stop a reservation hero in the middle of the street, look into his eyes, and ask him to change a can of sardines into a river of salmon.

(RB, 97)

Gary Smith cites the example of Myron Falls Down, a star for a Crow team in the 1970s, who realized that “basketball, the way the Crows were using it, had become a drug,” and to break the addiction turned his back on the sport, throwing away his trophies and refusing to attend another game.11

While these criticisms are important, they tend to overlook the complex, though often paradoxical, role which basketball has assumed in the lives of so many Native Americans—especially, even while it appears as mere distraction, in providing hope. In Lone Ranger and Tonto, the character Simon asks: “Do you think it's any coincidence that basketball was invented just one year after the Ghost Dancers fell at Wounded Knee?” (LR, 147). He clearly means to suggest that basketball is an extension of the Ghost Dance, the Indian religion of revolt and renewal (and desperation) which emerged during the final years of the U.S. military suppression of North American tribes. Gerald Vizenor picks up on the paradox of the Ghost Dance, pointing out that English was the language that carried the Ghost Dance from tribe to tribe, that “this mother tongue of paracolonialism has been a language of invincible imagination and liberation for many tribal people …”12 On many Indian reservations, basketball seems to have taken on a similarly paradoxical function. If the game is strictly an Anglo-American invention—which is debatable—then it is a game which Indians have co-opted to make very much their own.

In these contemporary works of fiction, Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservations Blues, basketball creates the same dynamic Vizenor sees being played out in Indian literature: “The postindian warriors encounter their enemies with the same courage … as their ancestors once evinced on horses, and they create their stories with a new sense of survivance.”13 To a great extent, and sometimes with questionable results, Indian basketball players have become the new tribal warriors, and in turn, the stories Indians tell one another about their basketball warriors have become the new tribal legends.


  1. Sherman Alexie, “Why We Play Basketball.” College English 58.6 (1996): 709–12.

  2. Ibid., 15.

  3. Ibid., 15.

  4. Ibid., 15.

  5. Oxendine, American Indian Sports Heritage, 7.

  6. Oxendine, American Indian Sports Heritage, 8.

  7. Peter Nabokov, Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition (Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1981), 26.

  8. Ibid., 27.

  9. Ibid., 64.

  10. Smith, “Shadow of a Nation,” 65.

  11. Ibid., 70.

  12. Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners, 105.

  13. Ibid., 4.

Ron McFarland (essay date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. “‘Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie's Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 252–55, 257–64.

[In the following excerpt, McFarland examines the polemic nature of Alexie's writing and his unique poetic form.]

When a new poet [Sherman Alexie] comes on the scene, it is “both fitting and proper” to identify him or her, not so much with the intention of fixing and formulating with a phrase, but with the intention of providing a point of departure or a common ground. As to what constitutes an identity as a “Native American poet,” I would suggest that it has most to do with how the poet, in this case Sherman Alexie, presents himself or allows himself to be presented by publishers and publicists. The job of the literary critic and scholar is to create contexts for discussion and discourse.

James R. Kincaid, in his review essay, “Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?” in the New York Times Book Review for May 3, 1992, concluded, “Mr. Alexie's is one of the major lyric voices of our time.” He was speaking in the hyperbolic language of the book cover blurb of then twenty-five-year-old Sherman Alexie's first collection of poems, The Business of Fancydancing. While Alexie is a very promising young poet, his talents are not in the lyric, as I shall demonstrate hereafter, and whether his is a “major” voice of “our time” requires that at least a little of that time pass. Ranging over seventeen titles, from Ray Young Bear's Black Eagle Child, “dizzying re-creations in prose and poetry of the author's life,” to Joe S. Sando's historical work, Pueblo Nations, Kincaid's ambitious review is noteworthy for its attention to publications from small presses like Hanging Loose in Brooklyn, which published Alexie's poems, and Clear Light, the Santa Fe publisher of Sando's book (eight of the seventeen publishers were university presses). Subsequent reviewers and commentators, from Library Journal,Publishers Weekly,American Book Review, and Kenyon Review to Joy Harjo, Reynolds Price, Linda Hogan, and Simon Ortiz, have affixed their seals of approval to Alexie's writing, and in rapid succession he produced two more collections of poems, Old Shirts & New Skins and First Indian on the Moon, both of which appeared in 1993.

In “Imagining the Reservation,” from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a collection of short stories, Alexie offers an equation:

Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.

(p. 150)

The epigraph to “Indian Education,” the first section of Old Shirts & New Skins is, “Poetry = Anger x Imagination,” and it is ascribed to one of Alexie's recurring characters, Lester FallsApart. In their all but indispensable interview for the Bloomsbury Review conducted in the fall of 1993, John and Carl Bellante questioned Sherman Alexie about that equation, and he responded: “Exactly what my attitude toward life is” (p. 15). When the Bellantes asked what “precisely” about white culture so angered him, Alexie answered, “Pretty much everything patriarchal. … We've resisted assimilation in many ways, but I know we've assimilated into sexism and misogyny. … Women are the creators. We get into trouble when we try to deny that.”

The interviewers, to their credit, did not simply walk away from this difficult issue in Sherman Alexie's writing. There is a combativeness that distinguishes Alexie's often polemical poems, for he is, in a way, at war. In most of his writing, sooner or later, Alexie is a “polemicist,” which is to say, a “warrior,” and there is nearly always controversy and argument, implied or direct, in his poems and stories. (Clearly, I am not employing the term “polemic” pejoratively here, but I do consider that designation to be provocative.) “Do you ever worry about anger becoming a negative force?” the Bellante brothers asked. Citing Gandhi, Alexie answered that anger could be a positive force: “Anger without hope, anger without love, or anger without compassion are all-consuming. That's not my kind of anger. Mine is very specific and directed.” This is not to say that this makes his anger exactly “palatable.” (I have seen people leave Alexie's readings feeling furious at what they have heard, and I suspect his response to that would be “no regrets.”)

A “registered” (to use the bureaucratic adjective) Spokane/Coeur d'Alene who grew up on the reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where, he says in the interview, he was an “outsider,” Alexie did much of his undergraduate work at Washington State University, where he worked with professor and poet Alex Kuo. Most of those who attend his readings would consider Alexie an accomplished performance poet, and remnants of the oral tradition in Native American poetry are evident in his work, as will be obvious hereafter. Five or six years ago Alexie offered the poem “Horses” (Old Shirts & New Skins) at a reading with other students, and for a while it served as a sort of signature poem. Few left those readings without feeling that frisson (fancy French for “goosebumps”) that strikes somewhere beneath the region of the rational.

Alexie has a strong historical sensibility, as the opening lines of “Horses” (p. 28) attest:

1,000 ponies, the United States Cavalry stole 1,000 ponies
from the Spokane Indians, shot 1,000 ponies & only 1 survived,
shot 1,000 ponies & left them as monuments, left 1,000 ponies
falling into dust, fallen, shot 1,000 ponies & only 1 survived.

These four lines reveal a lot of what might be called Alexie's “poetics,” which in this poem are employed polemically. In identifying the characteristics of Indian poetry, Castro reflects first on repetition as “the most striking feature of Indian style” (1983:34), and he goes on to insist that the repetition establishes a “consciousness of oneness” and “creates holistic awareness” (p. 35). He also cites Margaret Astrov's observation to the effect that such reputation equates with “accumulation of power.”

The poem ends,
I own no horses,
the Indian was measured before
by the number of horses he owned,
the exact number, I own
no horses, I own
no horses, I own
no horses.

(p. 30)

To say that such a poem is intended to be heard, that it is oral poetry and perhaps “performance” poetry as well, is only to belabor the obvious.

In the Bloomsbury interview Alexie mentions the literary influences of Adrian C. Louis, Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, and Scott Momaday, and he quotes Louis's reference to “traditional” Indian poetry as “the corn pollen and eagle feather school.” It is, he says, “the sort of poetry anybody can write … a nine-year-old kid from Brooklyn, say. … I don't care for that kind of native writing. It's poetry white writers try to copy” (p. 15). It is also very lyrical in nature, stemming as it does from the traditions of Native American song; however, such poems may strike some readers as not “traditional,” but “generic.” The poems of David Wagoner's Who Shall Be the Sun? (1978) come readily to mind as the accomplished work of a white poet in a native tradition. (Castro notes the controversial nature of such undertakings near the end of his book [1983:161].) …

Perhaps the closest Alexie gets to the traditional lyric is “Grandmother,” from his first book, The Business of Fancydancing (1992):

she would be hours in the sweatlodge
come out naked and brilliant in the sun
steam rising off her body in winter
like a slow explosion of horses

(p. 23)

The simile “saves” this poem falling into the category I have called “generic.” Alexie's treatment of line is polished (note the strength of the left as well as the right margins, the location of what I call “power words”—sweatlodge / come, sun / steam, winter). The last line of that quatrain demonstrates not only Alexie's metaphoric power, but also, in the assonance of “slow” and “explosion,” his keen ear.

The four poems in his “Indian Boy Love Song” sequence also border on the “traditional” lyric, but more typically we encounter the idiom of current reservation reality reminiscent of Marnie Walsh's poems in A Taste of the Knife (1976), as in the following two stanzas from Alexie's “Reservation Love Song”:

I can pay your rent
on HUD house get you free
food from the BIA
get your teeth fixed at IHS
I can buy you alcohol
& not drink it all
while you're away I won't fuck
any of your cousins

(p. 58)

“War All the Time” begins, “Crazy Horse comes back from Vietnam / straight into the Breakaway Bar” (p. 65). “The Reservation Cab Driver” “waits outside the Breakaway Bar / in the '65 Malibu with no windshield. // It's a beer a mile. No exceptions” (p. 76). In “Crazy Horse Speaks,” from his second book, Old Shirts & New Skins, Alexie, assuming the voice of Crazy Horse (whose Indian name suggests not “loco” or “insane” so much as “wild” or “untamed,” “unbroken”), writes,

I wear the color of my skin
like a brown paper bag
wrapped around a bottle.

(p. 61)

In “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” the speaker says,

have seen it
and like it: The blood,
the way like Sand Creek
even its name brings fear
because I am an American
Indian and have learned
words are another kind of violence.

(p. 44)

“This vocabulary,” Alexie writes, “is genetic.” Certainly it is not “generic.” The Indians in Alexie's poems do not speak with raven spirits or go on vision quests. They are not haunted by spirit animals, as is James Welch's Jim Loney, and they are not visited by Kachina spirits, as is Leslie Marmon Silko's Tayo. In fact, it is more appropriate to think of them in psychological rather than spiritual terms. They have been uprooted from the animistic world, as has Sylvester Yellow Calf in Welch's The Indian Lawyer (1990). The power of Alexie's poems comes from the world at hand.

Just prior to his remarks on Alexie's book, Kincaid (1992:27) speaks of the “formation of new modes and generic possibilities” by Native American writers, and he suggests that Alexie's may come to be “the most commanding voice.” A strict formalist critic keen to classify Alexie's work as to genre would, in fact, be hard put, except when it comes to the twenty-two short stories that comprise The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and even those stories range from short-short, “sudden,” or “flash” fiction of just three to five pages to more conventionally constructed stories that run nearly twenty pages. Alexie's other collections of poetry are even more problematic with respect to form (and he is a very conscious, though only rarely conventional, formalist). The forty-two items that make up The Business of Fancydancing (counting the four “Indian Boy Love Songs” as one poem, as it is listed in the contents) comprise twenty-eight poems and fourteen prose pieces, one of which is a nine-page story and eight of which run just a paragraph and could be considered prose poems, though I am inclined to regard them as sudden fiction. Old Shirts & New Skins consists of fifty items, as many as forty of which are obviously poems. But is “Snapping the Fringe” a prose piece consisting of about thirteen very short paragraphs, or a poem consisting of almost thirty lines (depending on the format) and using indentation in favor of stanza breaks? Although mixed genres like “prose poetry” always leave me feeling a bit uneasy, I am inclined to think it is his best effort in that mode. Old Shirts & New Skins, then, including such conventional forms as the sestina (“The Naming of Indian Boys”) and the villanelle (“Poem”), is the closest Alexie has come so far to a book made up of poems alone. (This essay was completed prior to the appearance of The Summer of Black Widows in 1996; all forty-seven items in that book are poems, some of them among Alexie's better work in the genre.)

