The upshot? He is not Native.
This situation makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. I dislike exploring the background of an author. It feels icky. But a greater concern is the integrity of the work of Native peoples.
There is a long history by which Native peoples and our cultures are deemed irrelevant, rendered invisible, tokenized, and appropriated. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, one of our leading scholars in Native studies, writes about this in her books and articles. She says that the thrust of Native studies is to form an educational strategy for the defense of our tribal nations, and the defense of our land and treaty rights. Another scholar, David Wilkins, asks us to consider how our work affects the continued existence of our nations.
My own area of research and writing is centered on children's books. Part of this work means, for me, consideration of the creation of these books. It means doing what I can to guide readers to work with integrity, that is respectful of Native peoples, our histories, our futures.
I will repeat here what I said yesterday. I do not draw hard and fast lines, saying that only Native people can write stories about Native people. Some wonderful books about American Indians have been written by people who are not themselves Native.
This post is going to get over-long and complicated, so I'll return for now to Smelcer.
Here is what I learned from the Anchorage Daily News article called "UAA Finds Professor Isn't Native. University Reviewing Records." It was in the Metro Section of the Final Edition on May 3, 1994, on page 1.
- He was hired the previous year by the University of Alaska Anchorage in their effort to increase the ethnic diversity among its faculty. Administrators at the university were under the impression he was Native.
- In a letter sent to UAA prior to his hire, he said he was "affiliated with Ahtna" and referred to his "Native American Indian heritage."
- The head of Ahtna, a man named Roy Ewan, wrote a letter of recommendation for Smelcer, that said "Ahtna recognizes John Smelcer's tribal membership."
- He was adopted by a Native man named Charlie Smelcer, who said "He's a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian just like anyone else is."
- Ewan said his letter was a mistake. He said "When they told me this guy was Charlie Smelcer's son, I just assumed it was his blood son," Ewan said.
"I was very careful with the dictionary, finding that word 'affiliated,'" he said, "After all, I was an English major."Smelcer said that nobody at UAA ever asked him "point blank" if he was "a blood Indian." The article concludes with this:
Smelcer also said he knew his letter would leave the impression that he was an Alaska Native by birth. He said he considered himself a Native even though his parents were not. "My entire life has been surrounded by my Alaska Native family," he said.
But in a telephone interview from Juneau, Charlie Smelcer flatly denied that description. The senior Smelcer, a retired Army officer, said that, "in no way, shape or form" was John Smelcer raised in a Native environment.
"He was a middle-class kid who grew up around a military environment, with cars and television and everything else like that," Smelcer said. "If he's used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that's wrong."
But Smelcer said he did not know whether he would be able to pursue his academic career now. The recent interest in his birth and background had left him feeling confused, he said. "Suddenly, I don't know who I am anymore."Additional articles in the Anchorage Daily News indicate that he resigned his position in the middle of the university's investigation--not about his identity--but on "whether he told the truth about having poetry accepted for publication in the New Yorker magazine and other journals," (see "UAA Professor Quits among Credentials Probe," August 3rd). The paper says there was a forged letter in his files from an editor at the New Yorker. Smelcer says he didn't put it there. Other presses Smelcer was going to have poems published in denied that they were going to publish his poems.
So... That is what I've learned so far.
The politics of identity within Native circles can be vicious and ugly. There's a lot at stake. Writers of Native stories know that the book buying public will be more inclined to buy a book written by a Native author. Claims are made, but not checked. This happens all across the country, in many, many places. Some claims are flat-out fraudulent. Some are misguided. Others are very thin. And some, like Smelcer's, are both tragic and outrageous.
Publishers or reviewers could ask, point blank, "are you...." of authors who claim Native heritage or identity. But they don't ask that of other writers, so, is it appropriate to do so here? These are very complex matters, but they are important, and they require a lot of reading and thinking to understand these complexities.
One good text to read to begin exploring the identity question is Eva Garroutte's Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America.
Update: Sunday, Feb 3. All the information in the Anchorage Daily News has been confirmed as accurate. My inquiries to the Ahtna tribal office were directed to John Smelcer's father, who told me that his comments in the Anchorage paper are accurate.