American Literature Sherman Alexie
Leah Sneider
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0113


Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He attended the off-reservation school and Gonzaga University but graduated with a degree in American studies from Washington State University in 1991. He discovered Native American writers while in college and was most influenced by the poet Adrian Louis, particularly his concept of the “reservation of the mind.” As a result of such influences and the realities of reservation life, he gave up drinking at the age of twenty-three, but alcohol abuse remains prominent in much of his work, along with complex themes centered on gender, sexuality, intergenerational trauma, and the urban-versus-reservation experience. He is also known for his formal experimentation and remarkable versatility across genres, which allow him to connect to a wide range of readers internationally. He first began writing poetry and then moved into short and then longer fiction. Several of his stories have appeared in the New Yorker. He has also written and produced screenplays derived from his stories, and he is currently working on a documentary project focused on his own experiences with hydrocephalus. His 1993 collection of stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won a PEN/Hemingway Award for best first book of fiction. He also won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award for Reservation Blues (1995), his first novel, the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for War Dances (2009), the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), and the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for his screenplay for the film Smoke Signals. Alexie is best known for his biting sense of humor and his satirical depictions of “Indianness,” which have caused much concern and heated discussion among critics, scholars, and Native and non-Native readers but has also broadened an understanding of contemporary Native American experiences. He is considered the most consumer-centered Native American author, with an appeal to a wider (i.e., “whiter”) audience. He is also known for his public appearances, which are more comedy performance than traditional readings.

Primary Texts

Included here is a brief selection of Alexie’s most discussed works, including his novels Reservation Blues (Alexie 1995), Indian Killer (Alexie 1996), and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Alexie 2007), his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Alexie 1993), and a collection of interviews with him (Peterson 2009).

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

    His most prominent and taught collection, from which the film Smoke Signals derives. The collection revisits some common characters, including Thomas-Builds-The-Fire and Victor Joseph. The stories resonate with the struggle and humor of reservation life and the daily conflicts between men and women, white and Indian, off-reservation and on-reservation Indians, and modern and traditional Indians. Alexie added two new stories and an introduction to the 2005 edition from Grove Press.

  • Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.

    Alexie’s first novel depicts the experiences of a Spokane rock-and-roll band. Some of the characters explored in later work first appear in this novel, such as Thomas Builds-The-Fire, the geeky storyteller and representative of tradition, and Victor Joseph, the basketball star and contemporary cynic of all things Native.

  • Alexie, Sherman. Indian Killer. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

    Alexie’s second and most troubling novel is about an Indian man raised by a white family coming to terms with his identity. The man, John Smith, becomes a serial killer in the Seattle area who scalps white men. The novel provides more insight into racism than it does actually solve the murder mystery. The novel was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

  • Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Art by Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown, 2007.

    Alexie’s award-winning and controversial young adult novel tells the story of a young Spokane boy struggling to overcome his own differences on the reservation by going to school off the reservation, while learning about history, expectations, and his own potential. The controversy centers on issues of race and sexuality.

  • Peterson, Nancy J., ed. Conversations with Sherman Alexie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

    An excellent collection of interviews and conversations useful for firsthand perspectives of Alexie’s work, including his personal sense of wit and wisdom.

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