First Indian on the Moon is Alexie's most daring book from a formalist's viewpoint. A hasty survey might lead to a division of perhaps eighteen stories and twenty-four poems, and many of the poems obviously look like it on the page (the flush left margin and all that white space out to the right are sure tip-offs). Most of the prose pieces are constructed by sentence and paragraph, and they read like stories even if they sometimes evolve from premises like the calendar in “Year of the Indian” or a program for treating alcoholics in “A Twelve-Step Treatment Program.” Other titles, however, involve a blend of prose and poetry, and this applies to at least a dozen, including “Influences,” “The Alcoholic Love Poems,” and “A Reservation Table of the Elements.”

In “Split Decisions” (pp. 88–91) Alexie employs a sort of “round” form which he also uses in several stories, including “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys.” In this form a word or phrase in the last line of one section or stanza is repeated somewhere in the first line of the next, and at the end of the poem a key word or phrase is echoed from the first line so that the effect is circular. In “Split Decisions” Alexie blends the free verse line with prose sections to produce what Kincaid may have had in mind when he referred to “new modes” and “possibilities” of genre. In this poem, and in many others by Alexie, poetry and prose, line and sentence, appear to move toward each other.

Opening with the epigraph “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” the poem proceeds,

Memory: Muhammed Ali
                                                                                                              knocked down
for the first time
in his career
by a thunderous left hook
                                                                                                                        from Joe Frazier.
He had so many reasons
to stay

That is the entire first section of the fifteen-part poem. The next section begins with the chorus of the audience, “Stay down! Stay down!,” and the first-person speaker imagining “white hands / reaching through the television set” to press Ali against the canvas, to hold him down. While such lines may be read aloud with considerable impact, I would contend that his manipulation of line length, line breaks, and drop-line technique demonstrates Alexie's commitment to the poem as it appears on the page.

The third section of “Split Decisions” is a prose paragraph that runs eight lines in the book. Here, the speaker “watched Muhammed Ali hit the canvas with the weight of 500 years on his chest,” and he repeats “there were so many reasons for Ali to stay down.” The fourth section, nine lines of poetry, opens with the word “Downstream,” and the fifth section returns to prose, a ten-line paragraph ending with the question, posed in light of Ali's refusal to be inducted during the Vietnam War, “Did anyone call Ali a hero?” The sixth section is a powerful six-line poem:


The next section opens with an italicized observation that looks back to a hollow political promise of the war, that if we could win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, we would win the war. The speaker concludes that “they made him [Ali] into another dark-skinned enemy,” and while the word “another” looks toward the Vietnamese, it also looks toward Native Americans.

The eighth part runs just three lines:

Children, the enemy reads us
the news
at 6 o'clock every night.

And the ninth section begins, “Nightfall equals MC2 in Mississippi.” The twenty-two-line poem that comprises the tenth part is the longest in the round, and it is here that the speaker reflects on seeing Ali years later, in 1991, battling Parkinson's disease. He asks, “What did Muhammed Ali do to deserve this?” In the eleventh section, six lines of prose, he simply turns the question around: “What have we done to deserve these kinds of heroes?” In answering his own question, Alexie offers a small ars poetica: “Muhammed Ali's poetry floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. We should all write exactly that way.

“There is no other way to say this,” begins the twelfth part (italics added): “I needed and loved him / beyond what I knew.” Millions stood outside “watching and waiting,” the section concludes. The thirteenth section is another poem constructed of one-word lines:


The fourteenth section, in three lines of prose, then purports to say the “truth,” which implicitly applies to the Native American as much as it does to the African American:

It's true the African American is a better fighter than the European American because he has to spend his whole life fighting. It's true this country doesn't stop punching when the bell rings.

Appropriately, the poem ends with the fifteenth section (probably a reference to the fifteen-round fight), a four-line poem in which Ali is remembered “still standing.” Of course his name inscribed at the end of the poem looks back to the beginning so that the idea of circularity, perhaps even of an inescapable cycle of experience, is sustained.

The nine-part sequence, “Fire Storm,” also alternates between poetry and prose, and several works are set up like “Genetics,” in which the poem is transformed into prose, then back into poetry:

          follows my family
                    each spark
                    each flame
                              a soldier
          in the U.S. Cavalry.

it was the fire in 1973. Flames dropped from the attic of our old house and burned every quilt we owned. Cousins and neighbors came from miles away to carry furniture, clothes, our smallest possessions from the house, but they all arrived too late to save much. All we had left

was a family portrait
singed …

(p. 21)

In writing like this, the poem seems to invade the prose, and vice versa, as if both genres are required to do justice to the event. Surveying the three books prior to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven then, one might observe a sort of tension throughout Alexie's work between prose and poetry, between sentence/paragraph and line/stanza.

When he was asked by the interviewers for Bloomsbury Review if the transition from poet to writer of fiction was difficult for him, Alexie answered that it was not difficult, that “my poems are stories. There's a very strong narrative drive in all my poetry” (p. 14). As his characters evolved, he found that they demanded “more space than a poem could provide. So it was natural to move on to short stories and now to a novel.” (He has since then had two novels published.) As the interviewers noted from the outset, Alexie is “a storyteller [with] an unmistakable poetic streak.” His powers as a poet are primarily narrative, and after that rhetorical, and with that, perhaps as a sub-species, polemical.

From the foregoing it should be obvious enough that Alexie's is a rhetoric, whether in his poems or in his fiction, that reflects pain and anger, a rhetoric that could give way to bitterness. What keeps that from happening and makes the pain and anger bearable for the reader in Sherman Alexie's poems (some of which are prose poems) and novels and stories (several of which would qualify as “sudden” fiction), is not so much the hope, love, and compassion to which he refers in the interview, but humor. Predictably, this humor is rarely gentle or playful (though it can be that at times), but most often satirical. People, white and Indian as well, laugh out loud and often when Alexie reads, and in the former case, they are frequently laughing at themselves. (I have in mind a reading in Lewiston, Idaho, about two years ago in which a good number of Nez Perce were in the audience along with a large number of whites. It was an overflow crowd, probably in excess of two hundred.)

Alexie's poems are filled with such moments of painful or poignant humor which may be described as “serious” or “dark.” The speaker in “Giving Blood” gives his name to the white nurse, he tells her he is Crazy Horse, and when she asks how many sexual partners he's had, he says, “one or two / depending on your definition of what I did to Custer” (Fancydancing, p. 78). In “The Marlon Brando Memorial Swimming Pool” Dennis Banks appears as “the first / Native American real estate agent, selling a 5,000 gallon capacity dream / in the middle of a desert” (Old Shirts, p. 55). At a reading these sorts of lines can go over like punchlines delivered by a skilled stand-up comedian, but their context keeps the humor from being easy or warm. The impact is not so much like the escape or release offered by comedy as the catharsis provided by tragedy.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman

1992 The Business of Fancydancing. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose.

1993 First Indian on the Moon. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose.

1993 The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

1993 Old Shirts & New Skins. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Bellante, John and Carl

1994 “Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel.” Bloomsbury Review 14 (May/June 1994): 14–15, 26.

Castro, Michael

1983 Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth-Century Poets and the Native American. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Cronyn, George W.

1934 American Indian Poetry. New York: Liveright, [1918]. See also A. Grove Day, The Sky Clears (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1951).

Dodge, Robert K., and Joseph B. McCullough, eds.

1976 Voices from Wah'kon-tah. 2nd edition. New York: International.

Kincaid, James R.

1992 “Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?” New York Times Book Review (May 3, 1992): 1, 24–29.

Niatum, Duane, ed.

1988 Harper's Anthology of 20th-Century Native American Poetry. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Wiget, Andrew

1985 Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Sherman Alexie and John Purdy (interview date 4 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and John Purdy. “Crossroads: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.” Studies in Native American Literature 9, no. 4 (winter 1997): 1–18.

[In the following interview, conducted on October 4, 1997, Alexie discusses his role in the film Smoke Signals, his desire to be universally accessible, his views on publication, and his opinion of modern American-Indian writers.]

This conversation took place on 4 October 1997, a rainy, early autumn morning in an east Seattle café near Sherman Alexie's home. It is an interesting neighborhood, for it sits on a clearly demarcated boundary: on one side, the intercity struggle for survival—economic and otherwise—and on the other the affluent mansions lining Lake Washington. The café sits directly on the line.

My colleague and former student, Frederick Pope, went with me to talk with Alexie, who is in much demand; in fact, that evening he was scheduled to read at Left Bank Books, for a benefit to provide books for Native American inmates of this country's prisons. As always, it was an interesting and dynamic discussion and, on our trip home, Fred and I agreed; it was candid, wide ranging, profoundly playful.

We began with a discussion of his recently completed movie. As with his writing career, his film involvement seems to be progressing rapidly. Two weeks after our meeting, the film was screened at Sundance for the annual film competition, and later for the major film distributors of the country. There can be no doubt that Sherman Alexie is wonderfully full of ideas, and that those ideas will work their way into art that will be both imaginative and engaging.1

[Purdy:] I understand the filming of the movie [Smoke Signals] went well?

[Alexie:] We're premiering, screening at Sundance October fifteenth. We'll know shortly after that if we're in [the final competition] or not.

Fantastic. …

We developed it there, so … we're in, but we need to get in the competition, and that's only sixteen films. We need to be up for the awards. [The film made the final sixteen.]

Lots of good films have come out of Sundance.

Yeah, but ours is better.

Tell us a bit about the movie.

It's a story; it's from The Lone Ranger and Tonto, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” that story. Victor and Thomas go to Phoenix to pick up Victor's dad's remains, so it's a buddy movie. It's pretty funny. Thomas is Thomas. The actor who plays him is amazing. Evan Adams. He's had small roles in Canadian productions; he's a First Nations guy from up there. He's just amazing. He's sort of taken Thomas. I can't write about … I tried to write a short story with Thomas in it but I couldn't. I kept seeing him. …

Seeing Adams?

He's taken him away from me. He's so convincing, so real, so Thomasy. He's an adjective now.

So he's type-cast … as Thomas?

He's so right for the role it's scary to think that he's always going to be playing some weird Indian.

I don't recognize the name.

No. The movie has Gary Farmer in it, from Pow-Wow Highway, Tantoo Cardinal. …

North of Sixty.

Yeah. Adam Beach who was Squanto. Harvey Bernard. Michele St. John, Ella Miles, from Northern Exposure … am I missing anybody? Buddy Lightning, who was in Grand Avenue on HBO. Baker, who's on North of Sixty. Tom Skerritt has a role, Cynthia Geary, who was on Northern Exposure.

That's a good cast. And what kind of role did you have in it? Did you have much control over it?

Oh yeah. I wrote the screen play; I was the co-producer. Five songs of Jim Boyd's and mine are in there. Two '49s in there I wrote. So. …

You can do it all. … You're doing '49s now?

For good or bad, whatever, is in there.


So, did you have fun making the movie?

No (laughs). Yeah, yeah I did. The scary thing is that it was so fun, and so intense, so immediate, that if I start doing really well at this, I might wind up being a good screen writer. I'm going to direct Indian Killer. I'm scared that if I make it I'll give up writing books.

Whoa. And move to Hollywood. …

No (emphatically). The thing I think about is that probably five percent of Indians in this country have read my books. Maybe that much. Probably more like two percent, or one. You take a thing like Pow-Wow Highway and 99٪ of Indians have seen it.

Well. It's a powerful medium. So you didn't make Gary Farmer wear a wig, did you?

For the first scene. Then he doesn't have it. Then we let him be Gary. But, he gets to be young in the movie. Twenty years difference.

It's just that the one he wore in Highway was so much a wig. So you're directing Indian Killer? Are you dealing with the same [film] people? I hadn't heard about that.

It's not official yet, we haven't signed the contracts, but it's happening.

Where will you shoot it?

Seattle. Right here.

This all sounds time consuming. Do you get to write, other than what you're working on [for the movies], or is the schedule so intense that it takes you away from writing?

I'm working on a new novel.

Want to talk about it?

Yeah, but I don't know if it's going to be the next one published. I've sold it, but I don't know if it's going to be the next one. Essentially what it's about is … it's set in the future, although it's set in the 1950s, an alternate 1950s, and I don't want to give too much of it away, basically scientists have discovered the cure for cancer involves the bone marrow of Indians.

Carrying the cure for the world, huh?

Yeah, essentially we start getting harvested.

You and the yew tree.

It's called The Sin Eaters. Pretty intense. And I'm working on one about the Mafia in the '20s and '30s and Indians, but I don't want to give away more than that, though.

I think that's what they call the tease. …

And it's based on a true story about the Mafia and the Spokane Indians in the 1920s.

Oh no. Well, we have our research cut out for us now. Interesting.

