Sherman Alexie's first book, The Business of Fancydancing, was published in 1992 by an independent press, and Alexie was 26 years old at the time. His work received critical acclaim and attracted 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 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 many serious challenges faced by the Spokane nation and other Indigenous communities, including alcohol use disorder, poverty, racism, limited educational opportunities, and geographical isolation. When the book was first released, Alexie stated that it was not autobiographical, although in the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition, he wrote that he "was full of shit. The book is a thinly disguised memoir" (xix).
The tenth-anniversary edition, released in 2003, 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. 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.
Note: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven refers to its characters almost exclusively as 'Indians.' Many Indigenous people choose to refer to themselves this way. However, the word has been used as a slur by non-Indigenous people for centuries, and many feel that while tribe members may use the term themselves, its use by outsiders is inappropriate (e.g. Gupta, 2020; Sully, 2020). The Summary sections of this ClassicNote use the word 'Indian' to reflect the terminology used by Alexie and his characters and to respect the integrity of their voices. Other sections use 'Indigenous' and 'Native American' when not referring to a specific nation.