Winner of Washington State Arts Commission poetry and National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships, Sherman Alexie (born 1966) has published poems, stories, translations, and several books.
Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Winner of a 1991 Washington State Arts Commission poetry fellowship and a 1992 National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, Alexie has published more than two hundred poems, stories, and translations in publications such as Another Chicago Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Black Bear Review, Caliban, Journal of Ethnic Studies, Hanging Loose Press, New York Quarterly, Red Dirt, Slipstream, ZYZZYVA, and others. His first book of poetry and short stories, The Business of Fancydancing was published by Hanging Loose Press in January 1992 and quickly earned a favorable front-page review from The New York Times Book Review. This first poetry book was the result of poems and stories written in Alexie's first creative writing workshop at Washington State University in Pullman. Alexie soon published a second collection, I Would Steal Horses, which was the winner of Slipstream's fifth annual Chapbook Contest in March 1992. In January 1993, he published a third poetry book, Old Shirts and New Skins (UCLA American Indian Studies Center). By early 1993, Alexie had written three books. Atlantic Monthly Press contracted to publish a collection of Alexie's short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was published to much critical acclaim. The short stories in this collection, like many of Alexie's other works, reveal his awareness of the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that is an unescapable part of the daily life of many Native Americans. Alexie poignantly stated: "[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."
While growing up in Wellpinit, Alexie read everything he could get his hands on, including auto repair manuals in the public library. He had aspirations of becoming a doctor until fainting three times in a high school anatomy class and deciding that an early career change was in order. He attended college for a while, but before dropping out, over 200 of his poems had been published. Alexie often refers to his writing as "fancydancing," a name given the changes Native American veterans of World War II made to their traditional dances. Through the early 1990s many of Alexie's characters were wrought with hopelessness fueled by alcohol. By 1995 however the thrust of his writing was beginning to change and People called his then just-published Reservation Blues " … a high-flying, humor spiked tale of culture and assimilation." Alexie told People that although many regard Native Americans as overly stoic, humor in fact is an essential part of their culture. In 1996 Alexie's next novel, Indian Killer, was released to favorable reviews. A thriller stocked with a cast of Indian characters representing facets of Native American culture, the novel presents a gripping mystery as well as historical facts and Indian myths. Judith Bolton-Fasman in the Christian Science Monitor commented, "Alexie has profound things to say about the identity and the plight of the American Indian" through his characters.
Although Alexie's writing is often emotionally cathartic, he writes for his people as well as for himself. In a 1995 interview he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he cherishes the difference his stories and poems have made in the lives of reservation Indians and he continues to write for this audience. Alexie feels that many Native American writers focus on the angst of Native Americans living in urban settings and the reservation Indians, who play prominent roles in his stories and poetry, are unfortunately ignored. Alexie told an audience of writers at the Native American Journalists Association that only American Indian writers can write of their people as only they, regardless of the sincerity of non-Indian writers, have the empathy and the intrinsic awareness of their people's emotions, lives, and humor. □