Well, actually, it's based on a true sentence. There's only one sentence that mentions this Mafia connection in one book. I came across it and I can't find anything else about it. I'm taking that one sentence to create a whole story.

So it's the greatest cover-up in the world. One sentence and all the other information's yours.


I love the life of a novelist, right?

I'm going to use that one sentence as the first sentence in the book.

The one set in the alternate '50s, you say you've already contracted that. When do you think that will come out?

Next year. Same press: Atlantic.

And now into movies and writing '49 songs.

I've been doing that forever, did that long before I ever wrote a book.

Did you play around with songs, then, when you were young?

Yeah. I quit for a long time, sort of getting back into it again, and realizing I forgot how to sing. Maybe it's a mental or emotional block.

You were playing with the language, then? Is that attractive to you? My son and I do that all the time. We take a song and rewrite it, play with the language, it's fun.

Exactly. '49s are just fun that way.

Well, I didn't know you were doing a movie of Indian Killer. You did the script and you'll direct?

I'm doing the screenplay right now. Just about done.

One of the questions I wanted to ask you is what you have envisioned for your future. It sounds like you don't have time to envision a future.

Yeah, well, movies, definitely. I mean, I feel the only concept for me is poetry. I kind of get bored with other things. Novels take so much energy; it's so hard. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of writing. They're hard. I think I'm just a decent fiction writer. I tell good stories, but sentence to sentence, verb to verb, noun to noun, I don't think I'm all that, you know. … Everybody else seems to think more highly of my work than I do. Suppose that's a good thing, eh? But I like the poetry; I think I'm good at that.

So you still work at it?

Oh yeah.

What have you done with it?

Publish it. I just had a new book out last year, which makes seven books of poems now.

True. I remember when Fancydancing came out, I was on a flight, one of those small commuter flights, practically falling out of my chair. I had a colleague sitting in front of me who said “What are you laughing at?” and I said, “Here, read this.” Spoonfeeding bits and pieces of the book to him, and not just the humorous ones. Comes pretty quickly though doesn't it? A lot's happened to you since then.

That was published in January of '92. Yeah, I mean five and a half years later I'm an 800-pound gorilla. (Laughter, of course.)

One of the things that came to mind as we e-mailed back and forth about this interview is the memory of hearing you read, at places like Village Books. It's fun. But when you read at Bellingham High a few years ago, with Dian Million, Tiffany Midge, Ed Edmo, it was a different thing. Do you see your audiences as different in some sense?

Oh yeah. When you're inside a bookstore it's much more static; there's many more expectations of what's going to happen. I like to play with them. I've come out and done my characters, or come out and been Angry Indian Guy, or Funny Indian Guy, took on a persona and messed with the crowd.

And you do it well, by the way. I want you to know. When you read with Linda Hogan that one time, you could hear the hackles on the back of their necks going up. And you, just looking back at them, with a smile on your face.

Oh yeah, I had a good time with that reading. Part of that was good time, part of it was just a bad mood. It depends on the environment. At Village Books, everybody's crowded into such a little space, you have so little room to work with up in front, it's really much more of a reading reading, but if I'm on a stage, I'll get nuts.

It was fun that night at the high school. Jim Boyd was there, too. You were working on Reservation Blues, then. You were running some things by us, and there were a couple of times when you'd stop and say, “Yeah, that works. The audience bought that. Let's try something else over here.”

That's a way of doing it. I mean, you always get tired of the question, y'know, of “How does your work apply to the oral tradition?” It doesn't. I type it! (Laughter.) And I'm really, really quiet when I'm doing it. The only time when I'm essentially really a storyteller is when I'm up in front of a crowd. Growing up with traditional and non-traditional storytellers, and they're always riffin' and improvin'. …

That's the fun of it.

Sure. You can just imagine! The reason, I tell people, that Indians … that whites beat Indians in wars was not because they were tougher; I mean, we'd beat them, on any one given day. But then the whites would want to fight the next day again, and we just didn't want to do that. We'd want to go talk about it. You can hear the stories, the next day the warriors going “Man, remember when you dodged that bullet?” and the day after that it was “Hey, remember when that guy shot you nine times and you survived?” After the next day “Remember when you jumped over that cactus, got shot nine times, grabbed that horse, crawled inside of it, hid for nine hours while they stampeded around you, jumped back out, grabbed the general by the throat, slapped him twice and ran away?” Yeah. …

Yeah, tell it again.

I come from a long line of exaggerators.

One of the problems with editing a journal is we have people who get interested, get caught by those stories and then read a lot, but all of a sudden someone comes through with a new novel that does something else, something that comes around for the first time, and we're right back to where we were in the '60s and there's a raging debate about “Is this Indian?”

Actually SAIL is just fine. I've been subscribing for the past four years. Some essays are great; I've never seen a wider difference between good or bad in any academic journal. The bad ones are even more interesting, because they embrace, hang on to old ideas. I mean they're not bad scholarship, they're not badly written. What I mean is that no one has figured out a new way to look at Indian literatures. Above all Indians aren't looking at Indian literature. There are very few Indian scholars, very few Indian literature critics examining it. Those who do, like Gloria Bird, or Robert Warrior, or Liz Cook-Lynn, are still using the same old lit-crit tools. I think we have been far too nice to each other for too long now. I think Indian writers have grown enough, that we're not going to get any better unless we really start hammering on each other.

I think that's true in the scholarship, too. One of the things we try to do in the journal is that, rather than get everyone to follow in lock-step, to take articles with widely varying points of view so sometimes we have two essays in one issue that give opposing arguments. It is tough, too, not only for the people who submit but for the people who read the submissions, because those people cover the spectrum, too. We often have two readers, one who will say publish, this is great stuff, the other saying throw it out. O.K. What do you do now?

The thing that gets me with that is the Vizenor thing. I mean he's the god of the Indian lit-crit people.

Why do you think so?

It's obtuse prose, a lot of word play and word masturbation, essentially, that results in, nothing.

Did you ever read his Narrative Chance?

Yeah. I mean, I can get into it, it's fine, but I've sort of been struggling with this idea, what does Indian literature mean? If Indian literature can't be read by the average 12-year-old kid living on the reservation, what the hell good is it? You couldn't take any of his books and take them to a rez and teach them, without extreme protestation. What is an Indian kid going to do with the first paragraph of any of those books? You know, I've been struggling with this myself, with finding a way to be much more accessible to Indian people.

I was at a workshop once in Santa Fe and Vizenor was there, Owens, Anna Lee Walters was there, and some other people from the Navajo reservation. Someone asked her, “So who are you writing for, Anna?” She said “Young Indian kids on the rez.”

One thing I like about my classes is that sooner or later students are going to be asking that same question: “What is this Indian literature?” And then they wrestle through all those questions of audience, and definitions, by biology or whatever, and just when they start to feel comfortable, then we complicate it. Take the book for the book.

But see, that doesn't work.


Taking the book for a book.

In what way?

In an Indian definition, you can't separate the message from the messenger.

That's not the same. I think “the book” can carry that. Your work carries it.

Yeah. But I think you're referring to identity questions and such.

Oh. That's how the issue shakes out, because that's what the students are interested in, but the question is how to take them back to the book, to the story itself.

Most of our Indian literature is written by people whose lives are nothing like the Indians they're writing about. There's a lot of people pretending to be “traditional,” all these academic professors living in university towns, who rarely spend any time on a reservation, writing all these “traditional” books. Momaday—he's not a traditional man. And there's nothing wrong with that, I'm not either, but this adherence to the expected idea, the bear and all this imagery. I think it is dangerous, and detrimental.

It's the nineties, and now it's time to move on. So, we get back to the discussion of what “it” is.

Well, I want to take it away. I want to take Indian lit away from that, and away from the people who own it now.

I think you do, in your writing.

That's what I mean. I'm starting to see it. A lot of younger writers are starting to write like me—writing like I do, in a way, not copying me, but writing about what happens to them, not about what they wish was happening. They aren't writing wish fulfillment books, they're writing books about reality. How they live, and who they are, and what they think about. Not about who they wish they were. The kind of Indian they wish they were. They are writing about the kind of Indian they are.

Sure, and it makes sense. Whenever you have any group of individuals in any literature who start to define the center, then everybody has to ask whether or not that's sufficient over time.

We've been stuck in place since House Made of Dawn.

But there's some interesting work coming out. Have you read Carr's Eye Killers?

I hate it.

You did? Well, that's right, it does have that traditional thing going on, but to move into the genre of the vampire novel I thought was interesting.

That's fun, but I thought that book was blasphemous as hell to Navajo culture, the way he used ceremonies and such. I have a real problem with that. I don't use any at all. And a white woman saved everybody.

But she was a teacher. (Laughter.)

But it read like a movie turned into a novel. I was supposed to review it, and I didn't.

Tell me this. What do you see coming out right now that is doing what needs to be done?

Irvin Morris. I like his book [From the Glittering World: A Navajo Story]. I think Tiffany Midge has a good future, once she stops copying me.

She did a great reading that night in Bellingham High.

The thing is she was so into my work then, she's not so much now. That night, ask the people who saw me read before that night, she read exactly like me. So even that night I had to change the way I read. I'd never heard her read in public before, and she got up and read and I thought “O my god, that's me, that's my shtick.” So I, literally, had to figure out a different way to read.

Do you see anybody coming up through Wordcraft Circle?

I'm in Wordcraft Circle; I'm a board member and all that. But I get worried. I think it's focusing too much on the idea of publication. The idea of writing as a career. It's becoming very careerist.

So you either make it … if you don't publish and not doing it for your whole life then you shouldn't be doing it? Is that the danger you see?

Well, it's becoming less and less about art. The whole thing is full of publication opportunities, money to win, scholarships, news about Indian writers publishing. …

“Done good.”

Done good, yeah. Which is all fine. We're having a meeting soon and I just want to share my concerns with them that I'm worried that the focus has gone wrong.

That the joy of it is not there?

Exactly. One percent of one percent of the people in Wordcraft are going to have a book published. I think it's setting up unrealistic expectations.

There's a group that Liz Cook-Lynn is involved with, a storytellers' circle, and they publish what they come up with, themselves. The focus isn't on selling it, but on doing it.

Yeah. The act is the thing. I know people who would rather be where I'm at now, but I'm jaded as hell. About publication, about the “art” of it. I sound like I'm complaining. I'm glad to be where I'm at; I worked hard to get where I am. But there's also a lot that's shady about it. Being a successful Indian writer, and being an Indian, a “good Indian” (in quotes) are often mutually exclusive things, and there's a lot of pressure. I spend a lot of time alone, working. Selfish. My friendships suffer, my relationships with my family suffer, my health suffers. To be where I'm at, to do what I do, you'd have to be an obsessive compulsive nut (much laughter) and I don't think we should be encouraging our children in that direction. (More laughter.) Or at least letting them know. I mean, Wordcraft should be talking about the ugliness, too. This is what happens. Hard truths about publishing.

The reality rather than the ideal image of the author dashing about the world, vacationing on sunny beaches.


But there are other rewards, right? The joy?

Money and attention.

Besides that.

Don't let any writer fool you.

Now, a little bit ago you said the poetry was still there, that that's. …

Yeah, but nobody buys that.

Yeah, true. I almost said that. But they buy movies and they buy novels.

First and foremost, writers like to get attention. Don't let any writer tell you different.

Yeah, well, in my world it's tenure and promotion, so. …

Which is attention. We want to be heard. We're standing on street corners shouting. If that's not a cry for attention, I don't know what is. And Indian writers, all writers in general, but Indian writers, too, were the weird kids, the bizarre kids. The ones who question institutions, the one who were not all that popular. The ones who people looked at weird. There are big burdens involved in all of this, you know.


You were on the state governor's book award board, and one winner was Carolyn Kizer. She has a great poem, “Afternoon Happiness.” It says the poet's job is to write about pain and suffering, all that is “grist for me,” but all she wants to do is write a poem about being content, and this poem does it.

Actually, I'm doing it, too. My next book is all happy rez poems.

That ought to start a buzz.

Yeah. All the joy I remember from growing up.

Good. Think it will sell well in Europe?

It's not corn pollen, eagle feathers, Mother Earth, Father Sky. It's everyday life. Remembering taking our bikes and setting up ramps to jump over the sewer pit. That kind of stuff.

And making it!

