Sherman Alexie likes to remind people that attending Washington State University presented him with a real challenge. As a Spokane Indian, a liberal, and a writer, he did not fit the prevalent mold of students attending WSU in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Regardless, on October 10, 2003, WSU president V. Lane Rawlins presented Alexie with the University’s highest alumni honor, the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Since leaving WSU in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies, Alexie has published nine books of fiction and poetry and has written and directed two award-winning movies. Widely popular, his short stories appear in the nation’s main literary magazines, find honored places in widely read anthologies, and have become standard texts for high school and college literature classes. Populated with Indians on the reservation, the homeless, and Indians trying to find their way in middle-class society, Alexie’s work focuses on a side of American life that his readers rarely see.
In his novels, short stories, poetry, and movies, Alexie deals with people engaged in stereotypical behavior. “Stereotypes,” he argues “portray the truth, and that’s why people are uncomfortable with them. They don’t like to confront the truth.” So Alexie writes honestly about drunkenness, loneliness, and failure. When dealing with stereotypes, he contends, “the problem is when you say ‘Indian drunk’, as if all Indian drunks were alike. That’s not true. Each alcoholic becomes an alcoholic for a very specific reason,” and so he writes to uncover those specific reasons for his readers.
Although he’s considered a literary writer, his work has gained popularity because of the plainspoken, accessible style, spiced liberally with humor, with which he drives his unpredictable plots.
Alexie didn’t come to WSU to study literature. Rather, he began with an interest in pre-medicine, but he couldn’t stand dissecting dead animals. So just by chance, he took a poetry class.
His writing career started when Alex Kuo (English and comparative American cultures) lent him a book of poetry. That small event changed Alexie forever. “I had no idea how big the world is, and it was here at WSU that I learned that,” Alexie told the standing-room-only audience in Bryan Hall on the day he received the award. Coming to WSU, Alexie said, helped him join a new tribe-a tribe of readers and writers. And, he added, “my two chiefs were Joan Burbick and Alex Kuo.”
Kuo, along with Burbick (English), Leroy Ashby (history), Grover Krantz (anthropology), and many other professors whom he liked, admired, and battled with, gave him a new way of looking at the world. They helped him become the author he is today.
At 37, Alexie is the youngest recipient of the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, and the 33rd individual honored since the award’s inception in 1962. Previous winners include Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, astronaut John Fabian, cartoonist Gary Larson, and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
Alexie, who grew up in eastern Washington as a poor farm boy on the Spokane Indian Reservation, hopes his receipt of this award will serve as an example for minority students and poor students from rural areas to follow in his footsteps at WSU.