Sherman Alexie

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie

Here is an analysis of the poem How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie. Alexie’s experiences as a Native American have profoundly impacted his work, and he is known for his poems, novels, and films. Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington; he now resides in Seattle. His writing has won a number of prestigious awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. Like many of his other poems, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel uses humor and sarcasm to convey the harsh reality of how Native Americans are often stereotyped and depicted in the media. This poem first appeared in Alexie’s 1996 book of poetry called The Summer of Black Widows.

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie



In this poem, the speaker of the work, perhaps Sherman Alexie, discusses the necessary physical, mental, and emotional traits the characters in a great American Indian novel must possess. The speaker forces the reader to think about the stereotypes surrounding Native American culture; these stereotypes are often perpetuated in the media, including movies and novels. The speaker lists specific examples for the characters in the novel. For instance, he writes, “If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender and in love with a white man.” He continues on with this list, finally ending the poem on a particularly sad note, saying that all of the Indian people will actually be white people, and all of the Indians will merely be ghosts, figments of reality. Sherman Alexie’s poem, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel, can be read in full here.


Analysis of How to Write the Great American Indian Novel

This poem is written in free verse, as none of the lines rhyme and the lines are of varying lengths. There are a total of forty-two lines in How to Write the Great American Indian Novel, and they are broken into twenty-one couplets.

Alexie throws his reader directly into his poem straightaway, wasting no time with listing the traits each character in this great American novel or movie. With the first couplet, it is important to note Alexie’s diction here and his repeated use of the word tragic. While this line probably provides some chuckles for the reader, Alexie is trying to show that all of the Indians in the novel must be pitied. Their faces are tragic; their hands and fingers are tragic; their food is even tragic. In other words, their whole being must be pitiable. Alexie continues on with the stereotypes in the next couplet, stating that the hero of the novel must be half white and half Indian, and he must be able to ride a horse. He is solitary in his quest, often off crying when he is by himself.

He writes, “That is mandatory.” In this couplet, Alexie again seems to be reinforcing the fact that this tragic character must be pitied. He must be isolated and alone, and he must be able to cry about his misfortunes. If the hero is an Indian woman, Alexie writes in the next couplet, “she is beautiful. She must be slender and in love with a white man.” There is no doubt about it: the hero Indian woman is beautiful, slender, and in love with a white man. Alexie does concede in the next couplet, however, that the female Indian hero could possibly be allowed to be in love with an Indian man, but he must be a half-breed only, and he must be “from a horse culture.” To have an Indian woman be in love with a full Indian man would be unthinkable. He must at least be partially white. Alexie then returns to the love between the Indian woman and the white man, who “has to be so white that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.” Their relationship should be full of romance and melodrama, with the white man in shock and awe at the beautiful and slender Indian woman standing before him.

Alexie writes, “When the Indian woman steps out of her dress,/the white man gasps at the endless beauty of her brown skin.” Clearly, the white man has never seen a woman of color naked before; he is utterly beside himself as the woman stands naked before him. But not only should she be brown and beautiful, she should also be compared to things in the natural world: “…brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.” Since the Native Americans are of the land, they must also look like their natural surroundings, as well. There is no question about this. Alexie does allow, however, that his Native American woman could be compared to something as mysterious and impure as “murky water.” If this is the case, this must mean she is burdened with a secret, because “Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.” This shows that all Indians cannot be completely trusted. Even if they are beautiful, and even if they are from a horse culture and go off by themselves to cry, the white man cannot be so naïve to trust them completely. They all have their secrets, which will eventually come out in time. No doubt it will be the white counterpart who brings this secret out for the Native American, saving them from their inherent evil.

It is at this part in the poem where Alexie takes a darker path, which is signified with his use of the word “yet.” He begins his eighth couplet saying, “Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.” He furthers the idea that Native Americans cannot be trusted by comparing them to a dangerous and sudden storm. In fact, he continues that thought into the next couplet, writing “Indian men, of course, are storms. They should destroy the lives/of any white women who choose to love them.” The saintly and innocent white woman who chooses to love a Native American man will no doubt suffer for her love; in fact, it is her love, this savage, who will be the cause of her suffering.

Alexie continues: “All white women love/Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust/at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.” Again, it is important to note Alexie’s diction here. Halfway through How to Write the Great American Indian Novel, he finally uses the derogatory term that was once associated with the Native Americans: savages. They are beasts—inhuman—and the woman who falls in love with a Native American man must be at once lustful and disgusted by him. She must not outwardly show her lust for him; she must keep it a secret from those around her. Alexie furthers the idea that Native Americans are savage beasts when he writes, “Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey.” Again, they are untamed animals who cannot be held down.

A modern stereotype of Native Americans plays out in the next couplet. Alexie writes, “There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape. Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.” Many think all Native Americans have drinking problems, which lead to depression and a dangerous lifestyle. While the American Indians of the past could not be trusted, neither can the modern Indians. They will drink too much, kill each other or themselves, and drive far too fast, breaking all of the rules.

Of course, it would not be a great American Indian novel if the Indians could not see visions. In fact, Alexie writes, this is a must. And if the white people are in love with Indians, they, too, will also be able to see visions because they will be considered Indians due to their “close proximity” with actual Indians. Alexie writes, “White people must carry an Indian deep inside themselves,” and “If the interior Indian is a male then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.” The white people in the novel must be heroic warriors. They must be similar to the Native Americans in the novel, but they must only possess the positive attributes of Indians. They are not savages, but they are warriors—heroes. Alexie parallels this idea by showing what the interior female Indian is like: “…she must be a healer, especially if she is inside/a white woman.” Again, the white women in the novel must only possess the positive traits of an Indian woman. She will heal and save people.

There is another break in the poem; Alexie writes that there are sometimes complications with this idea. Sometimes, he writes, “An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman/can be hidden inside a white man.” He continues that all of these characters are half-breeds who are trying to come to terms with their horse culture. In the end, “There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.” This is only possible, however, with the future generation. Alexie writes, “For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender/ not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.” The children will save future generations by showing that things such as race and gender do not matter. They are the hope for the future.

The last couplet has a bitter tone, as opposed to the sarcastic, humorous tone that is present throughout the rest of the poem: “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,/all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.” This idea is particularly sad: when all is said and done, the Native American characters will not be Indians at all; they will just be ghosts, and the Indian characters will all really be white people.

While there is no doubt that the form of this work is poetic, the text could easily be turned into a “how-to” essay for those who are trying to write the great American Indian novel. The couplets are often broken up and continued on in the next lines, and Alexie certainly takes poetic freedom by extending these ideas into multiple lines.


Historical Context

Native Americans inhabited the lands that make up the United States before the white Europeans came to settle the land. When they came, however, they took over, stealing the land from the Native Americans. Mainstream media has often portrayed Native Americans just as Alexie has represented them here: inferior savages who must be tamed by their white counterparts. It is possible to save them, but it will take a white man or woman to do so. This will come as a great burden for the white people, but it must be done for the good of future generations.

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Jamie Jenson Poetry Expert
Jamie joined the Poem Analysis team back in November, 2010. He has a passion for poetry and enjoys analysing and providing interpretations for poetry from the past and present.
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