Biography of Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is an award-winning author, poet, and filmmaker of Native American descent. Alexie's work is primarily concerned with issues of contemporary Native American identity.

Alexie was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, to Sherman Joseph Alexie and Lillian Agnes Cox. He is of Coeur d’Alene, Colville, Flathead, Spokane, and Caucasian descent.

In his early life, Alexie's health was poor. He was born with Hydrocephalus (commonly referred to as “water on the brain”), a serious medical condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain cavities, resulting in head enlargement and possible mental disability and death. Though he underwent successful surgery when he was six months old, Alexie was frequently mocked for his enlarged head in school. As a young man on the reservation, he was often excluded from physical activities because he suffered from seizures and was prescribed strong medication.

Despite his difficulties, Alexie excelled academically and eventually enrolled in the local public high school outside the reservation. There, his successes in the classroom and on the basketball court earned him a scholarship to Gonzaga University in 1985. He would later transfer to Washington State University in 1987, after forgoing the studies of medicine and law. Unsure of his career path, Alexie attended literature classes at his new university and found his life’s calling under the tutelage of Professor Alex Kuo, a noted poet and author who served as Alexie’s literary mentor.

Under Kuo’s influence, Alexie began writing. He published The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems in 1992. In 2002, it was adapted into a film that Alexie wrote and directed; it received mixed reviews. His first prose work, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published in 1993 and received the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction. This novel was followed by its sequel, Reservation Blues, in 1995, which won the 1996 American Book Award. Alexie's acclaimed film, Smoke Signals, was produced in 1998 and based in part on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

In 2007, Alexie published The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This semi-autobiographical novel won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Like the novel's main character Junior, Alexie suffered from the same illness, bullying, and high school experiences. Also like his character, Alexie's father was an alcoholic. This impacted the author's life significantly, and the effects of alcoholism on the rez is a common theme in all Alexie's novels. Alexie himself did not turn to alcohol, but he saw how inebriation watered down his family and friends' aspirations.

Alexie’s other novels for young adults include Indian Killer, published in 1996, and Flight, published in 2007. Alexie has produced several other short story and poetry collections, including War Dances, which won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 2010, Alexie was also awarded the Native Writers Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award.

Alexie currently lives in Seattle with his family.

Study Guides on Works by Sherman Alexie

Flight was written by Sherman Alexie and published in 2007 by Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Press. A magical realist novel, it tells the story of a troubled Native American teen who has reached his breaking point after years of abuse at the hands...