19 pages 38 minutes read

Sherman Alexie

Reservation Love Song

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide


Sherman Alexie published the lyric poem “Reservation Love Song” in an early 1992 collection of poetry and short stories called The Business of Fancydancing. The ironic, satiric poem is ultimately a sincere ode to the hardships of Indigenous people and their ability to form meaningful bonds amid disenfranchisement. As with most of Alexie’s work, “Reservation Love Song” doesn’t sugarcoat the lives of Indigenous people. Like Alexie’s well-known short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and his award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), “Reservation Love Song” confronts the disquieting aspects of life on a reservation. Alexie is a part of the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe and grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Washington, so he has witnessed reservation life first-hand. Aside from personal experiences, Postmodernism informs the poem through its playfulness, blend of high and low culture, and emphasis on the individual experience. What also shapes the poem is the number of Indigenous poets who began to gain greater visibility near the nineties. Alexie credits one poet in particular, Lovelock Paiute tribe member Adrian C. Louis, for pushing him to write poems like “Reservation Love Song.”

Poet Biography

Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1966. His dad, Sherman Joseph Alexie, and his mom, Lillian Agnes Cox, were both Indigenous people and both had alcoholism. Born hydrocephalic or with too much cerebrospinal fluid in his brain, Alexie had to have surgery when he was five months old. The hydrocephalus made Alexie prone to seizures, sleeplessness, and bipolar behavior. Reservation life made Alexie’s precarious childhood more so. At first, Alexie and his family lived in a home without indoor plumbing. Then they moved into a house built by the United States government agency Housing and Urban Development. In his memoir You Dont Have to Say You Love Me (2017), Alexie describes the HUD home as “unfinished” and “illogically designed.”

After a particular rowdy New Year’s Eve party, Lillian stopped drinking. Sherman continued to drink. He’d go on binges and disappear for long periods. Lillian supported Alexie and his siblings by selling handmade blankets and quilts and working jobs like youth counselor and senior-citizen companion.

Fed up with the lackluster and abusive education on the reservation, Alexie started to attend a nearly all-white high school, Reardan, 22 miles away from his reservation. At Reardan, Alexie flourished. He was captain of the basketball team and prom king. Rather than return to the reservation, Alexie often spent nights with friends or sometimes in places like the high school locker room. Alcohol continued to impact his life. His big sister Mary and his dad’s best friend died in alcohol-related incidents. Meanwhile, Alexie’s dad faced arrest for driving drunk. Throughout his life, Alexie has had experiences with his own alcoholism too.

After enrolling at Gonzaga University in 1985, Alexie transferred to Washington State University, where a poetry workshop introduced him to Adrian C. Louis and the power of poetry. Seven years later, Alexie published his first book of poems and stories, The Business of Fancydancing. A year later, he published the short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Critics praised Alexie’s blend of dark humor and tragic honesty.

In 1998, he turned one of his short stories, “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” into a movie, Smoke Signals. In 2002, he adapted his first book, The Business of Fancydancing, into a film. This time, Alexie directed the movie. Five years later in 2007, Alexie published the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In 2010, Alexie received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. In 2018, Alexie’s memoir, You Dont Have to Say You Love Me, won the American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal for nonfiction. In March 2018, Lynn Neary of NPR reported on sexual misconduct allegations against Alexie (Neary, Lynn. “‘It Just Felt Very Wrong’: Sherman Alexie’s Accusers Go On The Record.” NPR. 5 March 2018). These allegations caused Alexie to admit wrongdoing and decline the award for his memoir.

Poem Text

Alexie, Sherman. “Reservation Love Song.” 1992. Feel Free to Read.


As the title indicates, “Reservation Love Song” takes place on a reservation, or land governed by an Indigenous tribe recognized by the United States. In Line 1, the action isn’t on the reservation but in Springdale—a small, mostly white town in Washington State. The speaker can meet their romantic partner in Springdale and buy them alcohol. After this, the speaker can take their love interest back home to their reservation in their beat-up “one-eyed Ford” (Line 4).

The speaker will do much more for their love interest than buy them beer and drive them home, however. They’ll also pay the rent on their house built by Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—a government agency that provides housing for underprivileged groups like Indigenous people. The speaker then offers to get their romantic interest “free / food from the BIA” (Lines 6-7), or the Bureau of Indian Affairs—a United States government agency ostensibly created to help Indigenous people. If the speaker’s love interest needs dental care, they can help them out through another government agency: IHS, or Indian Health services.

In Lines 9 and 10, the speaker returns to the subject of alcohol. “I can buy you alcohol / & not drink it all,” they say. Next, they vow not to cheat on their love interest, “while you’re away I won’t fuck / any of your cousins” (Line 11-12). In Line 13, the speaker circles back to drinking again. If they “don’t get too drunk” (Line 13), they will get “old blankets” (Line 14) for the winter. The blankets will smell like the speaker’s grandma, so they’ll smell natural or like “hands digging up roots” (Line 17). As these blankets belonged to the speaker’s grandma, they’ll have “powerful magic” (Line 18), so they’ll do a fine job of keeping them warm while they sleep in the cold winter.