Yeah, yeah. Or not. (Laughter.) And some of it a little sad. I'm working on this poem; it's not very good right now, I just wrote it last night, but I remember, I remember, I dreamed it a couple of nights ago, but during the winter we would, in winter, we'd take our gloves and put them on the radiator in the old school whenever they'd get wet. But, I remembered some kids didn't have gloves, because they couldn't afford it, they were too poor. And I didn't have gloves this one winter, and I remembered that. And so I had this dream where I was sitting in the classroom and there were 12 pair of gloves on the radiator and 13 kids in the classroom, and so everybody's looking around trying to figure out who's the one who doesn't have gloves, so everybody's hiding their hands. So, I'm working on that poem, and that image of everyone hiding their hands so nobody will know who didn't have gloves. Kind of sad, kind of nostalgic. …

But positive in ways. …

And that is also funny, I mean. Another one's about … there's this series of lullaby poems, actually, that I've written, they're really rhymey lullaby poems. Pow-wow lullaby poems, I call 'em, 'cause where we live on the Spokane rez the pow-wow ground is a couple of miles away, and at night you can hear the drums and the stick game players playing all night long, and that would put me to sleep at night during pow-wows. I'm writing poems about that feeling, or walking in the dark back from the pow-wow grounds, hearing the drums or walking to the grounds at night, or falling asleep in teepees, or in Winnebagos, or when we were real little, at a pow-wow in Arlee or wherever, and you'd end up sleeping in cousins’ teepees in just a big pile of Indian kids. Those are the kinds of poems I've been writing.

Like the last book, The Summer of Black Widows, I thought was technically good. My last book of poems, technically good. I thought is was probably my best book. But very few of the poems Indian people would relate to. Whereas a book like Fancydancing I think is incredibly Indian. I want to go back to writing the kind of poems I wrote in Fancydancing. I'm more happy now. I'm a happier person. When I wrote these books … I'm getting happier and getting healthier. Some people say I always write about drunks. Well, no I don't, but if you look at the books you can see a progression, actually. The alcohol is dropping out of the books, because the alcohol is dropping farther and farther out of my life, as I've been sober for more and more years.

And I can see a bunch of kid poems coming out in the near future, then?

No. No, I won't write about him, I mean I write about him but I won't publish them unless he's old enough to let me know it's O.K.


What's needed, then, is a new press.

I'm going to do it. Actually, next year I'm going to start up a literary journal that's called Skins: The Poetry Journal for Indians and People We Wish Were Indians. I figure to start publishing books out of that.

Fantastic. Great. It's been done. Lots of people have started presses that way.

I've the money and the influence. I can print 1000 copies of a poetry book, I'll be able to do that kind of thing, and I can get distribution. Poetry books will still only sell three hundred copies, but I can get them out there.

Well, even one, two or three.

One a year, two a year maybe.

How long have you been thinking about this?

Since the beginning. I just had to get to a place where I had the finances to do it. I didn't want a little mimeograph, I wanted a very, very professional journal, ah, very beautiful. The very best paper and the very best design. I wanted to wait until I had the finances there to have the best looking journal possible. I just said Skins and I can see it. The Poetry Journal for Indians and People We Wish Were Indians.

People have talked about it over the years and presses have come and gone, presses have had interest in it and other times none, and I bring that up because we get back to that model “if it's not like this …” we don't buy it. The reason some young writers get caught in trying to write like that, the convention, is that they might get published.

That's all they know. That's all they've read or been shown. I don't know about you, but growing up all I got exposed to was Mother Earth Father Sky stuff, or direction stuff. That's how I thought Indians wrote. I didn't know I could write actually about my life. (Laughter.)

The first revelation, right?

Yeah, I could write about fry bread and fried bologna. And the great thing is I didn't know you could combine, the traditional imagery and fried bread and fried bologna. The way I lived my life, and the way inside me, and the way I thought, which is a mix of traditionalism and contemporary culture.

Right, which is reality.

Which is reality. I didn't realize I could do that, something you can. I can write about, you know, Raybans and pow-wows.

How soon do you think you will do that, Skins?

Next year some time. We haven't figured out submission policies, yet. For a while I think we'll just recruit, get it established and then open it up to submissions. But with editorial guidelines—“no lyric poetry.” (Laughter.) “We want narrative.”

No lines that end with the word “blue.”


Well, The Bellingham Review has been around for 17 years or so, started by a colleague of mine, who has retired.

Yeah—a guy named Knute.

Yeah Knute.

He rejected me like ten times while I was in college. I bet eventually he probably rejected half the Fancydancing manuscript.

Oh, wow. “Click!” That's interesting. He wasn't the colleague on the plane with me who I showed the book to, but he did, though, what you're talking about. He set up a press with just that idea, that out of the journal submissions he took some poets and made them books. And it worked.

Do you know Jim Hepworth? Confluence Press? He rejected Fancydancing, the book.

Good. I mean, oh, that's too bad.

No. I harass him constantly. He goes, “Oh I didn't read it, I couldn't have read it, one of my readers must have. I would have remembered it.” And I started laughing. I said, “Jim, you sent me the letter. I still have the letter. You said, ‘This is encouraging, this shows lots of potential. But not ready for publication yet.’”

Yeah. I know. So do you send him reviews of the book on the back of royalty reports?

Well, he knows what happened.

Wish you the best of luck on that project. It's good.

It's going to … the reception we get at literary journals is terrible. The standard literary journal rarely publishes us. And when we do it's always part of a “special issue,” or a special section. “The Literary Reservation.” I'm looking for new young writers, the undiscovered voices, who are telling us things. I want to read poems where I recognize the characters, and I recognize the words. Where, ah, I'd also like to publish poems that people will not get, at all.

Insider jokes.

Yeah, I load my books with stuff, just load 'em up. I call them “Indian trapdoors.” You know, Indians fall in, white people just walk right over them.

I thought it was supposed to be the other way around. Hmm.

Ah. So that's the kind of thing I'm imagining. Poems that work in all sorts of ways, but I really want the subtext for Indians.

This is exactly how, as we were talking earlier, it will be done, how it will move on. Others have been at work doing it, like Greenfield Review. Now that things are established, it's time for the next phase. Skins.

And just stay with poetry, because fiction costs too much.

Yeah, yeah. Takes up a lot of space: more short stories, you have fewer poems.

And I'm sorry, but I think generally speaking, Indians just don't write good fiction: it's not in us.

I take it then, that you're not going to do a serial of Almanac of the Dead?

No. I just don't think … it's just not natural for us. I think we're meant to write poems. All of our traditional communication, it's about poetry. So I think in some sense, genetically, we're poets. Culturally speaking, we can become fiction writers. We can sort of … but it's one of the problems with some of the criticism, some of the criticisms directed by Liz Cook-Lynn, and Gloria Bird, and Robert Warrior talking about how there needs to be more tradition in Indian writing. I thought. …

What's more tradition?

But also, I mean, we're writing in English, 99٪ of our audience is going to be non-Indian, so how the hell do we do that?

And, if you take that a step further, then should you?

Exactly. We shouldn't be writing about our traditions, we shouldn't be writing about our spiritual practices. Not in the ways in which some people are doing it. Certainly, if you're writing a poem or story about a spiritual experience you had, you can do it. But you also have to be aware that it's going to be taken and used in ways that you never intended for it to be. I think it's dangerous, and that's really why I write about day-to-day life.

The responsibilities of being an Indian writer are enormous. Even more so than any other group of people because we have so much more to protect.

(An aside to Fred: “You ever heard this before?”)

I mean and it's so funny, people, like some of these writers, will think of me as being this very contemporary, very non-traditional guy, and I am, but I'm a lot more conservative in my take on Indian literature than any of those people are. I think … like some of the Navajo stuff and some of the traditional chants, or like some of Momaday's stuff, when rendered into English, means nothing. Means nothing. Our traditions are all about being, about taking place in a specific time and a specific geography. But when in a book that goes everywhere to anybody, it's like a traveling road show of Indian spirituality.

Think of it this way, too, one of the elements behind that is the impetus for putting it in English and putting it in a book.

To sell it. There's no Indian who would stand—well very few—on a roadside singing traditional songs to make money. Yet they will put it in a book and sell the book. To make money. I think the passage of money invalidates any sort of sacredness of any of the ceremonies that are placed within a book.

Someone asked, I think it was Vine Deloria, Jr., how to tell a plastic shaman, and he said to just ask how much they charge. Pretty well says it.

Well, I'm glad you're going to do that; it's a really good idea, the journal and the press, and to put out the poets who come through who have promise. That's good.

Yeah, I'd like to nurture careers. And to have a space for Indian writers to develop. I mean like this idea of featuring a poet per issue, a young, unknown person, featuring them, and also charting the growth of these young poets over a few years, and then into a book. I've seen a number of first books by Indian poets recently that really needed editing help.

I've noticed that, too, lately. Even fairly well-established presses are putting out things maybe too quickly, not carefully enough.

And then the books, because they're bought, disappear, and it does a disservice to the writers. That's one of my problems with Wordcraft, it's rushing people into print before they're ready. And when you get a bad poem published, or a flat poem published, you don't learn anything. They've published bad poems of mine, and I've suffered for it. There are bad poems of mine in books.

It becomes embarrassing later as well. (Laughter.)

“Oh my god, I wrote that? No, somebody slipped that in there when I wasn't looking.”

It's a strange business, isn't it? I'm glad that you're keeping at the poetry, some balance. So when's the movie coming out?

We're doing distributor screenings over the next couple of weeks, for Miramax, Sony, and all of that. All the big ones. If there's been an independent movie over the last five years, whoever's released it, they're coming. It's a good movie, comparable in level and quality to The Full Monty, the performances are amazing. These actors finally got a chance to play human beings, rather than wind-o-bots. I think it's really going to go. I thing we'll get an awakening here, and we'll get about a three year window to make Indian films.

The doors will open quickly. …

And close quickly. What's going to happen is there will be a flood of Indian movies, most of them will be bad, they won't make money, and then the door will close again. We'll have the chance for a couple years here I think.

Just like we were talking about a while ago, things get rushed into production instead of. …

What I'm hoping to get from this movie is so, … we told the story but at the same time it is also very subversive, to take on “Indian cinema” and the images in the movies: about the Warrior, about storytelling, there's all sorts of little jokes along the way about the ways Indians get viewed in the movies, and in culture, as we're telling the road movie stories. I'm hoping it will kill, make it impossible for anybody to make this type of movie again. Like the way Blazing Saddles killed the Western for twenty years.

If it accomplishes just ten years, it'd be wonderful.

Six months, three days, two hours. For dinner after they see the movie, if they can see Indians as nothing else but human beings, it'll be a success.

We could boycott the whole thing, Hollywood. One day.

One day. One day of no anti-Indian thoughts. Not going to happen. I can dream.

So you have a something going on tonight?

It's called for Books for Prisoners. It's affiliated with Left Bank Books.

Well, I hope you have fun.


  1. Aaron Gorseth did the initial transcription of the audio tape of this conversation. It has been edited slightly from the audio, mostly to remove slight repetition and the usual, inconsequential utterances, like “oh” and “ah,” which unfortunately includes most of the laughter. Even more sadly, there is no way to convey the inflections, grins, and body language that animated most of the conversation with a playful edge.

Michael Gorra (review date 5 March 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2333

SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “Hopeless Warriors.” London Review of Books 28, no. 9 (5 March 1998): 1.

[In the following review, Gorra offers a negative assessment of Reservation Blues, focusing on Alexie's failure to blend humor with drama and his overly didactic tone.]

In Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie's second novel, two members of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington in Seattle exchange banalities in a parking lot:

‘Dr Mather!’ said the white man as he approached. ‘Dr Mather, it's me. It's Dr Faulkner.’

‘Good evening, Dr Faulkner. How are you?’

‘Fine, fine. How was your class?’

‘Well, I'm having trouble with a student. An Indian student, actually. She is very disruptive.’

This is not an exchange that I can imagine taking place in any car park on any American campus, where secretaries routinely address university presidents by their first names. Either Alexie doesn't know what he's writing about, or this is meant to demonstrate the pomposity of male Caucasians, academics especially. I would like to think that his intentions were entirely satirical, but in its stiffness the passage too closely resembles the rest of the book's dialogue for me to tell; not even the speech of that obstreperous Indian student, Marie Polatkin, has any degree of flexibility. And while satire can make you wonder about a writer's attitude, it isn't supposed to make you question his competence.

