Alexie at the Texas Book Festival in 2008
|Born||Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.
October 7, 1966
Wellpinit, Washington, USA
|Occupation||Poet, author, screenwriter, filmmaker|
|Genres||Native American literature, humor, documentary fiction|
|Literary movement||Indigenous Nationalism|
|Notable work(s)||• The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
• Smoke Signals (film)
• Reservation Blues
• The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
• War Dances
Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. (born October 7, 1966) is a poet, writer, and filmmaker. Much of his writing draws on his experiences as a Native American growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
Some of his best known works are The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a book of short stories, and Smoke Signals (1998), a film of his screenplay based on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
His first novel, Reservation Blues, received one of the fifteen 1996 American Book Awards. His first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a semi-autobiographical novel that won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature and the Odyssey Award as best 2008 audiobook for young people (read by Alexie himself). His collection of short stories and poems, entitled War Dances, won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where he spent his childhood. His great-grandfather was of Russian descent. His father, Sherman Joseph Alexie, was of Coeur d'Alene descent and his mother, Lillian Agnes Cox, of Colville, Flathead, Spokane and Euroamerican descent. He was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that occurs when there is an abnormally large amount of cerebral fluid in the cranial cavity. Due to the hydrocephalus, Alexie underwent brain surgery when he was six months old. It was a surgery that he was not expected to survive, and if he did only with permanent mental disabilities. However, Alexie's surgery was successful and he survived with no damage to his mental faculties.
His father was an alcoholic who often left the house for days at a time. To support her six children, Alexie's mother, Lillian, sewed quilts and worked as a clerk at the Wellpinit Trading Post.
Alexie has described his life at the reservation school as challenging because he was constantly teased by other kids on the reservation. He recalls being nicknamed "The Globe" because he had a large head due to the hydrocephalus. Until the age of seven, Alexie suffered from seizures and bedwetting and had to take strong drugs to control them. He was excluded from many of the activities that are rites of passage for young Indian males because of his health problems. Despite this difficult upbringing, Alexie excelled academically, reading everything available to him, including auto repair manuals.
In order to better his education, Alexie made the decision to leave the reservation and attend Reardan High School in Reardan. The school was thirty miles off the reservation and Alexie was the only student of Native heritage among mostly white students. He excelled at school and became a star player on the basketball team, which was coincidentally called the Reardan High Indians. Along with the basketball team, Alexie was also class president and a member of the debate team.
His successes in high school won him a scholarship in 1985 to Gonzaga University, a Roman Catholic school in Spokane. Originally Alexie enrolled in the pre-med program at Gonzaga with hopes of becoming a doctor. However, he became squeamish in his anatomy classes. After an unsuccessful try at medicine, Alexie switched to law, but that didn’t work out either. The pressure of succeeding in college became too much for Alexie, and he began drinking heavily to cope. Though he was not happy with his choice of career path, Alexie found comfort in literature classes. In 1987 he dropped out of Gonzaga University and enrolled at Washington State University (WSU).
At Washington State, Alexie enrolled in a creative writing course taught by Alex Kuo, a respected poet of Chinese American background. Alexie was at a low point in his life and Kuo served as a mentor to him. Kuo gave Alexie an anthology entitled Songs of This Earth on Turtle’s Back by Joseph Bruchac, which is a book that changed his life; he said that it taught him "how to connect to non-Native literature in a new way."   He was inspired from reading works of poetry that were written by other Native Americans. With his new appreciation of poetry, Alexie started work on his first collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, which was published in 1992 through Hanging Loose Press. With the success of his first published work of poetry, Alexie stopped drinking and quit school just three credits short of a degree. In 1995 he was awarded a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University.
In 2005, Alexie became a founding Board Member of Longhouse Media, a non-profit organization that is committed to teaching filmmaking skills to Native American youth, and to use media for cultural expression and social change. Mr. Alexie has long supported youth programs and initiatives dedicated to uplifting at-risk Native youth.
Alexie's stories have been included in several short story anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories 2004, edited by Lorrie Moore; and Pushcart Prize XXIX of the Small Presses. Additionally, a number of his pieces have been published in various literary magazines and journals, as well as online publications.
Alexie’s poetry, short stories and novels all assert the same themes: despair, poverty, violence and alcoholism among the lives of Native American people. According to Sarah A. Quirk from the Dictionary of Library Biography, Alexie asks three questions across all of his works: "What does it mean to live as an Indian in this time? What does it mean to be an Indian man? Finally, what does it mean to live on an Indian reservation?" The protagonists in most of his literary works exhibit a constant struggle with themselves and their own sense of powerlessness among white American society.
