A Look at the Life of Author Sherman Alexie

Spokane-Coeur d'Alene Writer and Filmmaker

Chase Jarvis / Grove Atlantic

Sherman Alexie is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and filmmaker who has published 25 books. Born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wa., Alexie has been a key contributor to Indigenous Nationalism literature, drawing on his experiences with ancestry from several tribes. 

Birth: October 7, 1966

Full Name: Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.

Early Life

Sherman Alexie, the son a Spokane Indian mother and a Coeur d’Alene Indian father, was born hydrocephalic (with water on the brain) and at six months underwent a brain operation from which he was not expected to survive. He did more than that. Despite the resulting childhood seizures, Alexie turned out to be an advanced reader and was purportedly reading novels like ​The Grapes of Wrath at the age of five.

As a teenager enrolled in the reservation schools, Alexie found his mother's name written in a textbook assigned to him. Determined not to spend his life on the reservation, he sought a better education at the high school in Reardan, Washington, where he was a top student and a star basketball player. Upon graduation in 1985, Alexie attended Gonzaga University on a scholarship from which he transferred to Washington State University after two years to study pre-med.

Fainting spells in anatomy class convinced Alexie to change his major, a decision reinforced by a love of poetry and an aptitude for writing. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in American Studies and shortly thereafter received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.

As a young man, Alexie struggled with alcoholism but gave up drinking at the age of 23 and has been sober since.

Literary and Film Work

Alexie's first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) won him a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction. He followed up with a first novel, Reservation Blues (1995) and a second, Indian Killer (1996), both award winners. In 2010, Alexie was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for his short story collection, War Dances.

Alexie, whose work draws mainly from his experiences as a Native American both on and off the reservation, collaborated in 1997 with Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian filmmaker. The pair rewrote one of Alexie's short stories, "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," into a screenplay. The resulting film, Smoke Signals, premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win several awards. Alexie went on to write and direct The Business of Fancydancing in 2002, wrote 49? in 2003, presented The Exiles in 2008 and participated in Sonicsgate in 2009.


Sherman Alexie is the recipient of numerous literary and artistic awards. He was a World Poetry Bout Association champion for four consecutive years, and a guest editor of the literary journal Ploughshares; his short story "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" was selected by juror Ann Patchett as her favorite story for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005. During the same year ​that he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for War Dances in 2010, he was awarded the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award, became the first American Puterbaugh Fellow, and earned the California Young Reader Medal for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Alexie lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons.