Using pain and humor to illustrate stories of his life, best-selling author Sherman Alexie spoke to a full house March 11 as part of Willamette University’s Atkinson Lecture Series.
Through the series, internationally prominent artists, authors, leaders and journalists are brought to campus twice a year to give a public lecture and spend time with Willamette students.
“Racism is an integral part of my identity,” Alexie said during his talk. “It’s real and it’s not. It’s an overreaction and it’s not. I was spit on by a white guy when I was 8 years old. How am I supposed to react to the world as an Indian man with that as a formative experience?”
Described by The New York Times Book Review as “one of the major lyric voices of our time,” Alexie has written 24 books to date. His first, “Reservation Blues,” won a Booklist’s Editors Choice Award for Fiction, and his second, “Indian Killer,” was a New York Times Notable Book.
Alexie also wrote and produced the film, “Smoke Signals,” based on his book, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” The film won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. In 2002, Alexie made his directorial debut with “The Business of Fancydancing.”
Many of Alexie’s works are based on his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. They range from the excitement he felt as a 7 year old when a toilet was installed in his house, to the rage he experienced as a seventh-grader when he opened up his math book to find his mother’s maiden name written inside of it.
For Alexie, this discovery was a turning point. It’s when he knew he had to leave the reservation to seek a better education.
“My parents made the impulse decision that their idea of who I should become should not get in the way of who I thought I should become,” he said. “I left my tribe, and there are still people in my tribe who hate me for leaving. In a lot of ways, my stories are my efforts to get back.”
Alexie’s stories resonated with many Willamette students, including Brendan Crews ’17. A member of Willamette’s Native American Enlightenment Association and a graduate of Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Crews was one of nearly 40 students who spent time with Alexie earlier in the day.
“I admire and appreciated his coming,” Crews said. “Having him here, talking to us, it lets you envision your dream and know you can succeed and reach your destination.”
Emily Dickey '11 agrees. As the coordinator of the Chemawa Indian School Partnership Program, she overseeing the tutoring services offered by Willamette student volunteers to Chemawa students.
Not only did Alexie spend time with many of these volunteers during a classroom visit at Willamette, he also stopped by Chemawa Indian School to talk with those youths as well.
"I’m really excited that he was a part of the Atkinson Lecture Series this year," she said. “His humor isn’t sugar coated. That enables him to connect with and inspire the Chemawa students. His life is relevant to their lives."