In the biographical note to his first novel, Reservation Blues, Alexie identifies himself as a ‘Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian,’ a product of two tribes in the Pacific North-West. Since Indian Killer gives a rough time both to those white characters who claim to know about Indians and to what Marie calls ‘pretend Indians … mixed bloods,’ it's best to get Alexie's pedigree out front. Born in 1966, he has already published several volumes of poems along with these three books of fiction. He has won prizes and received substantial reviews; his books come with enticing blurbs, and not only from other writers. He figures on Granta's list of the ‘Twenty Best Young American Novelists.’

The Spokanes were ‘a salmon tribe before they put those dams on the river,’ fisherfolk living in settled villages. Most of Alexie's work is set on their reservation in eastern Washington State, and what's most alive in that work is his unillusioned and often comic portrait of reservation life. Some of this serves as a rebuke to white naivety; in Reservation Blues, for instance, a congregation laughs at the paleface priest Father Arnold for having expected to see ‘tipis and buffalo.’ That's just ‘those dang Sioux Indians,’ one of his flock tells him. ‘Those Sioux always get to be on television. They get everything.’ Alexie's characters know more about basketball and Hollywood, heavy metal and Hank Williams, than they do about buffalo. His young men might believe that they're supposed to be warriors, but most of them know that's a hopeless fantasy. Instead they are unemployed, or in prison, or alcoholic, or driving a truck.

Alexie's first novel and the stories collected in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven draw on a common stock of characters: Lester FallsApart, whose name suggests his role as ‘the most accomplished drunk’ in the entire Spokane nation; Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a teetotaler and the tribal storyteller, but a young man to whom nobody much wants to listen; and Victor Joseph, who doesn't want to call a Spokane rock band ‘Coyote Spring’ because it sounds ‘too damn Indian.’ Of these Victor seems to be the most important, the one for whom Alexie imagines a life-history. He is a small scared child in the collection's first stories, the product of his ‘father's whiskey sperm [and] mother's vodka egg’: by the end of the book he's become a drunk himself and, in Reservation Blues, one of ‘the most accomplished bullies of recent Native American history.’ Those who move off the reservation don't seem to make it either, winding up as convenience store clerks or in the Seattle streets, sleeping it off under the highway with the other ‘urban Indians’ who can't make their way home. But though their landscape is bleak, these first two books share a kind of warmhearted, comic brutality. ‘Your father was always half crazy,’ Victor's mother tells him. ‘And the other half was on medication.’

Reservation Blues opens with the appearance on the Spokane reservation of a thin old black man who calls himself Robert Johnson—presumably the great Thirties bluesman, long dead in the world outside Alexei's fiction. Here he's in flight from someone called ‘The Gentleman,’ with whom he has done a deal that would make him the best guitar-player the world had ever seen. But now, afraid to play lest The Gentleman hear, he surrenders his guitar, an ‘axe’ so hot that it sizzles and sparks, so sharp that its strings cut your fingers, to Thomas Builds-the-Fire. That's the start of Coyote Springs, a ‘garage band’ from a place where nobody has a garage, a band born to play the ‘sad notes of the reservation blues.’

For much of the time, as the group plays its way across the West and begins to dream of a recording contract, Alexie succeeds in making the novel itself feel like a garage band's performance: ragged and agreeable, digressive, picaresque, and as prolix as any drum solo. Reading it, I'm reminded of the anti-perfectionism of Seattle grunge, the belief that finish and form get in the way of an act's authenticity. The result is a narrative with a loose and likeable inconsequentiality, a book that reads as if you're supposed to enjoy each riff as it comes without worrying about the way things hang together.

Still, a book isn't a rock concert, and when I read I'm generally sober enough to care about the missed notes. So it bothers me that a character is described as enjoying Tom Clancy novels during a scene set a dozen years or more before the publication of The Hunt for Red October. It bothers me, too, that the reverb from his characters' thoughts often screeches through Alexie's omniscient narration, in a way that can make him sound preachy. And though it's not unusual for an episodic work to pop a string or two near the end, Reservation Blues really struggles in the set's last songs. Alexie makes one of his characters commit suicide, but he can't manage the necessary tonal shift out of what has largely been a comic novel; it's as if Rod Stewart were to try on Die Winterreise.

Indian Killer is in every sense a bigger book than its predecessors: longer and yet tighter in structure, far more ambitious and far less good-humoured. The novel's initial premise suggests a powerful literary thriller. In Seattle a white man is found stabbed and scalped. Soon a child and a college student disappear, both white, male and presumed murdered by a figure whom a conservative talk-radio host, Truck Schultz, dubs the ‘Indian Killer.’ There is, however, no real evidence that the killer is an Indian, and most of the ‘Skins’ who gather at Big Heart's Soda and Juice Bar dismiss Schultz's tale as racist paranoia. Instead they worry about backlash, about the pack of young whites who've started taking baseball bats to any Indian they can find. At the same time, many of Seattle's Indians, though they will admit that the murders are horrible, feel ‘a strange combination of relief and fear, as if an apocalyptic prophecy was just starting to come true.’ ‘We all are … keeping score,’ one character says, adding that there's ‘a long ways to go’ in what they can only see as payback, as revenge for the smallpox and the bayonets and the missionaries, for all the killers of Indians who fill the American past.

In its opening pages Indian Killer looks as though it might live up to its premise. ‘The sheets are dirty. An Indian Health Service hospital in the late Sixties. On this reservation or that reservation. Any reservation, a particular reservation.’ Cut to a delivery room, a nameless teenager in labour, a nurse who quickly ‘washes away the blood, the remains of the placenta, the evidence’—the evidence that this ever happened. For the girl has agreed to adoption: the baby is given to the Smiths of Seattle. They name him John, a choice that Alexie uses to signal a well-meaning lack of imagination, and when John Smith grows up, Indian-born but raised by whites, he will become the chief suspect in the search for the Indian Killer. It's not an unreasonable assumption: John has heard a ‘noise in his head’ since he was ten, and though as a teenager he seems ‘a successfully integrated Indian boy,’ he is always fighting ‘against his anger,’ biting his tongue and lips until they bleed. At times he tries to imagine life with his biological mother—but on which reservation? He doesn't even know what tribe he's from. He thinks constantly about his childhood mentor Father Duncan, ‘the only Indian Jesuit in the Pacific North-West,’ and someone who couldn't, in the end, hold those two identities together—a suicide. Now at 27, supposedly under medical supervision but refusing to take his pills, John hears the voices again, and this time they tell him what to do: ‘John needed to kill a white man.’

A choppy prose evokes John's inner landscape: ‘The heat and noise in his head were loud and painful. He wanted to run. He even started to run. But he stopped. He could not run. Everybody would notice. Everybody would know that he was thinking about killing white men.’ The rhythm is no doubt meant to convey John's confused attempt at rationality, but not only is it monotonous, it carries over into Alexie's handling of other characters. Take the white mystery-writer, Jack Wilson: ‘Wilson thought about the Indian Killer. A white man scalped. A white man disappeared, a white boy kidnapped. It was Biblical, David v. Goliath. But Wilson was disturbed by that.’ It's a way of writing that recalls the staccato beat of three-dot journalism, and Alexie's reliance on it suggests that he is trying to put everything simply and clearly, so that readers don't make the kinds of mistake about Indians that Wilson does. An ex-cop whose Indian detective-hero is called ‘Aristotle Little Hawk,’ Wilson can't quite understand that ‘white people who pretend to be Indians are gently teased, ignored, plainly ridiculed, or beaten, depending on their degree of whiteness.’

I'm not certain just what ‘degree of whiteness’ means—but never mind. Alexie's omniscient narrator seems in that last quotation merely to report a fact, and yet the voice also carries a note of approval, a note that in the end makes Indian Killer an ugly book. Wilson isn't only a ‘Wannabe Indian,’ he was also a bed-wetter into his teens, someone who sopped the sheets in one foster home after another. One of the killer's victims, ‘Edward Letterman … Short, overweight and white,’ gets it just after visiting a porno shop. ‘White boys in general’ are given to speculating about the sexual habits of each others' mothers, while forceful white fathers, called things like ‘Bird’ and ‘Buck,’ tend to beat their children. Truck Schultz mouths off on air because as a boy he was too much of a wimp to kill a deer. As for Dr Clarence Mather, who teaches a course called Introduction to Native American Literature—well, Marie Polatkin only has to see his syllabus to know he's ‘full of shit.’ The only white character to have the author's approval is a man bound to a wheelchair. The only Indian character who doesn't have it is half-white.

What Alexie does in Indian Killer is imagine a set of white characters who deserve to die, though not all of them do die. They deserve to die because the author holds them in contempt and wants us to do so as well. He uses their violence and bluster and even their bed-wetting, their individual vices and failings, to make that contempt seem justified, but at bottom it is racially driven. They are contemptible because they are white.

In the crude essentialism with which it depicts its characters Indian Killer stands virtually alone in reputably published recent American fiction. It's easy to tell that Marie Polatkin is Good, the very model of an activist Indian: she not only spends all her time handing out sandwiches to the homeless, she's also full-blooded. This is a clumsy book as well as a nasty one. It is too long by a third, and marred by sausage—fingered shifts in point of view (even if some of its reflections offer a perverse kind of pleasure: ‘“The Indians won again!” shouted King, forgetting that Indians had never won anything in the first place’). We're told that Norway's landscape is ‘monotonously flat’; that ‘the killer, like a Christian plague, had swept into the Jones house and stolen the first-born son of a white family’; that a ‘ragtag bunch of homeless’ Indians are ‘weak from malnutrition and various diseases.’ Well, which ones, exactly? Trichinosis? Beriberi? Finally there's not much fun in listening to such lazily misplucked chords.

Anyone who has questioned the process by which Granta produced its list of the ‘Twenty Best Young American Novelists’ will find grounds for their scepticism here. But the sloppiness that mars Indian Killer was already present in Reservation Blues. So, too, was a sardonic hostility towards white society, in the form of two record producers named after 19th-century Indian fighters: George Wright and Phil ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ Sheridan. Alexie's first books were at times reckless with detail but they were also energetic portrayals of a largely unfamiliar culture; and racial antagonism was only one aspect of his depiction of reservation life. Indian Killer is bombastic, and its racial hostility structural—not only the novel's subject but its motivating passion. This isn't a simple case of preferring the earlier, more modest work: it's that Indian Killer's flaws make those of its predecessors more apparent.

Sherman Alexie and Dennis West and Joan M. West (interview date fall 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4319

SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Dennis West and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23, no. 4 (fall 1998): 29–32.

[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his screenplay for the film Smoke Signals and comments on a variety of topics including stereotypical film portrayals of American Indians, the autobiographical elements of the movie, and the film's motif of fatherlessness.]

[Cineaste:] You have called your screenplay [Smoke Signals] “groundbreaking” because of its portrayal of Indians. Why?

[Alexie:] Well, it's a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father, so I'm working with two very classical, mythic structures. You can find them in everything from The Bible to The Iliad and The Odyssey. What is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the characters in it are Indians, and they're fully realized human beings. They're not just the sidekick, or the buddy, they're the protagonists. Simply having Indians as the protagonists in a contemporary film, and placing them within this familiar literary and cinematic structure, is groundbreaking.

Do you think Powwow Highway (1989) was one of the more worthy previous efforts?

When it came out, I loved it, and I saw it three times at the Micro Movie House in Moscow, Idaho. But I saw it again on Bravo recently and, after working on this film, and seeing what we could do, Powwow Highway now seems so stereotypical. The performances are fine, but it trades in so many stereotypes, from standing in a river singing, to going up on a mountaintop to get a vision, and the generic AIM political activism. Every stereotypical touchstone of a contemporary Indian art film is there. Two scenes especially really made me cringe. When Philbert goes up on a mountain, he's supposed to leave something that means so much to him, and he leaves a Hershey bar! Then there's the scene with A Martinez, as Buddy Red Bow, where the police car's coming, and Buddy has a piece of metal or something in his hand. He jumps in the air, and there's this brief flash shot of him dressed in the full costume of an Indian warrior, throwing a tomahawk, and I just thought, “Oh God!”

Our expectations of movies about Indians were so low then that we embraced a movie like Powwow Highway simply because there was no other option. Looking back, Thunderheart is a far superior movie, just in terms of its representation. I mean, it's a generic white guy saves the day movie, but I think it's better in terms of its representation of contemporary Indians. Except for John Trudell changing into a deer [laughs]. I've never seen an Indian turn into a deer. I mean, I know thousands of Indians, I've been an Indian my whole life, and I've yet to see an Indian turn into an animal! And I know some very traditional Indian folks.

Would you comment on your fundamental approach in adapting your collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, for the screen?

