Sherman Alexie 1966–
Spokane/Coeur d'Alene poet, short story writer, and novelist.
The following entry provides an overview of Alexie's career through 1995. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 154) and Sherman Alexie Poetry Criticism.
Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native American writers of his generation. In his critically acclaimed poetry and fiction, he tells of the hardships and joys of contemporary life on an Indian reservation. Alexie's works are celebrated for their detailed descriptions of the psychology and environment of the reservation; the humor and wit that are displayed in the face of the intense poverty and the ravages of alcohol abuse that are part of reservation life; and their broad, universal messages of hope and perseverance.
Born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, Alexie was raised in an environment often characterized by depression, poverty, and alcohol abuse. Alexie's mother supported the family by selling her hand-sewn quilts and working at the Wellpinit Trading Post, while his father, an alcoholic, was often absent from the house. Alexie was an exemplary student in elementary school—he read every book in the Wellpinit school library—and in high school. In 1985 he was admitted to Gonzaga University in Spokane. There, under intense pressure to succeed, he began abusing alcohol. Eventually he transferred to Washington State University and began writing poetry and short fiction. A selection of his work was published in Hanging Loose magazine in 1990. This early success provided Alexie with the will and incentive to quit drinking and to devote himself to building a career as a writer. In 1991 Alexie was awarded a Washington State Arts Commission poetry fellowship, and in 1992 he won a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He continues to live on the Spokane Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Reflecting on his life experiences, Alexie asserted in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993): "[Indians] have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins."
Alexie's debut collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing (1992), grew out of the first writing workshop Alexie attended at Washington State University. Focusing on "Crazy Horse dreams"—a metaphor for aspirations, either far-fetched or close-at-hand, that succeed or fail without any apparent logic—The Business of Fancydancing introduces a broad range of characters, many of whom have continued to appear throughout Alexie's prose and verse. Typically, these characters evoke the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often pervade the lives of Native Americans on reservations. Personalities like Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Seymour, Junior Polatkin, Lester FallsApart, and Victor—who engage in reservation basketball tournaments, fist fights, and visits to the local tavern—developed into the characters that populate such later works as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues (1995). The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of short stories with frequent autobiographical overtones, takes survival and forgiveness as its major themes. Alexie explores these issues both on the reservation and in Anglo-American-dominated Spokane. Similarly, Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, studies the life experiences of Native Americans. The novel describes the successes and failures of "Coyote Springs," an all-Indian rock-and-roll band, as its members travel and perform concerts with a guitar that belonged to legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. Reservation Blues extends Alexie's literary use of the locale and inhabitants of the Spokane reservation, reiterating his focus on the conditions of life on the reservation and the hardships faced by many Native Americans. His most recent novel, Indian Killer (1996), is set in the Pacific Northwest and is, in part, a mystery about a killer who scalps his victims. Alexie has also published three books of poetry, I Would Steal Horses (1992), First Indian on the Moon (1993), and Old Shirts & New Skins (1993). Like Alexie's fiction, these collections evoke sadness and indignation but leave the reader with a sense of respect and compassion for characters who are in seemingly hopeless situations. Involved with crime, alcohol, or drugs, they struggle to survive the constant battering of their minds, bodies and spirits by white American society and by their own self-hatred and sense of powerlessness.
Alexie has won a strong following for his works and is recognized as a major emerging literary voice. He is especially noted for his keen insights into the plight of Native Americans living on reservations. In discussing The Business of Fancydancing, Andrea-Bess Baxter described Alexie's work as "at once painful and compelling yet somehow balanced with humor and hope." Leslie Marmon Silko, referring to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, found Alexie's writing to "dazzle with wicked humor, lean, fresh language, and deep affection for his characters." Alexie's work has also garnered attention for its descriptive qualities and its intense connection to life on an Indian reservation. According to Silko in an essay on Reservation Blues, "the power of his writing rises out of the Spokane River and the Spokane earth." She concluded, "on this big Indian reservation we call 'the United States,' Sherman Alexie is one of the best writers we have."