It was forty-seven years ago today, on October 7th, 1966, that Sherman Alexie was born in a Sacred Heart Hospital on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wa. He survived hydrocephalus in infancy, seizures in his childhood, and alcoholism in adulthood before emerging as a famed poet, writer, and filmmaker known for his irony, dark humor, and hard-hitting social commentary.
I had the privilege of seeing Sherman Alexie at MSUM’s Hanson Theatre back on September 12th. Not surprisingly, the place was packed with audience members who clapped and cheered loudly when he came on stage. In a presentation that was equal parts hilarious, moving, and thought-provoking, Alexie had the audience hanging on his every word as he talked about “things white people don’t think about,” such as racism, classism, and white privilege. Along the way he coined funny terms such as “post-traumatic racism syndrome” and “anticipating-racism-goofy face,” the latter which he apparently donned on his first-class flight to North Dakota.
Despite being acclaimed as a powerful voice and chronicler of the Native American experience, Alexie claimed he’s been told that he doesn’t look Indian, to which he responds, yes, he doesn’t resemble the white actors that played Indians in those old Spaghetti Western films. He also poked fun at the romanticized notion that Indians are “spiritual shamans” that are in tune with nature and can communicate with animals. On the contrary, Alexie said, “I have yet to meet anyone who spoke to an animal and understood anything the animal said.”
In the midst of his jokes, anecdotes, and insights, what his presentation boiled down to was that, in his words, “The problem with both Indians and white people is that we think we are normal.” Rather, these two ethnic groups are more alike than they are different; thus, he said, “the sad thing about racism is that it’s based on surface stuff.” It’s that “surface stuff” that Alexie is working to debunk—myths, stereotypes, and preconceived notions—through his work.
Among his awards are the American Book Award for his first novel, Reservation Blues, back in 1996; the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; and the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for War Dances, his collection of short stories and poems. Some of his best known works are The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, his 1993 short story collection, and Smoke Signals, a 1998 film based on a story in that collection. His work has also been published in several literary magazines, journals, online publications, and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories 2004.
Happy birthday, Sherman Alexie. Don’t show any signs of slowing down.
Image: Sherman Alexie, photo by Will Austen, courtesy of FallsApart Productions.