I've never been one of those people who compared the book and the movie of the book. That's never interested me because I've always separated them as two very distinct art forms, so I never got mad if the movie wasn't the book, or vice versa. I knew from a very young age that it was impossible to do that. I mean, you're talking about a 300-page novel versus an hour-and-a-half or two-hour movie. It's impossible to convey in a movie the entire experience of a novel, and I always knew that.

Knowing that going in, I didn't have any problems with mutating my own book. I treated my book of short stories in adapting the screenplay as though I didn't write it. Right from the get-go, I said, “OK, Sherman, you're going to do composite characters, compress time, take bits and pieces from stories you need for this screenplay, and you're not going to care.” The narrative integrity of any one story was never the point, it was all about taking situations from the twenty-two short stories—it actually ended up being adapted from four short stories—taking the best you can find in this book to make the screenplay.

How did you think about structure?

The cheapest kind of independent film to make is either people in a room talking …

My Dinner with Andre?

Yeah, or Clerks. It's either that or a road movie, and I didn't want to make a talking-heads movie, because that's tough sell to begin with. It's hard to reach a large audience with a talking-heads movie and, if you put Indians in the talking heads, only four people are going to want to see it. But I knew the road movie was a very time-honored structure, and also very cheap to do. Put two guys in a car or a bus, get a camera rig, and you're fine, it's easy to film.

And it can be visually interesting.

Exactly. You can let the landscape tell a lot of story. And if it's a road/buddy movie, you're going to have a lot of music, and I always knew music was going to be a part of this. There are specific music cues in the screenplay about traditional music or rock and roll music, or a combination of the two. “John Wayne's Teeth,” for example, is a combination of English lyrics and Western musical rhythms along with Indian vocables and Indian traditional drums. I also wanted to use Indian artists, so as not only to make a revolutionary movie for Indians, but also to use Indian artists on the soundtrack, which fits well with the road/buddy movie structure.

There was always a template in my head for this, which was these two odd buddies, sort of Mutt and Jeff on a road trip, Midnight Cowboy on a bus ride. One of the original drafts of the screenplay, in fact, contained many more overt references to Midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck and Victor—beautiful, stoic, clueless guys—are very much alike. At the Sundance Institute, I saw a documentary about Waldo Salt, the screenwriter of Midnight Cowboy, that really affected me in the way I wanted to make the movie. In an interview in the documentary, Salt talked about his use of flashforwards in Midnight Cowboy, so that while the story is going, you learn more and more about Joe Buck and his experiences back home. It was always flashforwards, that's what he called them, that continued the story and gave you more information. Rather than stopping the movie to be expository, they kept the drama going. So in writing the screenplay, I always knew there were going to be flashforwards. Midnight Cowboy was really a template for me in a lot of ways, not only in its structure, but also in the screenwriting philosophies of Waldo Salt.

Would you comment on the screenplay's semiautobiographical elements?

My friend and I took a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up his father's remains. At the Sundance Festival, quite a few people asked, “Were you influenced by Powwow Highway?,” because that film's also about a trip by two Indian guys to the Southwest. “It wasn't really an influence,” I said, “unless you can say that my friend's father died because of Powwow Highway.” The basic creative spark for Smoke Signals came from the trip I took with my friend. It's not my friend's story, but I placed my characters within that framework of going to pick up a father's remains. That's how the short story came about. It's more about my relationship with my father than about my friend's relationship with his father. My father is still alive, but he's had to struggle with alcoholism, as I have. It's also about the struggle within myself of being this storytelling geek like Thomas, as well as this big jock masculine guy like Victor, so it's a sort of schizophrenic multiple personality of myself that I develop within the movie.

Storytelling, dreams, and visions are key motifs in your book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, and in Smoke Signals. Would you comment on their cultural and artistic significance for you?

In the book itself, I'm rarely interested in traditional narrative. My beginnings are as a poet. My first form of writing was poetry. While there's certainly a strong narrative drive in my poetry, it was always about the image, and about the connection, often, of very disparate, contradictory images. When I began working on the screenplay, and not knowing anything about screenplays, I started reading all the typical books—you know, Syd Field and all those people—but I was not interested in their formulas for successful screenplays. In fact, after reading them and all the screenplays they admired so much, I realized that the qualities they were talking about were not what made those movies or screenplays great. It was always something that exploded outside the narrative or the structure that made the movie great, so I was always interested in going outside the narrative and traditional formats.

In my books, I've always been fascinated with dreams and stories and flashing forward and flashing back and playing with conventions of time, so in adapting the screenplay, I always knew I would use those elements. I knew there would be moments when the camera would sit still and somebody was going to talk, but I didn't want just talking heads, as I mentioned earlier. I always knew that while the person was talking, we were going to see images from the story he or she was telling. I even develop that motif, and the fact that the story of the movie is told by Thomas, so at certain points he's telling the story about himself telling the story about somebody else telling a story. So I wanted to keep those complicated layers going.

It's all based on the basic theme, for me, that storytellers are essentially liars. At one point in the movie, Suzy asks Thomas, “Do you want lies or do you want the truth?,” and he says, “I want both.” I think that line is what reveals most about Thomas's character and the nature of his storytelling and the nature, in my opinion, of storytelling in general, which is that fiction blurs and nobody knows what the truth is. And within the movie itself, nobody knows what the truth is.

Why does Thomas always close his eyes when he tells a story?

[Laughs] That was in the book, but I don't know.

There is a literary tradition of blind seers, of course.

I really don't know. The first time I wrote that story, he closed his eyes. I wrote, “Thomas closed his eyes.” And it stayed.

For me, when I read that, it was as if he were trying to imagine it with such intensity that he had to close his eyes and move into another realm.

It could be that! It just felt right, it just felt like something he would do.

We don't recall smoke signals as a motif in the book. Did you decide on the film's title?

Yeah, I did. People keep asking me, “Why did Miramax change the title?” Well, Miramax didn't change the title, I did. In fact, I never wanted to call the movie, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” That's the name of the short story. I love that title on the story, but it is not a cinematic title. There is an inverse proportional relationship between the length of movie titles and the success of the film. Very few long-titled films do well, because people forget the title.

Even though we were getting some very good Sundance coverage, people kept screwing up the movie title, and that would have killed the film. So, in looking for a title, we wanted something short and punchy, but also something that fit thematically. Smoke Signals fits for a number of reasons, for me. On the surface, it's a stereotypical title, you think of Indians in blankets on the plains sending smoke signals, so it brings up a stereotypical image that's vaguely humorous. But people will also instantly recognize that this is about Indians. Then, when you see the movie, you realize that, in a contemporary sense, smoke signals are about calls of distress, calls for help. That's really what this movie is about—Victor, Thomas, and everybody else calling for help. It's also about the theme of fire. The smoke that originates from the first fire in the movie is what causes these events, and the smoke from the second fire brings about the beginning of resolution. So I just thought Smoke Signals worked very poetically. It's something very memorable, and nobody is going to screw up that title!

Would you comment on the film's theme of the absent father and specifically on the ending of the film? How do you envision the future of your two young, fatherless protagonists?

Well, I'm reminded of this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez that my wife has up on the refrigerator. He says something like, “Men have been running the world for how many thousands of years, and look what we've done. It's about time we let women take over.” So that theme is in my head, the idea that in Indian cultures in particular, men have lost all their traditional roles within society. There are feminine and masculine roles within Indian society and, in many tribes, men and women played neither role, or went back and forth. But those traditional masculine roles—you know, hunter, warrior—they're all gone. I mean, driving a truck for the BIA is simply not going to fulfill your spiritual needs, like fishing for salmon or hunting for deer once did, so in some sense Indian men are much more lost and much more clueless than Indian women.

I think you'd find the same thing in every ethnic or racial community, that it's fathers who are missing. I was doing an interview yesterday, and it came to me that brown artists—African American, Chicano, Indian, and so on—write about fathers who physically leave and don't come back. White artists deal with fathers who leave emotionally, who sit in the chair in the living room but are gone. It's a theme that resonates. The actual physical presence of the father varies with ethnicity, I think, so the idea of a father leaving is nothing new for me. My father did leave to drink but he always came back. So for me it was a way of exploring that feeling of abandonment.

Is your vision of Indian society less dark in Smoke Signals than in Lone Ranger?

Definitely. If you chart the course of my book, or my literary work, you're going to see that pattern. I always tease literary scholars who interview me, saying, “You know, you should use the title, ‘Firewater World: The Idea of Recovery in Sherman Alexie's Fiction and Poetry,’ because that's really what's happened.” When I first started writing I was still drinking, so Lone Ranger and Tonto and the first book of poems, The Business of Fancydancing, are really soaked in alcohol. As I've been in recovery over the years and stayed sober, you'll see the work gradually freeing itself of alcoholism and going much deeper, exploring the emotional, sociological, and psychological reasons for any kind of addiction or dysfunctions within the community. I'm looking for the causes now, rather than the effects, and I think that's what Smoke Signals is about. The Lone Ranger and Tonto is about the effects of alcoholism on its characters, and I think the adaptation, Smoke Signals, is more about the causes of that behavior. It's more of a whole journey, you get there and you get back.

There's a stunning moment in the film when Victor tells the white police chief that he doesn't drink, that he's never drunk. It seemed a declaration of a break with his father and his father's past, trying to overcome that difficult social problem.

Exactly, that he's going to be somebody different. In my books and poems, Victor's a drinker, an alcoholic, but in the movie he's never had a drop. It's also a big break from my own work, so it's working on a couple of levels there. Not only the difference between my book Victor and my movie Victor, but, within the context of the story, it's also Victor's break away from his father, his creator, who is me.

Would you comment on the two young women driving their car in reverse?

[Laughs] Well, their names are Thelma and Lucy!

To avoid copyright problems?

It was an in-joke for me, playing around with the idea of a road movie. I love that movie, as an anti-road movie which deconstructs the whole macho road/buddy movie, so I wanted to put them in there as an homage to Thelma & Louise. It also has to do with the sense of time in the movie, when the past, present, and future are all the same, that circular sense of time which plays itself out in the seamless transitions from past to present. Within that circular sense of time, I also wanted to have this car driving in reverse. The phrase I always use is, “Sometimes to go forward you have to drive in reverse.” So it's a visual metaphor for what we were doing.

It's also an Indian metaphor because our cars are always screwed up. There was a man who one summer drove his pickup all over the reservation in reverse because none of the forward gears worked. It's one of those moments that I think everybody can find amusing, but non-Indian audiences are going to say, “OK, this is funny, but what the hell's going on?,” because there is no explanation for it. Indian audiences are really going to laugh, however, because they're going to completely understand it. I call those kinds of things Indian trapdoors, because an Indian will walk over them and fall in, but a non-Indian will keep on walking.

To get back to the music, we understand from the credits that you wrote the lyrics of five of the Smoke Signals songs, including “John Wayne's Teeth.” Would you talk a bit about the film's use of music?

As part of my obsessive-compulsive behavior, I guess, I had completely planned the whole movie. I knew exactly where three of the songs that I had written previously for Jim Boyd would fit in. Knowing the catalog of songs that Jim and I had written, when I was writing the screenplay I would be punching them in, knowing exactly where they would fit. I didn't want the music to be an afterthought, but an inherent and organic part of the film. Writing songs is another way of expressing ourselves. Just as I think screenplays are accessible poetry, I think songs are accessible poetry, and while I'm going to continue to write poetry that nobody reads [laughs], that 2,000 people read, I also want to express myself in poetic ways that will reach a much wider audience. For me, writing songs is a way to reach a different kind of audience. Using those songs in the film, however, is also a way of telling the story, of adding more layers to the story, as you see things on screen.

“A Million Miles Away,” for instance, a song that plays over one of the flashbacks, was a way of doing that, of bridging the past and the present. The lyrics of that song, sung at the beginning of the journey, are not only about the distance between Phoenix, Arizona, and the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation, but also about the distance between people. It's a sort of battered and bruised love song. The lyrics are completely atypical of a love song, with lines like, “Some people might think you're graceful, but 1 think you're brittle and bent,” but it's still, “Let's get a car and drive it.” It's about recognizing human frailty and being in love with a person despite their frailties, so the lyrics were always an integral part of the theme of the movie.

What was your input as a coproducer of the film?

Oh, everything—casting, costumes, sets, editing. I was in the editing room, and a lot of the editing ideas are mine. It was in the editing room, in fact, that I decided I wanted to direct the next one. Editing was fun. The whole process of editing really made me appreciate editors and realize how overlooked and underrated they are in the filmmaking process. Editors are directors and screenwriters all over again. There were many scenes that worked as we shot them, but there were also scenes that did not work, and would not have worked without the skills of our editor. It was in the editing room that I learned more than I had at any other point during the film.

