69 pages 2 hours read

Sherman Alexie

Indian Killer

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


Sherman Alexie’s 1996 novel Indian Killer is part crime thriller and part darkly humorous study of interracial violence. This guide uses the 1996 edition published by The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York. Telling the story of a serial killer known as the Indian Killer, the novel progresses through many short chapters that shift between the viewpoints of multiple characters. Although the characters are not actually narrators, the narrative voice closely follows their experiences and perspectives, becoming unreliable and ambiguous at times as characters drift in and out of dream, fantasy, hallucination, and reality. Alexie intentional leaves several key points unresolved, including the true identity of the killer, and appears to include elements of magical realism, although it is never made explicit whether the reader is encountering mystical events or simply the products of a character’s mental illness.


Plot Summary


An Indian adopted by white parents, John suffers from mental health issues, paranoia, and a great deal of conflict over his own identity as an Indian raised by white people with no knowledge of his tribe. Leaving his construction job on the last skyscraper in Seattle, he decides that what will bring him peace and resolution is to find and kill the white man who is responsible for all his suffering. Around the same time, a serial killer begins murdering and scalping white men, earning the title of the Indian Killer. 


At a protest pow-wow at the university, John meets Marie, a young Indian woman and activist. Like John, Marie is caught between two worlds and struggling to find her identity. She takes an interest in John, but he is too caught up in his paranoia and delusions to truly connect with her.


Marie herself is distracted by her lecturer Dr. Clarence Mather, a white man and “Wannabe Indian” who paints himself as an expert on Native American Studies and a liberal friend and ally to Indians. However, Mather’s attitude towards Indians is patronizing and proprietorial, as though he knows how to be an Indian far better than Indians like Marie, who regularly challenges with his arrogant attitude and assumptions. Among Marie’s objections is the inclusion of a novel by Jack Wilson on the course reading list. Wilson is an ex-policeman who says he is an Indian because of a dubious claim to having a distant Indian relative. Like Mather, Wilson believes he can represent Indians accurately and is widely considered a fraud by Indians and a noble and insightful writer by white people.


A young white man from Marie’s class is killed outside an Indian casino, and his brother begins engaging in violence against homeless Indians as an act of unfocused revenge. Marie’s cousin Reggie and his friends strike back against white people, and a cycle of retaliatory violence escalates as the Indian Killer claims more victims. The flames are fanned by right-wing shock-jock Truck Shultz, whose increasingly racist and inflammatory broadcasts weave through the novel, responding to and acting as a catalyst for further violence.


At the novel’s climax, John kidnaps Wilson and takes him to the 40th floor of the skyscraper where he used to work. Wilson tries to convince him not to kill a “fellow” Indian, but John slashes Wilson’s face so that he is forever branded as guilty—as the white man responsible for his suffering. John then steps off the skyscraper and falls to his death. The police decide there is sufficient evidence that John was the Indian Killer, although other characters, including Marie, believe him to be innocent. As the novel closes, “the killer” sings and dances in a wooden mask in a graveyard, seemingly more a spirit or an avatar or manifestation of Indian rage and vengeance than a human being.