Sherman Alexie’s Survival Humor Turns “Legal”

Some days you just have two choices. You can laugh, or you can cry. Both of these actions define us as human beings. While crying can be cathartic, laughing is what we do in order to assert some form of control over circumstances that threaten to overwhelm us. In the study of Native American humor, the term “survival humor” is quite common; but I have yet to find a working definition of this term. What I did find a definition of is a term I had never heard used as a literary term: snark.
This is how “snark” is literarily defined:

Snark can be used for different purposes. However, mostly it is utilized as a mask. Others might use it as a defensive device. When bitterness is not easy to express in an agreeable way, snark is used without hurting anyone directly.[i]

This seems as good a term as any for the purpose here. In general usage, it tends to have a more negative connotation, but it does describe what you will see if you read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Every story in the collection is guaranteed to have a reader laughing and crying at the same time. Many of the stories are sad; however, the ways that Alexie’s characters view and think about them reflect an essential humor that belies the gravity and pain.

The Spokane/Ceour d’Alene author shows his readers how to both laugh and cry at the same time, and in doing so:

  • takes some of the sting out of reservation life for indigenous people
  • shows whites what reservation life is and how it affects those who live there
  • tries to make peace with what history has dealt Indians in general and his own tribe in particular

This first short story collection reached the “legal” age of 21 last year. When the collection was published in 1993, Alexie was a 27 year old resident of the Spokane Indian reservation. His first book, a collection of poems called The Business of Fancydancing, had received critical praise and awards. In the New York Times Book Review, James Kincaid (University of Southern California) “declared [him] one of the major lyric voices of our time” (xix). [ii]  In his Prologue to the 20th Anniversary edition, Alexie reflects on his career since and his uneasy fit into the world of authors and book publishing. He remembers, for example, stepping out of a penthouse elevator at a New Yorker magazine party to see Stephen King and Salman Rushdie hugging each other. Pretty heady stuff for a rez boy, as he says. In the twenty-some years since its publication, Alexie has written more poetry, novels, and short stories, all of which contain this signature humor, and I have read most of them; but this one stays with me as one of the best.

In “Because My Father Always Said that He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” he describes his father as a young man who was photographed demonstrating against Vietnam. His father is wearing bell-bottoms and a flowered shirt, his hair is in braids, and his face painted with peace symbols in red like war paint. The image ran in several newspapers with varied captions. Alexie says, “The one I like best is from the Seattle Times: Demonstrator goes to war for peace. Capitalizing on his father’s native heritage, others read things like “One Warrior against War” and “Peaceful gathering Turns into Native Uprising.”

The photograph won a Pulitzer for the photographer. The character’s father goes to jail for attempted murder. He is released just in time to see that epic version of the national anthem, and twenty years later continues to play it as the backdrop to his drinking—Alexie says: “My father and Jimi became drinking buddies” (26). Like many of the stories in this collection, he relates both heartache and humor in the alcoholism he sees around him.

“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” showcases white authorities’ fear and fascination with Indians by creating a “trial” in which Thomas is accused of “making small noises, form[ing] syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs].” His previous infraction against authority, “holding the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gun and ha[ving] also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision. But that crisis was resolved years ago; Thomas surrendered voluntarily and agreed to remain silent. Thomas had not spoken in nearly twenty years”[iii]

In effect, Thomas is arrested for speaking—speaking stories that reflect an oral tradition and a belief that words hold power. Clearly words do—other members of the tribe hear the sounds and the words effect change on the reservation. In trying to decide upon what charges to bring against him, the BIA representatives state that “It has to be a felony charge. We don’t need his kind around here anymore.”[iv]

Alexie ranges across present day social issues associated with reservation life, as well as historical wrongs the tribe has endured, and emphasizes the importance of keeping those issues alive through speech and the language of stories.

This story ends with Thomas being sentenced to two life sentences in Wall Walla State Penitentiary, where he continues to tell his stories to the men of color with whom he shares the bus to prison.

These two short pieces are representative examples. Some tell of love, some of history, some of life (and death). But all demonstrate humor in the face of adversity, and a will to survive the stolen land, the broken treaties, the broken promises, and the aftermath of assimilation, allotment, and hunger. Snark may define the literary device Alexie uses here—but survival humor is the end result.

Other works by Sherman Alexie that you might also enjoy reading are two other short story collections: Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians, and novels: Reservation Blues, Indian Killer, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. More recent editions of the short stories contain discussion questions as an afterward as a guide for reading groups. These are primarily of interest to teachers, but also to reading groups. They offer some historical information and questions that help readers understand and discuss the texts from an indigenous viewpoint.

So if you like your humor laced with irony and, yes, a bit of snark, these all make great summer reads.


[i] “Literary Devices: Definition and Examples of Literary Terms,”

[ii] Alexie quotes here come from the 20th Anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, New York/ Grove Press, 2013.

[iii] Page 94.

[iv] Ibid.


3 responses

  1. This follows the philosophy that humor is a form of aggression. Snark is simply a more obvious form of it.

  2. Or one might say that snark is a more passive/aggressive form of humor. Most often, it leaves a linguistic commentary hanging in the air–it is often also interpreted differently by readers depending on their own point of view.

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