In particular, it made me realize the importance of storyboards, especially in independent film, where you don't have the money to make mistakes. I started reading all these books about storyboards, catching up on the scholarship about them. Then, looking at films by directors who storyboard and those who don't, I realized how wonderfully consistent the storyboarders are and how wildly inconsistent the nonstoryboarders are. Even though the nonstoryboarders often have greater reputations, they have made some terrible films. Robert Altman, for example, has made classics and truly terrible films, films of such divergent qualities that it's awe-inspiring. A consistent storyboarder makes good films every time, I think.

Writing a new screenplay now, I'm very aware of editing possibilities, of transitions, so I'm really writing the screenplay as a director, whereas I didn't write Smoke Signals that way. I'm really conscious of scene transitions, but also about the possibilities of something not working, and trying to imagine other ways of telling this story within the editing room. So I'm editing visually, I'm doing storyboards as I'm writing, and trying to write as visually as possible.

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges facing Native American societies in the U.S. today?

The challenges to our sovereignty—artistically, politically, socially, economically. We are and always have been nations within this nation and any threats to that are dangerous. Not only in terms of the government trying to take away our sovereign rights to have casinos, to take the most crass example, but also in cultural appropriation, you know, with white people crawling into sweat lodges, and buying our religions.

Speaking of cultural issues, is mainstream U.S. popular culture an influence on your artistic creativity?

I'm a thirty-one-year-old American, as well. I always tell people that the five primary influences in my life are my father, for his nontraditional Indian stories, my grandmother for her traditional Indian stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and The Brady Bunch. That's who I am. I think a lot of Indian artists like to pretend that they're not influenced by pop culture or Western culture, but I am, and I'm happy to admit it. A lot of independent filmmakers would look down their nose at their own pop influences, or at my pop influences. It's a cultural currency. That's something that Tarantino has certainly benefited and learned from. In the best moments of his movies, he's talking about a common cultural currency, and the ways in which his characters talk about it really bring out their personalities.

U.S. popular culture as a lingua franca?

Exactly, and, in the same way, I use that as a way to bridge the cultural distance between the characters in my movie and the non-Indian audience. It's a way for me, as the writer, to speak to the audience through my characters in a way that will give them something to hold onto as they're hearing and seeing something brand new.

There's a line in the film, and in your story, which is, “It's a good day to die.” Do I recall that line from Little Big Man?

Yeah, that's a Little Big Man reference. In every book and movie since then, it seems, the Indians always said that and I wanted to make fun of it. We used it twice in the movie, in fact. Once we said, “Sometimes it's a good day to die and sometimes it's a good day to play basketball,” and another time, “Sometimes it's a good day to die and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast.” That notion has so little meaning in our lives that I wanted to make fun of it. It's never, ever, ever, a good day to die. There's always something better to do.

The film employs this sort of humor very often.

I think humor is the most effective political tool out there, because people will listen to anything if they're laughing. The reason why someone like Rush Limbaugh is so popular is because he's damn funny. Even I—a dedicated liberal/communist/socialist kind of guy—listen to him once in a while, because you gotta know what the enemy's up to, but he makes me laugh in spite of myself. He'll be spouting this racist, homophobic, sexist, neanderthal stuff, and I'll be laughing, and thinking, “Oh God!” It's because he's funny that people respond to him. I think one thing that liberals have a decided lack of is a sense of humor. There's nothing worse than earnest emotion and I never want to be earnest. I always want to be on the edge of offending somebody, of challenging one notion or another, and never being comfortable not only with myself, or with my own politics or my character's politics, or their lives, but with everybody else's. Humor is really just about questioning the status quo, that's all it is.

Dan Georgakas (review date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Georgakas, Dan. Review of Smoke Signals, by Sherman Alexie. Cineaste 23, no. 4 (fall 1998): 28.

[In the following review, Georgakas offers a positive assessment of Smoke Signals, asserting that Alexie displays a unique ability to break from the traditional portrayal of modern American-Indian culture in film.]

Every few years or so, press kits arrive at the offices of film magazines announcing that a forthcoming film about Native Americans decisively breaks with the stereotypes of the past. Smoke Signals is the latest film to advertise itself so, but, unlike most of its predecessors, Smoke Signals delivers on its promises. A prime component of its success is that it is the first feature to have been written, directed, and coproduced by Native Americans, and also features Native Americans in all the lead roles.

The storyline is a variation of the odyssey theme. In this instance, rather than focusing on a warrior/father struggling to return to his home, the plot turns on a warrior/son struggling to physically and emotionally find an alcoholic father who fled his home and died in self-exile. Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), an abandoned son who has grown up on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho, must undertake a journey to collect the ashes of his father, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), who has died in Phoenix, Arizona. Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) provides Victor the money he needs for the trip on condition that he is allowed to go along. Unlike Victor, Thomas has numerous positive memories of Arnold Joseph, ultimately derived from the circumstance that, when he was only an infant, Arnold had saved him from a burning building.

Their road together turns out to have a number of detours and moments of truth, all of which are interesting in and of themselves. More important than the incidents and challenges per se, however, are the effects they have on the emotional development of the two sojourners. Sherman Alexie, who wrote the script based on sections of his best-selling The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, has noted that American popular culture recognizes only two major Native American profiles: the warrior and the shaman. He goes about subverting these stereotypes with various images, stories, and songs. Although some aspects of the odyssey are somber, humor often finds its way into the darkest moments. Victor and Thomas constantly jibe with one another and outsiders about what it means to be a contemporary Native American. Thomas proves to be a genuine storyteller, but his tales never dissolve into the usual hocus pocus surrounding shamans; and Victor is indeed a warrior, but he is neither stoic nor silent. Both characters are decidedly Native American, but Native Americans rooted in this time and place and not a fictionalized past.

The literary talent of Sherman Alexie, who is coproducer as well as the scriptwriter of Smoke Signals, is very much in evidence throughout the film. Words count for him, whether for the sheer joy of wordplay, or as a means of revealing a character. But the film is never talky in the sense of a stage play. Rather, it has the kind of intelligent and clever dialog characteristic of the best studio films of yore. In this sense, Alexie has been extremely successful in moving from writing for the printed page to writing for the screen. And his considerable success in the former bodes well for his future as a writer for the cinema. Throughout the 1990s, Alexie has garnered numerous writing awards, steadily gaining recognition as one of America's leading fiction writers. His second novel, Indian Killer, a current best seller, is being developed as a feature film by ShadowCatcher Entertainment, the producer of Smoke Signals.

In addition to his prose, Alexie is a well-known poet. His first book of poetry, The Business of Fancydancing, was chosen in 1992 by The New York Times Book Review as its Notable Book of the Year. He has since won a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Lila Wallace/Readers' Digest Writer's Award. Not coincidentally Smoke Signals features an original contemporary poem as its coda. The first line sounds one of the film's major themes: “How do we forgive our fathers?” The film concludes with a voice-over recitation of the poem that is a refreshing break from the dumbing-down and action-oriented approach of so many contemporary films. That the poem's author, Dick Lourie, is not a Native American also fits into the film's pattern of breaking with the expected ethnic response. Using a Native American poem for this purpose would have been far more predictable and problematic.

Smoke Signals is all the more impressive for being the debut feature of director Chris Eyre, a twenty-eight-year-old Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker from Oregon who has previously written and directed seven short films. He keeps the film moving at a brisk but not a hurried pace, taking time to get the most out of a scene involving frying bread, while allowing spectacular outdoor vistas to speak for themselves rather than being framed as picture postcards. Eyre gets a particularly strong performance from Evan Adams, who credibly renders Thomas as an engaging cross between a mama's boy and a traditional seer, a sometimes nerd in funny glasses who is no one's sidekick. Eyre also makes effective use of Irene Bedard, as Suzy Song, who has an understanding and affection for the deceased Arnold Joseph that his son must deal with.

No single film can be expected to undo the misinformation about Native Americans that has accumulated over many generations. Since the politically turbulent Sixties, there has been an ongoing movement by Native American film actors to combat ethnic stereotyping. In their wake have come Native American producers, directors, actors, and scriptwriters. Smoke Signals belongs to and advances this continuum. Hopefully, it will prove to be the first of a new wave of diverse Native American films. The ethnic group that has been featured more than any other in the history of American films is finally beginning to speak in its own voice. During the 1998 Seattle Film Festival, Cineaste was able to speak with Alexie about the many cultural issues embodied by and explored in his debut feature film effort, Smoke Signals.

Jonathan Levi (review date 18 June 2000)

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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Nothing But Net.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 June 2000): 4.

[In the following review, Levi explores the diversity of Alexie's American-Indian characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]

What is an Indian?” Sherman Alexie asks in his latest collection of stories, The Toughest Indian in the World. Is it the college student of the story “One Good Man,” who boasts of long black hair and skin dark as a pecan? “I'd grown up on my reservation with my tribe. I understood most of the Spokane language, though I'd always spoken it like a Jesuit priest. Hell, I'd been in three car wrecks! And most importantly, every member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians could tell you the exact place and time where I'd lost my virginity.”

What is an Indian? Is it the hitchhiker picked up by the Camry-driving narrator of “The Toughest Indian in the World,” an Indian fighter whose “fingers were twisted into weird, permanent shapes, and his knuckles were covered with layers of scar tissue,” a tough guy who crawls into a motel bed with the narrator, another Indian, to stroke and rub in the dead of night? Or, in the best American tradition of Whitman and Dickinson, “is it a boy who can sing the body electric or a woman who could not stop for death?”

For that matter, what is a white person? “They'll kill you if they get the chance,” the father of the Camry driver says. “Love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they'll still smell the salmon on you, the dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous.”

The America of Alexie (a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene Indian himself), which he has peopled so well in his novels, poetry and stories, is full of Indians and white people and all the admixtures that our Cherokee-Chinese-Choctaw-Seminole-Semitic-Irish-Russian hyphenated country can stand. Indians are people in motion: the restless Indian woman of “Assimilation” who wants to sleep with a white man who isn't her husband and the restless Indian man of “Class” who wants to sleep with an Indian woman before he marries white; the Camry driver who abandons his car the morning after his encounter with the hitchhiking fighter: “I stepped onto the pavement, still warm from the previous day's sun. I started walking. In bare feet, I traveled upriver toward the place where I was born and will someday die. At that moment, if you had broken open my heart you could have looked inside and seen the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.”

Shot in the heart, by white people or by their fellow Indians, Alexie's heroes leak salmon from their ventricles and roe from their pores. They are angry, sometimes with a brave anger, sometimes with a stupid anger. At the center of the collection is a story called “The Sin Eaters,” a modern holocaust of a nightmare about the eradication of the American Indian, as angry and powerful as any chapter of Jerzy Kosinski, in which full-blooded Indians are taken away for unexplained experiments in the inferno of the American Southwest.

Nevertheless, there is something hopeful in Alexie, certainly something hopeful about the ending of the title story, as the narrator abandons the Camry for the walk upriver, home. Break open the heart of that hope and you'll find poetry. Break open the poetry and you'll find a quiet acceptance that covers the pain like the layers of scar tissue on the fighter's hands.

The genius of Alexie's writing is his ability to wrap language and image around the root of this anger and pain, by recognizing it as the human need for love. Take Seymour, the middle-aged hero of “South by Southwest,” who steals a pistol and holds up an International House of Pancakes in Spokane, Wash. “I aim to go on a nonviolent killing spree,” Seymour declares to the cowering patrons, “and I need somebody who will fall in love with me along the way.” Optimistically, a fat Indian raises his hand and volunteers. “You're an Indian, ain't you?” Seymour asks. “Yes, I am, yes, I am. Do you have a problem with that?” the fat man answers. “Only if you're one of those buffalo hunters. I can't have a nomad in my car. You just can't trust a nomad.” “I come from a salmon tribe,” said the fat Indian, “and therefore, I am a dependable man.”

