InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Sherman Alexie (Spokane_Coeur d'Alene)
(b. 1966)

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 in Wellpinit, Washington, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Born hydrocephalic, Alexie underwent brain surgery at the age of six months. Although the surgery was successful, he experienced seizures throughout his childhood. Alexie was a voracious reader, reading Steinbeck by the age of five and finishing all the books in the Wellpinit library by the age of twelve. He attended Reardon High School, an all-white school just outside the reservation, where, ironically, he played basketball for the Reardon “Indians.” He attended Gonzaga University in Spokane and eventually graduated from Washington State University with a degree in American Studies. He battled alcoholism during this time and became sober at the age of twenty-three.

Alexie first encountered contemporary American Indian literature in college. Reading about his own experiences in poems and stories was a life-changing experience. After reading this line from a poem by Paiute poet Adrian Louis, “I’m in the reservation of my mind,” Alexie felt that somebody understood him, and he knew that he would begin writing. That was in 1989. Three years later, Alexie’s first book of poetry, The Business of Fancydancing, was published by Hanging Loose Press and received a tremendous amount of critical attention from Native American as well as non-Indian critics. Joy Harjo, renowned Creek poet, called Alexie “one of the most vital writers to emerge in the late twentieth century.” After the New York Times Book Review hailed Alexie as “one of the major lyric voices of our time” and the New York Times Book Review declared Fancydancing the 1992 Notable Book of the Year, Alexie’s career sky-rocketed. Since then, he has published nine books of poetry and four books of fiction and has won numerous awards, including the 1993 Lila Wallace–Readers’ Digest Writers’ Award, the 1993 PEN/Hemingway Best First Book of Fiction Citation for The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and the 1996 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award. He was also named one of the Twenty Best American Novelists Under the Age of 40 by Granta Magazine in 1997 and one of Twenty Writers for the 21st Century by the New Yorker in 1999.

Alexie is perhaps best known for the movie Smoke Signals, the screenplay of which he adapted from his short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” from 1993’s Lone Ranger and Tonto. Smoke Signals was the first movie written, directed, and produced entirely by American Indians. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy for Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre.

Alexie is a significant writer and a controversial figure, known for his brutally honest depictions of contemporary reservation life and razor sharp wit. His goal is to challenge and poke fun at traditional stereotypes of American Indian people. In poems about basketball on the reservation and stories such as “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” he drives home the point that American Indian people are not trapped in the nineteenth century but are members of living, vital cultures and, furthermore, participants in and part of American popular culture. Alexie takes his responsibilities as a Native American writer seriously, realizing that he is a political spokesperson for native peoples, like it or not; he participated in President Clinton’s roundtable discussion on race. He frequently attacks non-natives who write about Native Americans or appropriate Native American themes. He receives much criticism for his viewpoints but remains outspoken and unapologetic.

Alexie currently lives in Seattle with his wife, Diane, a member of the Hidatsa Nation, and their son. He shows no signs of slowing his pace and is working on screenplays, in addition to his fiction and poetry.

Amanda J. Cobb
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology
Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock (1993)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
IMAGE fileJimi Hendrix performing at Woodstock

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Modern American Poetry
Some primary materials, an analytical essay on Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians, historical context and many other resources.

Native American Authors Project
Links and a list of works.

Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie
An interview conducted by Dennis West and Joan M. West, originally published in Cineaste v23, n4 (Fall, 1998):28.

The Official Sherman Alexie Site
A vast resource, this site provides information about his current, previous and future projects, a biography, interviews, a special forum for students, and more.

Secondary Sources

Jennifer Gillian, "Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie's Poetry, American Literature 68 (1996): 91-110

"Sherman Alexie" [Special Issue] Studies in American Indian Literatures 9.4 (1997)

Brill de Ramirez and Susan Berry, Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition, 1999