Sherman Alexie began his writing career in 1992 as a poet and short story author. Being a Native American, he has had to live through many expectations and stereotypes placed on him and his writing. A highly intelligent writer, we find that he has fought Native American stereotypes his entire life. Not only that, he has fought the self-image reflected by those stereotypes and has come out ahead in the end. He has published seventeen books and expects his first young adult novel to be published in 2007 (Biography).
His stories are witty and refreshing, leaving nothing out when he comments on the lives of Americans from every sect. Not all stories revolve around Native American themes, but each one does involve that facet of his identity in some form or another. Alexie comments on everything from white Native American Literature professors, to school age children fighting over being too Indian or not Indian enough, to Modern Business men who just happen to have an ancestry in common with the teller of the tale and the list goes on…
In discovering the influences on this prolific writer of only forty years, he personally claims the poet Alex Kuo has had the greatest impact on his life. (Biography). According to Alexie’s essay entitled, “I hated Tonto (Still Do)”, Alexie shares the impact of Indian portrayal in film as having the greatest impact on his own sense of self. “I was a little Spokane Indian boy who read every book and saw every movie about Indians, no matter how terrible. I’d read those historical romance novels about the stereotypical Indian warrior ravaging the virginal white schoolteacher.” Growing up with these images in his own mind, and thus understanding how the world viewed Native Americans, Alexie uses these concepts and struggles against them in his works. “After all, such luminary white actors as Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, Burt Reynolds, Burt Lancaster, Sal Mineo, Anthony Quinn and Charlton Heston had already portrayed Indians, so who were we to argue,” (I Hated Tonto (Still Do)?
The sarcasm in Alexie’s works come across loud and clear, the American view of Indian culture has been flawed from the very beginning. With many literary critics insisting the oral tradition impacts all Indian authors, Alexie lets it fly in an interview with John and Carl Bellante,” People keep asking me how my work is influenced by the oral tradition… I always say, ‘Well, my writing has nothing to do with the oral tradition, because I typed it,’” (Newton, 413). Newton goes on to say Alexie embraces urban culture and solidifies the view of Native Americans in the real world. “The image is reclaimed by Alexie as image, thick with its history of use and abuse, the banality and trauma which are infused in its ‘heavy lightness’ and which prime it for redeployment in the long siege of postmodern decolonization,” (Newton, 427).
“Alexie mentions the literary influences of Adrien C. Louis, Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, and Scott Momaday,” (McFarland, 255). All of the above mentioned authors are Native American, all are brutally honest in their sharing of native life in the United States of today. Unlike the above-mentioned authors, Alexie has become a phenomenon of sorts. One collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was re-written into a screenplay by Alexie himself. The movie, Smoke Signals won numerous awards at the Sundance Film Festival and placed a semi-flame of notoriety in Alexie’s hands.
This influence of fame incites Alexie’s sarcasm and political satire. Although Sherman Alexie considers himself a poet (Biography), he is most widely known for the short stories he writes. Soon after the success of Smoke Signals, his collection of poems entitled, The Business of Fancy Dancing brought the Native world even further into today, with the narrator eventually announcing his homosexuality and then returning to the reservation to deal with it. “The power of Alexie’s poems comes from the world at hand,” (McFarland, 259). The contrast between what readers not familiar to his works anticipate from a Native story and what Alexie delivers is drastic.
Sherman Alexie takes the world he actually lives in; the world he knows personally, and creates Native American-based fictional pieces that shatter the stereotypes of John Ford films and dime store novels.
I know of at least one Indian boy who always imagined himself to be a cinematic Indian warrior. Me. I watched the movies and saw the kind of Indian I was supposed to be. A cinematic Indian is supposed to climb mountains. I am afraid of heights. A cinematic Indian is supposed to wade into streams and sing songs. I don’t know how to swim. A cinematic Indian is supposed to be a warrior. I haven’t been in a fistfight since sixth grade and she beat the crap out of me. I mean, I knew I could never be as brave, as strong, as wiser as visionary, as white as the Indians in the movies. I was just one little Indian boy who hated Tonto because Tonto was the only cinematic Indian who looked like me. (Biography)
He holds himself up and says that yes – he is Native American, and yes – he did grow up on a reservation, but this does not separate him from the modern world. He lives in the same time and place as his (mainly) Caucasian readers. Although the Native heritage is his alone, readers can see the influence they have had on his life, and the lives of other Native Americans. His humor makes fun of white-idealized Indian life, yet people buy the books again and again.
Alexie, Sherman. “Biography.” Sherman Alexie.com Retrieved December 9, 2006 from ;www.fallsapart.com/biography.html;
Alexie, Sherman. “I Hated Tonto (Still Do).” The Los Angeles Times 28 June 1998. Retrieved on December 9, 2006 from ;http://www.fallsapart.com/tonto.html;
Newton, John. “Sherman Alexie’s Autoethnography.” Contemporary Literature 42.2 (Summer, 2001): 413-428.
McFarland, Ron. “’Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie’s Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21.2 (Spring, 1997): 251-264.