Alexie’s writings are meant to evoke sadness, but at the same time he uses humor and pop culture that leaves the readers with a sense of respect, understanding, and compassion. Alexie’s influences for his literary works do not rely solely on “traditional” Indian forms, but instead he “blends elements of popular culture, Indian spirituality, and the drudgery of poverty-ridden reservation life to create his characters and the world they inhabit,” according to Quirk. As mentioned, Alexie uses humor in all of his works. According to Quirk, he does this as a "means of cultural survival for American Indians-survival in the face of the larger American culture's stereotypes of American Indians and their concomitant distillation of individual tribal characteristics into one pan-Indian consciousness."
Within a year of graduating from college, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. His career began with the publishing of his first two collections of poetry in 1992, entitled, I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing. In these poems Alexie uses humor to express the struggles of contemporary Indians on reservations. Common themes include: alcoholism, poverty and racism. Although he uses humor to express his feelings, the underlying message is very somber and serious. The Business of Fancydancing was well received, selling over 10,000 copies. Alexie actually refers to his writing as “fancydancing,” which is the name given to the changes made to the traditional dances by Native American veterans from World War II. To him, it is the mental, emotional, and spiritual outlet that he finds in his writings. Leslie Ullman commented on The Business of Fancydancing in the Kenyon Review where she wrote that Alexie “weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride and metaphysical provocation out of the hard realities...: the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters.”
Alexie’s other works of poetry include:
- Old Shirts and New Skins (1993)
- First Indian on the Moon (1993)
- Seven Mourning Songs For the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play (1994)
- Water Flowing Home (1996)
- The Summer of Black Widows (1996)
- The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998)
- One Stick Song (2000)
- Face (2009), Hanging Loose Press (April 15, 2009) hardcover, 160 pages, ISBN 978-1-931236-71-3 
Alexie published his first prose work, entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in 1993. The book consists of a series of short stories that are interconnected throughout the book. There are no dominant characters, but instead, several prominent characters that appear in other works by Alexie. According to Sarah A. Quirk, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven can be considered a bildungsroman with dual protagonists, “Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, moving from relative innocence to a mature level on experience.”
Ten Little Indians is a collection of “nine extraordinary short stories set in and around the Seattle area, featuring Spokane Indians from all walks of urban life,” according to Christine C. Menefee of the School Library Journal. In this collection, Alexie “challenges stereotypes that whites have of Native Americans and at the same time shows the Native American characters coming to terms with their own identities.”
War Dances is a collection of short stories, poems, and short works. It won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The collection, however, received mixed reviews.
Other short stories by Alexie include:
- The Toughest Indian in the World (2000) (collection of short stories)
- What You Pawn I Will Redeem (2003), published in The New Yorker
- Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (2012)
- Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star−Spangled Banner' at Woodstock
In his first developed novel, Reservation Blues (1995), Alexie expanded the characters of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. He expands on the characters Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, and Junior Polatkin who have grown up on the Spokane Indian reservation. While in the short story collection they were in their teens, Reservation Blues show the boys in their thirties. Verlyn Klinkenborg of the Los Angeles Times wrote in a review of Reservation Blues from 1995, "you can feel Alexie's purposely divided attention, his alertness to a divided audience, Native American and Anglo." Klinkenborg goes on to say that Alexie 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."
Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a coming-of-age story that began as a memoir of Alexie's life and family on the Spokane Indian reservation. The novel focuses on a fourteen-year-old Indian named Arnold Spirit. The novel is semi-autobiographical in that it includes many of the events and characteristics of Alexie's life. For example, Arnold was born with hydrocephalus, and was teased a lot as a child, as was Alexie. Also, the story centers around Arnold's transfer to Reardan High School, the same high school that Alexie transferred to as a teenager. The novel received great reviews. Bruce Barcott from the New York Times Book Review observed, "Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home."
Other novels by Sherman Alexie include:
In 1998 Alexie broke barriers by creating the first all-Indian movie, Smoke Signals. Alexie based the screenplay on his collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The film was directed by Chris Eyre, a filmmaker of Cheyenne-Arapaho heritage and it was produced and acted by Native Americans. It tells the story of two young Native Americans, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who leave the reservation on a road trip to retrieve the body of Victor’s dead father. The film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. The film received an 86% and "fresh" rating from the online film database Rotten Tomatoes.
