Sherman Alexie was once quoted as saying, “Indians call each other Indians. Native American is a guilty white liberal thing." This simple statement reveals much about Alexie’s attitude toward a culture that he is both an implicit part of and also an outsider from. This questioning of reality and his place in modern American “white" society is the basis for a substantial amount of Sherman Alexie’s work. Sherman Alexie cannot be classified in a single genre of contemporary literary pursuits. He has written throughout his life not only poetry, but also short stories, novels and screenplays as well as being an editor, a musician, a lecturer, a movie producer and director and even currently a stand-up comic. With all of these credits, Sherman Alexie can easily be considered a contemporary Renaissance man. Much of Sherman Alexie’s work deals with disparate images of America and challenges the contemporary social perceptions of American history. His own struggle to reconcile his different identities, that of his Indian ethnicity and his American education, can be seen in many of his works as well as the question of what is America and who makes history.
Sherman Alexie was diagnosed shortly after birth with hydrocephalus, which essentially means he had water on the brain. He was not expected to survive, but underwent a brain operation at 6 months of age. Beating the odds, Sherman Alexie survived the operation, but doctors still expected him to suffer from severe mental retardation. Surprisingly, he showed no signs of retardation, although he did suffer from severe side effects as a result of the operation, such as violent seizures, throughout his childhood. Despite all of these negative experiences, Sherman Alexie was an impressively quick learner. He began to read at the age of three, and not just children’s books either. He tore through novels such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath by the age of five, resulting in his being a kind of outcast in comparison with the other children. His local peers often ostracized him for his intelligence throughout his youth.
Sherman Alexie originally attended school on the reservation, but decided as a teenager to leave after finding his own mother’s name in one of his textbooks, meaning, of course, that they had been teaching with the same book for over thirty years. Sherman Alexie at this point made a conscious decision to attend school in nearby Reardan, Washington to gain a better education. He was a diligent student and a star player on the basketball team. Upon graduation, Sherman Alexie attended Gonzaga University and after two years there, he transferred to Washington State University. Sherman Alexie originally planned to become a doctor, but he fainted several times in anatomy class fueling his desire and need for a career change. Luckily, Sherman Alexie happened upon a poetry workshop through the University and, with encouragement from the poetry teacher, Alex Kuo, began to polish his writing until he gained enough confidence in his talent that he believed he had found his new career.
Sherman Alexie soon graduated from WSU with a degree in American Studies. He received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992. The last was received inside of one year after he graduated from Washington State. His first two poetry collections, The Business of Fancydancing and I Would Steal Horses, were published one year after his graduation and inspired him to quit drinking, as he had become an alcoholic throughout college. He had just turned 23 years old at this time.
This was the beginning of a long and prolific career that would go on to span the ranges of literature, film, movies, publishing and comedy. Sherman Alexie’s first collection of short stories, entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was published in 1993 and was awarded both a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and a Lila Wallace- Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. The accolades continued to quickly roll in as his life went on. For his first novel, Reservation Blues, published in 1995, he received the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award and the Murray Morgan Prize as well as being name one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Another novel published later that year entitled Indian Killer also was declared a New York Times notable.
Sherman Alexie moved into music in 1996, collaborating with musician Jim Boyd to create songs for the book Reservation Blues and also toured with Boyd and the Indigo Girls at a concert to benefit the Honor the Earth Foundation. Alexie has appeared on the Jim Lehrer News Hour for a panel discussion on race in America, Politically Incorrect, 60 Minutes, NOW with Bill Moyers, for which he wrote about his writing process and insomnia in a peace called “up all night." In 2003, Sherman Alexie returned to WSU as speaker for the commencement ceremonies. The university then presented him with their highest honor for alumni, the Regent’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.