Author speaks about life on a reservation

Nicole Stempak

Novelist and poet Sherman Alexie (right) signs copies of his books in the university bookstore last night for graduate students Valerie Suffron and Travis Hessman. After the book signing, Alexie spoke about his latest book, The Absolutely True Diary of a

Credit: DKS Editors

Sherman Alexie’s first day of class at the white school was full of stereotypes.

“They (Alexie’s classmates) literally thought that I was an Indian warrior coming to burn down their homes with one of those collapsible bows and arrows that fit in my back pocket,” he said.

Alexie spoke about his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington as the Fall 2007 Guest of Honor University Artist/Lecture Series last night in the Kiva. Alexie is nominated for the National Book Foundation’s Young People’s Literature award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his latest novel, which was based on his first year at the white school.

While living on the reservation, Alexie began his love of learning and his education at the school located there.

Growing up, he said he read whatever he could get his hands on. His grandmother, who spoke English but could not read or write the language, bought him any book that had an American Indian on the cover.

Many of those books were romance novels, which gave the wrong impression of American Indians, he said. The American Indians on those books all had erotic names such as Apache Heat or Indian Summer.

And on Alexie’s first day of seventh grade, he opened his math book and saw his mother’s maiden name written in the cover. The outdated materials made him realized he wasn’t going to receive the education he wanted or deserved at the reservation school.

“I knew I had to leave,” he said. “I had to leave everything. That’s hard for anyone.”

It was then that he left the reservation to attend a neighboring public school, which was predominantly white.

Before class started, a pretty blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl asked his name. He responded that it was “Junior,” which Alexie explained is a common American Indian nickname. When the teacher took attendance he answered to “Sherman,” confusing the girl. Alexie then realized he had two identities.

“It was at that moment that I realized I was an immigrant,” he said. “I was indigenous to the land but foreign to the people.”

In spite of the challenges, Alexie concluded his speech by reaffirming his love for the country.

“I love my country,” he said. “You should, too.”

Don Williams, interim Honors College dean, said he thought the night was a success. At about 125 people, he thought there was a “good-sized” audience.

At the end of the lecture, audience members were given the chance to ask Alexie questions.

Nate Smith, senior English major at the Stark campus, asked Alexie about whom he considers his audience.

Alexie said he writes to one audience, specifically the “small-town dreamer.” This is a person who rises above his or her circumstances to succeed.

“I came here because I’ve been a Sherman Alexie fan for years, and I was actually writing a paper on him,” Smith said. “I thought he was really funny and really engaging.”

Contact news correspondent Nicole Stempak at [email protected].