Other film projects include:
- The Business of Fancydancing (writer and director, 2002)
- 49? (writer, 2003)
- The Exiles (presenter, 2008)
- Sonicsgate (participant, 2009)
Awards and honors
- National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship
- PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction for the story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
- Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award
- American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation) for Reservation Blues
- Granta Magazine: Twenty Best American Novelists Under the Age of 40
- New York Times Notable Book for Indian Killer
- People Magazine: Best of Pages
- The New Yorker: 20 Writers for the 21st Century
- National Book Award, Young People's Literature, for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- American Library Association Odyssey Award as the year's "best audiobook for children or young adults", read by Alexie (Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC, 2008, ISBN 1-4361-2490-5)
- PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances
- Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award
- Puterbaugh Award ", the first American Puterbaugh fellow
- California Young Reader Medal for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- List of writers from peoples indigenous to the Americas
- Native American Renaissance
- Native American studies
- "In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders", Eric Konigsberg, The New York Times, October 20, 2009.
- American Booksellers Association (2013). "The American Book Awards / Before Columbus Foundation [1980–2012]". BookWeb. Archived from the original on March 13, 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-25. "1996 [...] Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie"
- "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation (NBF). Retrieved 2012-04-15.
(With acceptance speech by Alexie, interview with Alexie, and other material, partly replicated for all five Young People's Literature authors and books.)
- "Odyssey Award winners and honor audiobooks, 2008-present". ALSC. ALA. Retrieved 2012-04-19.
- "Sherman Alexie wins 2010 Pen/Faulkner fiction prize for War Dances". Jacqueline Trescott. The Washington Post, March 24, 2010. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
- Johansen, Bruce E. (2010). Native Americans today : a biographical dictionary. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Press. pp. 7–10. ISBN 978-0-313-35554-7.
- Alexie, Sherman (May 28, 2012). "Twitter: Sherman_Alexie : Elizabeth Warren is as close to her Indian ancestors as I am to my 19th Century Russian furtrapping great-grandfather.". Twitter.com. Retrieved 2013-06-14.
- Quirk, Sarah A. (2003). "Sherman Alexie (7 October 1966-)". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Seventh 278: 3–10. Retrieved 2012-04-07.
- Cline, Lynn (2000). "About Sherman Alexie". Ploughshares 26 (4): 197. Retrieved 2012-04-05.
- "Sherman Alexie". Authors and Artists for Young Adults 28. 1999. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
- "Sherman Alexie". Encyclopedia of World Biography. 1998. Retrieved 2012-04-08.
- "Sherman Alexie". Authors and Artists for Young Adults 85. 2011. Retrieved 2012-04-05.
- "A Conversation With Sherman Alexie". Blue Mesa Review. Blue Mesa Review. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- Official Sherman Alexie website
- "About Us: What is Longhouse Media?". Longhouse Media.
- Ettlinger, Marian. "Sherman Alexie". Salem Press. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- "The Toughest Indian in the World (review)". Retrieved 2011-09-20.
- "Without Reservation: Blasphemy (review)". Retrieved 2012-11-25.
- "Smoke Signals". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2013-04-02.
- "Winners". California Young Reader Medal. Retrieved 2011-05-08.
- Other sources
- Alexie, Sherman; Bill Clinton and Jim Lehrer. "A Dialogue on Race with President Clinton". News Hour. July 9, 1998.
- Nygren, Åse. "A World of Story-Smoke: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie." MELUS 30.4 (Winter 2005): 149-69.
- West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. ""Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie". Cineaste 23.4 (Fall 1998): 29-33.[dead link]
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Sherman Alexie|
- Official website
- Sherman Alexie at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Sherman Alexie at the Internet Movie Database
- Voice of the New Tribes article by Duncan Campbell in "The Guardian" January 3, 2003
- Sherman Alexie's poem "Punch" in Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts (24.1).
- Berglund, Jeff and Jan Roush, eds. Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays, (2010) ISBN 978-1-60781-008-7.
- Sherman Alexie at Library of Congress Authorities, with 26 catalog records
- "Sherman Alexie" by Robert Capriccioso, Identity Theory, published March 23, 2003
- "Sherman Alexie" by Joelle Fraser, Iowa Review, copyright 2001
- "Northwest Passages: Sherman Alexie" by Emily Harris, Think Out Loud, Oregon Public Broadcasting, broadcast October 8, 2009
- "Interview With Sherman Alexie" as 2007 National Book Award winner, by Rita Williams-Garcia
- "No More Playing Dead for American Indian Filmmaker Sherman Alexie" by Rita Kempley, The Washington Post, July 3, 1998
- "Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Cultural Borders" by Bill Moyers, broadcast April 12, 2013 — with "Dig Deeper" on Alexie's life, work, and influence