The Toughest Indian In The World

Writer Sherman Alexie Mixes Humor With His Anger

American Indian author Sherman Alexie doesn't like the term "Native American." A poet, short-story writer, novelist and screenwriter, he rejects the name, saying that "native American" can mean anyone born in America. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey profiles the opinionated Alexie, who is both very angry and very funny.

Alexie has a novel take on why Indians lost out to Europeans. "White people did not defeat Indians in the war because you were better fighters. You were not better fighters...but the thing is you beat us because you kept showing up at dawn. What is that? It's Custer. Ahh, he better be bringing lattes," says Alexie, whose latest book is called The Toughest Indian in the World.

Alexie was in fine form on a book tour earlier this year.

On The Writer's Trail

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Watch Web exclusive clips shot by 60 Minutes II.

The writer dispels some myths about Indians.

Sherman Alexie recites "Why We Play Basketball" in a poetry slam that he eventually won.

His mother reveals how family members and reservation residents feel about his writing in an interview with Vicki Mabrey.


"The mascot thing gets me really mad" Alexie says. "Don't think about it in terms of race. Think about it in terms of religion. Those are our religious imagery up there. Feather, the paint, the sun that's our religious imagery. You couldn't have a Catholic priest running around the floor with a basketball throwing communion wafers. You couldn't have a rabbi running around."

At home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and 3-year-old son, Alexie is a serious writer. He's published two collections of short stories nine books of poetry, two novels and one screenplay - all by the age of 33.

Alexie injects realism into his writing about Indians.

"It's that whole 'corn pollen, four directions, Mother Earth, Father Sky' Indian thing where everybody starts speaking slowly, and their vocabulary shrinks down until they sound like Dick and Jane. And it's all about spirituality, and it's all about politics," he explains.

"So I just try to write about everyday Indians, the kind of Indian I am who is just as influenced by the Brady Bunch as I am by my tribal traditions, who spends as much time going to the movies as I do going to ceremonies," Alexie says.

"White people, you've brought us some really cool things," Alexie says. "The Internet almost makes up for that smallpox thing."

There's a lot of humor in his stories, but there's also anger.

"In high school I dated a white woman," he recalls. "She would come to visit me on the rez. And her dad, who was very racist, didn't like that at all. And he told her one time, 'You shouldn't go on the rez if you're white because Indians have a lot of anger in their heart.'"

"Certainly I'm angry at the way Indians have been treated and continue to be treated. But I don't think it's a helpless emotion," he says. "And I'm also very much the pacifist."

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Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. His parents and brother still live there. Growing up in a government-built house, there wasn't much money or much food, but there were donated books.

On the reservation, he and others would play cowboys and Indians because they were American, too, he says. Watching Westerns, he would root for John Wayne, he adds.

"I distinctly remember doing that because I didn't recognize those Indians; I wasn't those Indians; I wasn't running around in a loincloth. I wasn't vicious. I wasn't some sociopath with war paint." Alexie says.

"I was a bright kid on the rez who liked books and who knew even at a young age that he had to leave the reservation to make something of himself," he adds.

Alexie describes the local school as "really terible." In the sixth grade he found his mother's name on his textbook.

He knew that nearby was a good school and a completely different world.

"You go from a very anti-white place into a very anti-Indian place. Walking from this township into Johannesburg," he says.

Down the road at the white school, he was surprised to find acceptance. He became captain of the basketball team, the Rearden Indians, prom king and class president.

Alexie wants to shatter Hollywood's stereotypes of Indians as Tonto and the noble savage.

"That's so tiring. Who wants to be wise, you know? You get carpal tunnel syndrome from carrying the burden of your race," Alexie says. "I'd like to have villains. I'd like to have goofballs."

Alexie says he tried to do this with his film Smoke Signals. "One of the heroes was this geeky, androgynous, verbose, irritating Indian guy."

Smoke Signals was the first Indian-produced, Indian-directed and Indian-written feature film distributed by a major studio. It was Alexie's first foray into movies. He produced the film and wrote the screenplay.

In one scene a character based on Alexie's father gets drunk and leaves the family.

"I just remember how disappointed I would be when my dad would show up somewhere drunk," he says. "That's just heartbreaking."

He writes a lot about a son's relationship to his father: "My father is an amazing man," Alexie says. He characterizes his relationship with his father as "good when he wasn't drinking."

"He never was a violent drunk," Alexie says. "But he would leave; he would leave to drink. And he would leave on binges for days, and a few instances, for weeks. And until I was 12 or 13, I would literally cry myself sick when he was gone. So literally you hear of people dying of broken hearts."

"You can learn to compensate in all sorts of ways, and I have," Alexie says. "But it doesn't change the shape of a scar."

Alexie compensates in part by writing and doing readings. Both his mother Lillian and his father Sherman Sr., with whom he is reconciled, are often in the audience and often are the subjects of Alexie's wit.


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Lillian Alexie says she's come to accept her son's revealing writings.

His mother reveals the writer wasn't that funny, though, when he was little. "No, he wasn't. He was very moody, very temperamental…and he isolated himself a lot," she says.

Did she worry about him? "No. I was drunk most of the time," she says.

His mother describes ho she feels about true family stories woven into Alexie's works. "When he talked about how I left him...in the car while I was in the tavern, brought cokes and chips out to him," she says. "I was angry that he dared do this."

"This did happen," she says. "Maybe because he was able to write about it and not stuff it he was able to get rid of his own addiction."

It's probably not surprising that this Indian kid who rooted for John Wayne became an alcoholic, too. In college, he was what he calls "a case-of-beer, fifth-of-tequila drunk."

For nine years now, he's been sober.

He points to his use of dreams: "I knew who I was going to be. I knew this is where I would end up," he says. "I didn't want to be another public-figure Indian who would break the hearts of other Indian kids by being drunk. Indian kids have seen enough...drunk Indian adults."

Whenever he can, Alexie spends time with Indian kids, pleading with them to avoid the fate of so many on the reservation and stay sober.

"Don't live up to your stereotypes," he says. "If you're drinking now, stop it. It's just stupid. 'Cause you're going to quit or you're going to die."

He prides himself on being a role model for young Indians, but Alexie is much more than that. He's a popular literary star, a dirt-poor, reservation Indian who left the reservation and fullfilled his dreams of making it in the world.

He says he is not surprised that he's gotten as far as he has with his writing. "I thought I had that combination of skills which was very conducive to being successful in the United States in the early 21st century," he says.

"I write well enough. I'm funny. I'm good in front of a camera," Alexie says laughing.

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