Optimism, in fact, is Alexie's strong suit, the American beauty that seduces all his heroes. The loveliest story in the collection, “Saint Junior,” halos one Roman Gabriel Fury and his Chinese-Indian wife with a gorgeous moment of grace. Roman is a high school basketball star and a smart kid. Entrance to college leads him off the reservation and straight to Grace, the only other Indian at St. Jerome the Second University and the only person to score higher on tests designed to keep Indians out of college—higher in fact than anyone has ever scored before. Marriage to Grace leads to a career traveling around Europe, playing basketball and running from America. “Given the choice, he'd rather have been a buffalo hunter and soldier killer than the point guard for the Lakers, but there was no such choice, of course. He couldn't be an indigenous warrior or a Los Angeles Laker. He was an Indian man who'd invented a new tradition for himself, a manhood ceremony that had usually provided him with equal amounts of joy and pain, but his ceremony had slowly and surely become archaic.”

And then one day, in the Madrid Hilton, Grace says, “Let's go home.” And so these two prodigal Indians return to the Spokane Reservation, he to coach high school basketball, she to grow fat. And yet, one winter morning, when Roman goes outside with a can of kerosene to burn the snow off his driveway and shoot a few hoops, Grace approaches him, wearing only an overcoat. She opens “her coat to flash her nudity at Roman. Flesh and folds of flesh. Brown skin and seventeen moles. … ‘You make the next shot and you can have all of this,’ she said.” And in that moment, Roman shoots, and the ball, on the way to the hoop, through the instrument of kerosene or magic, catches fire. Whether one calls it Grace, or Ceremony, as Alexie does, that flaming basketball can't help but warm all readers on its way to the hoop, Indians all of us.

Jonathan Penner (review date 9 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Penner, Jonathan. “Full Blooded.” Washington Post Book World (9 July 2000): 7.

[In the following review, Penner comments on Alexie's exploration of the struggle for American-Indian cultural identity as experienced by the characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]

The protagonists of these nine stories [in The Toughest Indian in the World] are all proud to be Indians but hardly comfortable, or even quite sure what it means. “What is an Indian?” is a question asked over and over, either implicitly or in just those words.

What indeed? These aren't Hemingway's Indians, drunks freezing to death at the roadside. Sherman Alexie's Spokanes and Coeur d'Alenes, uncomfortably half-assimilated, tend to be fiercely intellectual (one insists that cars deserve love—specifically, agape) and as witty as stand-up comics. At the same time, they long to be warriors, comparing their own tribulations to those of Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

Being Indian in America is not, for them, an easy condition. Race shapes their entire lives, including the search for love. One protagonist submits to anal intercourse with “the toughest Indian in the world” in order to fire his own tepid ethnicity. Another tries to make peace between a white lesbian friend and the angry parents of her Indian lover. A third, tired of his white wife, goes to an Indian bar to connect with “his people” but gets beaten up for being too “urban.” That reproof is among many these stories deliver to incomplete Indians. One part-Indian academic is vain about his activism. He was on the line at Alcatraz, on the line at Wounded Knee. But he's easily one-upped by a reservation full-blood—a man endowed, for added measure, with “a one-hundred-percent guaranteed, American Indian, aboriginal, First Nations, indigenous penis”—who tells him, “You might be a Native American but you sure as hell ain't Indian.”

Whites come off even worse. Though particular people are often O.K., these stories exude racial distaste: “Indians just like to believe that white people will vanish, perhaps explode into smoke, if they are ignored enough times.” The sympathetic reader will likely find this anger justified. The justification, unfortunately, rarely appears within the story, depending instead on the reader's stock of pre-existing beliefs.

For example, consider this measured protest: “At ball games, in parking lots, and especially in airports, white men demanded to receive the privileges whose very existence they often denied.” Nicely put—and we may agree. But if we do, it's because we thought so before we began reading. The stories don't earn their claims. Instead, they ride the back of received opinion.

Sometimes anger escapes measure, swelling into paranoid visions. Soldiers parachute onto all the reservations in America. They abduct children and force them down many flights of stairs to a prison beneath the earth. There a young boy is brutalized, strapped face down to a table, and fitted with a hood. Sadistic doctors draw marrow from his hip bones, trying to extract his Indian essence. Later he is forced to copulate with a woman he calls “Mother.”

These stories are highly stylized—sometimes more painting than writing, more to be contemplated than understood. Sometimes style seems the only object. The repeated enumeration of things whose count doesn't matter is an example. Another example: the repetition of puzzling phrases, which break into the narrative like someone shouting in the apartment next door.

Mystifying motifs appear in the action, too. For instance, there are a great many occasions of copious weeping. One stops trying to understand these as signs of actual emotion, and starts to see them more abstractly, as the characteristic outcroppings of a literary landscape.

Sherman Alexie is an eloquent stylist, often heightening reality as he ennobles language: “On that morning, the sun rose and bloomed like blood in a glass syringe. The entire Spokane Indian Reservation and all of its people and places were clean and scrubbed. The Spokane River rose up from its bed like a man who had been healed. … The blades of grass, the narrow pine needles, and the stalks of roadside wheat were as sharp and bright as surgical tools.”

But at other times he becomes the victim of his own gifts. “The plane rose higher and higher above the earth. At that height, I knew gravity was a story passed from one generation of undiscovered birds to the next. At that height, oxygen was a sacrament.” This is language of lyrical beauty. But passing through these gilded passages, one finds himself again outside.

Gleefully exploded are the icons of the white West. John Wayne, for instance, is quoted as saying, “I try to embrace the feminine in myself,” and “Gender is mostly a social construction.” Unfortunately, a flip manner attaches even to what matters most: e.g., “He wondered if his heart was broken.” Broken hearts deserve better.

Alexie, the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, is a widely honored writer possessed of grand material. But in these stories, his considerable talent is too often dissipated in poses, gestures and winks.

Joyce Carol Oates (review date 20 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Haunted by Salmon.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 12 (20 July 2000): 20.

[In the following review, Oates explores the search for ethnicity undertaken by the characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]

What is an Indian? runs through Sherman Alexie's second collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World, like a demented, demanding mantra. In these nine stories, irony is sounded like the tribal drums of the ghost musicians of the story “Saint Junior” that haunt the Spokane Indian Reservation. (“Irony, a hallmark of the contemporary indigenous American.”) Alexie, best known for his novels Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian educated at Gonzaga University and Washington State University, a funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental, rebellious postmodernist voice set beside his elder and conspicuously more writerly and “spiritual” Native American contemporaries N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. Sherman Alexie is the bad boy among them, mocking, self-mocking, unpredictable, unassimilable, reminding us of the young Philip Roth whose controversial works of fiction “The Conversion of the Jews” and Portnoy's Complaint outraged an older generation for whom anything Jewish had to be sacrosanct.

Unfortunately, Sherman Alexie's ironic narrators know too much of Indian history: “It was Indian scouts who had helped white people kill Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and every other Indian warrior in the world.” Their nostalgia for “the rez” is tempered by the memory of unsentimental parental advice: “Son, if you're going to marry a white woman, then marry a rich one, because those white trash women are just Indians with bad haircuts.” And “the rez” itself is “spiritual and magic” mostly in the imaginations of white tourists, who know nothing of its wet tedium. As Low Man Smith, a successful writer of mysteries, reminisces of the Coeur d'Alene Reservation he has left behind:

The tourists didn't know, and would never have guessed, that the reservation's monotony might last for months, sometimes years, before one man would eventually pull a pistol from a secret place and shoot another man in the face, or before a group of women would drag another woman out of her house and beat her left eye clean out of her skull. After that first act of violence, rival families would issue calls for revenge and organize the retaliatory beatings. Afterwards, three or four people would wash the blood from their hands and hide in the hills, causing white men to write editorials. …

(“Indian Country”)

Through most of the stories in The Toughest Indian in the World a singular voice of ironic intelligence and self-deprecatory humor prevails, that of a youngish male, reservation-born, who has been educated in white schools and has left the reservation for work (journalism, law); sometimes he has married an Indian woman, and sometimes he has married a white woman, as in the story “Class” (“Blonde, maybe thirty-five, and taller than me, [Susan] was the tenth most attractive white woman in the room. … I didn't have enough looks, charm, intelligence, or money to approach anybody more attractive than that”); obsessively this young man broods upon “the rez” and what he has lost, and what he has gained, by moving out into the white world. Does he appear successful in that world? Does he appear “assimilated”? Even so, “I know enough to cover my heart in any crowd of white people.” He thinks, like the lonely narrator of the title story, a journalist with a Spokane Indian background, of his father's warning:

They'll kill you if they get the chance. … Love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they'll still smell the salmon on you, the dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous.

All of us, Indian and white, are haunted by salmon.

This man has learned, he tells us, to be silent in the presence of white people: “The silence is not about hate or pain or fear. Indians just like to believe that white people will vanish, perhaps explode into smoke, if they are ignored enough times.” But when the journalist-narrator of “The Toughest Indian in the World” is confronted with the personification of the salmon, a “beautiful and scarred” Lummi Indian hitchhiker to whom he has given a ride, he sends the man away after a single awkward attempt at lovemaking, as if he lacks the courage to accept his own deepest nature: “I watched him rise from earth to sky and become a new constellation.”

For Alexie, racial identity and self-identity would appear to be tangled inextricably with sex. In the opening story, “Assimilation,” a Coeur d'Alene woman married to a white man whom she loves but with whom she has been having sexual problems decides impulsively that she wants to have sex with “an Indian man only because he was Indian”; unfortunately, she finds the man repulsive. In “Class,” the young Indian lawyer who'd married the tenth most attractive white woman in the room has marital problems too, and confesses to having slept with seventeen prostitutes, “all of them blond and blue-eyed.” When he hires a call girl advertised as Tawny Feather, she too turns out to be white, with a black wig over her short blond hair. The story takes a sudden violent turn when, in a rough Indian bar, he approaches an Indian woman (“she was a woman who had once been pretty but had grown up in a place where pretty was punished”), and is savagely beaten.

“I wanted to be with my people,” I said.

“Your people?” asked [the woman]. “Your people? We're not your people.”

“We're Indians.”

“Yeah, we're Indians. You, me, Junior. But we live in this world and you live in your world.”

“I don't like my world.”

“You pathetic bastard. … You sorry, sorry piece of shit.”

What is an Indian? asks a professor at Washington State University, infuriating the young Indian of “One Good Man” with his absurd boastfulness of being an Indian himself (“a Cherokee-Choctaw-Seminole-Irish-Russian”). For even as the educated, assimilated Indian is repudiated by Indians of a lower social class who perceive themselves, and are perceived, as authentic Indians, so too the full-blooded Indian is contemptuous of persons of mixed ancestry who boast of their Indian blood while looking nothing like Indians: “[The professor] was a small man, barely over five feet tall, with gray eyes and grayer hair.” Indians beware Indians! Grace Atwater, a Mohawk Indian woman from Manhattan, has lived so long on the Spokane Reservation with her Spokane husband she realizes she's become more Spokane than Mohawk: “She'd always understood that an Indian could be assimilated and disappear into white culture, but she'd discovered, too, that an Indian of one tribe could be swallowed whole by another tribe.” For Grace Atwater, however, love for her failed basketball-player husband is more important than tribal identity.

The Toughest Indian in the World is an uneven collection. Though Alexie is clearly a gifted writer, and a writer with a mission, he gives the impression here of performing well beneath his powers. The weaker stories swerve into self-conscious comedy, as in “Dear John Wayne,” an interview in which a cultural anthropologist—“the Owens Lecturer in Applied Indigenous Studies at Harvard University”—pompously interviews a 118-year-old Spokane Indian woman who reminisces of her not very convincing love affair with the actor John Wayne, or into fantasy, as in the long, awkwardly composed “The Sin Eaters,” in which Indians are terrorized and humiliated by the United States government, in a saga out of The X-Files. The concluding story in the collection. “One Good Man,” is perhaps the strongest, depicting the last days of a sixty-five-year-old Spokane Indian diabetic whose feet have been amputated, and whose son, a character very like Alexie's other young male Indians who have returned to the reservation, fulfills his final wish and brings him to the Mexican border to “cross over” into another, non-Caucasian culture. The haunting question What is an Indian? continues to be asked, and Alexie's final reply is the terse, “You tell me.”

In “One Good Man,” Alexie confronts painful emotions head-on, without the distractions of dark whimsy, irony, and excessive self-consciousness. Like his older Indian coevals Momaday, Silko, and Erdrich in their very different forms of fiction, Alexie skillfully dramatizes the painful conflict between indigenous Indians and Caucasians who, after centuries, are still perceived as invaders and conquerors not to be trusted. The story, and the collection, nonetheless end on a defiant, rhapsodic note as the son fulfills his dying father's last wish: “I lifted my father and carried him across every border.”


Alexie, Sherman


Alexie, Sherman (Vol. 96)