How to Write the Great American Indian Novel

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s poem, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” delves into the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding Native American culture. Through his use of humor and sarcasm, Alexie sheds light on the harsh reality of how Native Americans are often portrayed in the media. As a Native American himself, Alexie’s experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington heavily influenced his work as a poet, novelist, and filmmaker. His writing has garnered numerous prestigious awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” was first published in Alexie’s 1996 poetry collection, “The Summer of Black Widows.”


In this poem, the speaker, possibly Sherman Alexie himself, explores the physical, mental, and emotional traits that characters in a great American Indian novel must possess. The speaker challenges readers to consider the stereotypes perpetuated by the media, such as movies and novels, about Native American culture. The poem lists specific examples, like the Indian woman protagonist who must be beautiful, slender, and in love with a white man. The speaker concludes the poem on a somber note, suggesting that all the Indian characters will be portrayed by white people, reducing Native Americans to mere ghosts. You can read Sherman Alexie’s full poem, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” here.

Analysis of How to Write the Great American Indian Novel

Written in free verse, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” employs varying line lengths and does not adhere to a rhyming pattern. The poem consists of forty-two lines organized into twenty-one couplets.

Alexie wastes no time, immediately immersing readers in the traits required for characters in a great American Indian novel or movie. The use of the word “tragic” in the opening couplet highlights the speaker’s intention to portray Indians as pitiable. Alexie continues reinforcing stereotypes, describing the hero as half white, half Indian, proficient in horse riding, and prone to solitary bouts of crying. The poem emphasizes that Indian women should be slim, beautiful, and infatuated with white men. Although the female Indian protagonist might be allowed to love an Indian man, he must be of mixed heritage and come from a horse culture. The relationship between the Indian woman and the white man is expected to be filled with romance and melodrama, with the white man awestruck by the Indian woman’s beauty.

Alexie compares the Indian woman’s beauty to natural elements like hills, mountains, valleys, grass, wind, clear water, and even “murky water” if she carries a secret. The poet suggests that secrets are inherent to all Indians, who cannot be completely trusted. Despite their beauty and solitary crying, Indians always possess hidden motives that will eventually be revealed, often by well-meaning white counterparts.

The poem takes a dark turn with the use of the word “yet.” Alexie illustrates Native Americans as sudden and dangerous storms, suggesting they should destroy the lives of any white women who love them. The speaker further emphasizes that all white women secretly lust after Indian men, even though they feign disgust. This derogatory portrayal characterizes Native Americans as savage, inhuman beings. Alexie reinforces this image by describing Indian men as wild and gamey-smelling horses, perpetuating the stereotype of Native Americans as untamed creatures.

The modern stereotype of Native Americans is also portrayed, highlighting issues with alcohol, violence, and risky driving. The poem asserts that visions should feature prominently in any great American Indian novel, implying that even white people who love Indians will be considered Indians due to their “close proximity” with actual Indians. The poem suggests that white people must carry an Indian inside them, with the interior Indian being a heroic warrior if it resides in a white man and a healer if it resides in a white woman.

Alexie introduces complexity by suggesting that Indian men can be hidden inside white women and vice versa. All characters are portrayed as half-breeds grappling with their horse culture. Redemption and forgiveness of sins are only possible through future generations, symbolized by the deep affection expressed by white and Indian children regardless of gender. The poem ends on a bitter note, stating that in the great American Indian novel, all the white characters will be Indians, and all the Indian characters will be ghosts.

While poetic in form, this work could easily be transformed into a “how-to” essay for aspiring authors seeking to write the great American Indian novel. Alexie’s creativity shines as he breaks down stereotypes and challenges assumptions throughout the poem.

Historical Context

Native Americans inhabited the lands that now comprise the United States before European settlers arrived and colonized the territory. Sadly, mainstream media often portrayed Native Americans as inferior savages who needed to be tamed by their white counterparts. Alexie’s poem reflects the burden placed upon white people to “save” Native Americans, perpetuating a narrative that only they hold the keys to redemption. Recognizing this historical backdrop is crucial for understanding and challenging the stereotypes that continue to shape our society.

Note: This article was written with a conversational tone for To read Sherman Alexie’s full poem, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” please visit