Sherman Alexie became an overnight literary success in 1991, when his poetry collection The Business of Fancydancing was published by an independent press. Alexie was 26 years old at the time. The English scholar James Kincaid published a positive review of the collection in The New York Times as part of a survey of contemporary Native American literature, which brought Alexie a great deal of attention from mainstream publishers and agents. Alexie followed up The Business of Fancydancing with this collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which consists of 30 to 40 stories that Alexie had mostly written prior to Fancydancing.
Published in 1993, The Lone Ranger and Tonto includes 22 stories about life on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Many central characters - most notably Victor Joseph, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and Norma Many Horses - appear in multiple stories. The stories often refer to plot events in other stories, meaning that in some respects, the collection is more like a novel than a traditional book of short stories. Like much of Alexie's fiction, this collection addresses the many serious problems that modern Native Americans face, including alcoholism, poverty, racism, limited educational opportunities, and geographical isolation. When the book was first released, Alexie insisted that it was not autobiographical, although in the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition, he admits that he "was full of shit. The book is a thinly disguised memoir" (xix).
The tenth-anniversary edition was released in 2003, and it is the version that is most easily available today. The 2003 edition includes two stories - Flight" and "Junior Polatkin's Wild West Show" - that were cut from the original printing. In the new edition's introduction, Alexie explains that "Junior Polatkin's Wild West Show" was cut because its themes were already addressed elsewhere in the collection, and that "Flight" was cut because of its similarities to children's literature. Ironically, Alexie would publish two well-received young adult novels in 2007 - Flight and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was adapted into a film called Smoke Signals in 1998. The film is primarily based on "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona", although it incorporates characters, themes, and plot events from other stories as well.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven refers to Native Americans almost exclusively as 'Indians', a term that is controversial in some circles. The Summary sections of this ClassicNote use the word Indian because that is the term used in the text.