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Sherman Joseph Alexie Jr Biography

indian york press reservation

Nationality: American. Born: Spokane, Washington, 7 October 1966. Education: Gonzaga University, 1985-87; Washington State University, B.A. 1991. Awards: Poetry fellow, Washington State Arts Commission, 1991; National Endowment for the Arts, 1992; winner, Slipstream's fifth annual chapbook contest, March 1992; American Book Award, 1996.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Reservation Blues. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.

Indian Killer. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996; New York, Warner Books, 1998.

Short Stories

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York, AtlanticMonthly Press, 1993; New York, Harper Perennial, 1994.

The Toughest Indian in the World: Stories. New York, AtlanticMonthly Press, 2000.

Poetry

I Would Steal Horses. Niagara Falls, New York, Slipstream, 1992.

The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems. Brooklyn, NewYork, Hanging Loose Press, 1992.

First Indian on the Moon. Brooklyn, New York, Hanging LoosePress, 1992.

Old Shirts & New Skins. Los Angeles, University of CaliforniaAmerican Indian Studies Center, 1993.

Water Flowing Home: Poems. Boise, Idaho, Limberlost Press, 1994.

Seven Mourning Songs for the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play. Walla Walla, Washington, Whitman College Press, 1994.

The Summer of Black Widows. Brooklyn, New York, Hanging LoosePress, 1996.

The Man Who Loves Salmon. Boise, Idaho, Limberlost Press, 1998.

One Stick Song. Brooklyn, New York, Hanging Loose Press, 1999.

Play

Smoke Signals, with introduction and notes by the author, New York, Hyperion, 1998.

* * *

Sherman Alexie, whose works repeatedly underscore the importance of retaining tribal connections, draws on the oral, religious, and political traditions of his Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian heritage. The wandering story lines of his novels reflect non-mainstream organizational structures, approaches, and attitudes as they shift time settings (mythical, historical, and modern), place, and person to gradually reveal tribal, family, and personal connections in keeping with the Native American philosophical framework, the web of life. As in oral tradition, Alexie's narratives aim for sudden, brief insights as connections that initially elude readers gradually take meaningful shape over time; their humor is dark, and their goal, in part, is to debunk what Alexie sees as political and cultural myths. Alexie, who began his writing career as a small press poet, asserts that, for the reservation Indian, imagination, given impetus by anger, is the only way to survive a life of despair worsened by alcoholism, abuse, poverty, diabetes, and economic dead ends.

"Distances," one of 22 intertwined stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), typifies the crossover vision of intersecting times as Alexie's modern characters successfully reenact the failed nineteenth-century Plains Indian Ghost Dance. Historically, the dance was a desperate attempt to make whites disappear and to return the land to a pre-Columbian utopian state, yet it failed, bringing down on the heads of its practitioners the full weight of the U.S. Cavalry. Alexie's dystopian vision captures the futility of yearning for a return to the past: if modern technology and anyone with white blood were willed away, as the Ghost Dance promised, who and what would be left on the reservations? The assimilated would be without homes or transportation, food or clothing. In Alexie's apocalyptic tale tribes would be separated into the "Skins," or reservation Indians, and the "Urbans," or Indian outsiders, but such precautions would fail because even the pure bloods carry in their bloodstreams the taint of white diseases, so many would sicken and die. Even though hunter-gatherers who have been dead a thousand years are reborn, and their women give birth to salmon, life remains a dead end for Native Americans. At the close of Indian Killer (1998), the main character, who is possibly a schizophrenic serial killer, leads Seattle's native street people in a Ghost Dance that depopulates Seattle.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues (1994) illustrate the interconnectedness of life through three shared interlocking central characters: storyteller and self-proclaimed visionary Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his companions Junior and Victor, a former reservation-wide basketball hero and a semi-re-formed alcoholic. (These young men appear in the 1998 film Smoke Signals, loosely based on the two novels.) Reservation Blues places pop music (blues and rock-and-roll) in the role of traditional storytelling as Thomas and his friends, aided by the magic guitar of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, form the band Coyote Springs and recreate the world through their music. Before their recording session with U.S. Cavalry generals Sheridan and Wright, reincarnated as recording executives, the young musicians seek a vision on a mountain presided over by Big Mom, a Spokane Indian mystic whose personal history has been forever marked by the slaughter of 900 horses by the United States Cavalry in 1861. Since Mom has been the spiritual guide of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Benny Goodman, among others, the American blues, infused with the Indian spirit, echoes the "Reservation Blues" of the title. Alexie playfully and critically juxtaposes New Age groupies with the plight of a fishing people stuck in a land where all the rivers have been dammed. In The Lone Ranger, the reservation storyteller, like the Coyote Band and like their creator, uses his art to recreate the world and make daily life less bleak. As Thomas accompanies Victor to bring Victor's dead father's pickup and ashes home, the road that leads away from home also leads back to the past and forward to the future; the native Creation story, the mother goddess, and Coyote link all in the web of life.

Indian Killer (1998), a murder mystery of sorts, includes a cast of characters whose personal histories intersect in Seattle, Washington, in the late 1980s. The novel relies on an intentionally confrontational narrative voice, that of a displaced urban Indian, ironically named John Smith, whose adoption has left him without tribal roots and with no way to regain the tribal knowledge that Alexie believes is essential to his identity, despite his foster parents' attempts to educate him about native ways. A disturbed schizophrenic, he is beset on every side by racial and cultural stereotypes: white liberals suffering collective guilt for past wrongs; redneck Indian haters; homeless native drunks; cruel fathers. Alexie offers hazy visions of white doctors ripping John from his Indian mother's womb and armed men rushing him to his white adoptive parents. In retaliation for his foster parents' inadequacy, Smith kills and scalps random whites, though greedy rednecks are responsible for the most publicized death he is accused of (hence the intentional confusion inherent in the title: an Indian who kills or a killer of Indians?). Alexie mocks whites who universalize and romanticize Indians into something they are not, and he sympathizes with Indian characters like Maria, who runs a mobile sandwich kitchen for homeless Indians and attacks the white myths promulgated in local university courses. The detective story's genre conventions (investigating a crime, establishing culpability) take second place to Alexie's message that well-meaning whites cannot make up for their ancestors' genocide and that it is too late to rectify past wrongs: What has been destroyed—the native way of life and belief—can never be fully regained. Thus, many of his Indians are alcoholics and drug abusers, madmen, or ineffectual poseurs.

Alexie's first two works of fiction balance alienation and defeatism with laughter, but his third focuses only on gratuitous acts of violence and self-destruction. His collection of short stories The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), with its heartbreaking tales of hope and love amid pain and chaos, seems to be an emotional counter to the negativism of Indian Killer. Alexie offers readers vivid images of reservation life, some irreverent humor, and a distinctive perspective that he particularizes as his own Spokane/Coeur d'Alene voice. He admits that his characters contain bits and pieces of himself, and he worries that, given the statistical brevity of the lives of reservation males, his time of creativity is limited.

—Gina Macdonald

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