Sherman Alexie takes over Northrop

The award winning writer, poet and filmmaker fills Northrop Auditorium to talk literature, politics and his devastating 2015.


Paul Patane

Author Sherman Alexie on stage having a laugh and pointing a finger at Redbone while members bang a drum off camera when Alexie makes a funny joke.

Paul Patane, A&E Editor

He’s published 24 books, won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, the PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction and countless other awards as a literary mastermind—and last Saturday night, Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian Sherman Alexie reminded 2,700 people at University of Minnesota just how good he really is.

An Evening with Sherman Alexie was structured around the theme: “Without Reservations: An Urban Indian’s Comic, Poetic and Highly Irreverent Look at the World.” The show featured showmanship and laughter beyond what’s standard for a visiting literary personality. Most writers who try to adhere to similar formats tend to do some form of Q&A and lecture, read from a new title and perhaps do a signing afterwards.

While Alexie didn’t do a Q&A, he told personal and sometimes embarrassing stories for over 90 minutes, covering everything from his childhood to the Presidential election. Also unlike most literary events, Alexie had an entourage and an opening act. To begin the evening, Native American music group Redbone entertained the audience with drumming and singing. After they finished, comedians Matt Thornhill and Pebaamibines shared jokes, warming the crowd up for Alexie.

Once Alexie took the stage, much of the evening was dedicated to him working out his feelings over his mother’s recent passing and other traumatic events.

“My 2015 was radioactive forest fire, brain tumor and my mother dying,” Alexie said.

After going through his disastrous 2015, Alexie brought the energy of the room up.

“It could be worse. I could be living in Wisconsin,” he said.

Criticizing Wisconsin isn’t where things stopped. Alexie saved some jokes for Minnesotans, especially women who wear high-heeled boots during the winter. He also had remarks for hockey fans who were in town for the NHL Stadium Series game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks, commenting on how there were a lot of white hockey fans drunk at breakfast in his hotel.

Once he finished with the regional population he shifted to politics, focusing on Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign and how he wasn’t inclined to think the Senator’s campaign promises will come to fruition, even if he makes it to the White House.

“He’s a 70 year old white guy, U.S. Senator. There is no revolution coming,” Alexie said. “I’m telling you that so you all don’t get fucking pissed off.”

Between his thoughts on everything else, Alexie spared no effort in criticizing himself. While he’s wealthy and on top of the literary world today, it wasn’t always that way. He grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state under less than ideal circumstances, raised in a one bedroom house with no running water or electricity with a difficult mother, an alcoholic father and two twin sisters younger than him.

Book cover for Alexie’s 2007 semi-autobiographical young adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” It won the National Book Award in 2007.
Courtesy of
Book cover for Alexie’s 2007 semi-autobiographical young adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” It won the National Book Award in 2007.

While Alexie has overcome many ordeals and worked his way up from poverty, he realizes he’s still a work-in-progress.

“I have a temper. I also have an intense sense of justice,” Alexie said, commenting on his diagnosed bipolar personality.

To lighten the mood, Alexie spoke to all the success he’s had professionally. In addition to the books he’s published, he wrote the screenplay for the film “Smoke Signals” which was well-received when it was released in 1998.

“I got rich on metaphors. How nuts is that?” he said.

Throughout the show, both Alexie and the audience were highly engaged with each other. It was an evening to be remembered for those in attendance, highlighted by humor, goodwill and an unusual sense of honesty.

Even though the bulk of the audience was Caucasian, there was a healthy Native American crowd and the Native vibes from the show felt authentic. Alexie himself seemed to think that as well.

“You non-Indians are getting one of the more Indian nights of your lives,” Alexie said, commenting on Redbone lightly drumming each time he made a well-received joke. He went on to detail that it was the kind of night the Native Americans would have, even if there were no white people in the audience.

After Alexie finished his show, he signed books for over two hours, exclaiming he would sign nearly anything, for however long it would take, for anyone interested. Overall, he was a beacon of positive energy considering he had a brain tumor taken out only months ago.

An Evening with Sherman Alexie was sponsored by the American Indian Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of Minnesota’s Department of American Indian Studies, the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Minnesota and the University’s English department. For more information about Alexie and his career, visit his website at: