Tuesday, January 29, 2008

John Smelcer's Identity

In the update to my post on Sunday about John Smelcer, I said that readers had written to me, saying that Smelcer is not Native. I checked into it and found some deeply troubling articles published in 1994 the Anchorage Daily News.

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."
It isn't clear to me yet how or why his identity was challenged. Information about that identity was brought to the attention of the university. Some of that is:
  • 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.
The article said that Smelcer did not believe he had misrepresented himself. This is an excerpt from that portion of the article:
"I was very careful with the dictionary, finding that word 'affiliated,'" he said, "After all, I was an English major."

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."
Smelcer said that nobody at UAA ever asked him "point blank" if he was "a blood Indian." The article concludes with this:
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.


Ben said...

Very interesting information. Thanks for digging it up, Debbie.

While I can't (and won't) defend Smelcer's apparently fraudulent representation of himself to the university, I am somewhat emotionally conflicted about the adopted-by-an-Indian issue. Reading his adopted father's quotes made me rather sad and troubled. I sometimes become short when people talk of Indian identity in terms of blood (ie, blood quantum), but I find myself even less comfortable when "blood" or biology is completely severed from identity. After a lifetime of thinking and reading about Native identity politics, I'm still not really sure how to reconcile those two impulses.

Debbie Reese said...

His adopted father's quotes are what prompts me to characterize this as tragic.

As I continue to read about Smelcer, I see that he continues to self-identify in ways that allow people to think he is Native.

See here:

Excerpts from that page...

"As the son of an Alaska Native father and a part-Cherokee mother, I have had influences in my life that rarely touch the fabric of non-Indian lives."


"My father is a half-blood Athabaskan Indian. His mother is the last in our family lineage of pure blood Indians."

And see here for an article about his winning of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship.


The James Jones Fellowship was established to "honor the spirit of unblinking honesty, determination and insight into modern culture as exemplified by (the writings of) James Jones.”

The opening paragraph is:

" John Smelcer of Chugiak, Alaska, a federally-registered Native American (of the Ahtna Tribe), says he always tries to maintain a simple, modest demeanor because “the Indian way is not to brag….I fail often but I try.”"

Ben said...

Yes, his statements make it quite clear that he publically identifies as Indigenous. My first impulse is to reject his claim to Indianness, but I am still torn.

A couple of years ago my father gained a new, sixty-something brother. My grandfather had unknowingly sired this long-lost uncle and my new uncle, being adopted from birth, only recently discovered his biological family (my family). He grew up in a family of non-Native German immigrants and only discovered that he was Choctaw as an older adult. Though his physical appearance along with the "Indian baby" adoption ad answered by his adopted parents led him to conclude that he was Indian earlier in life.

He has dark skin and looks like his Choctaw brothers (he is almost identical to another uncle). And biologically he certainly is Choctaw. He is also now enrolled in our nation. But I cringe a bit when I hear him call himself Indian. I think that Smelcer, despite his identity crisis, is probably more culturally "Native" than this uncle. Yet I have no fundamental problem with my uncle identifying as an Indian -- he is.

So what should I make of people like Smelcer who seem, in some ways, to be the inverted reflection of my uncle?

EA Woody said...

I rarely give comment, but was troubled by this story. There are many people who are adopted by Native clans, and some tribes have mechanisms in place to adopt people into their tribes in a constructive manner.

There are many "blooded" Native peoples who are raised "white" and who have never stepped foot on a reservation or participated in a ceremony. Are they less "real?"

If that is the case then we determine blood by the system set up to destroy its responsibilities to their own constitution and treaties, through obsolescence, the Dawes Act, and BIA blood quantum.

To say a book written by a Native person is more likely to be purchased is not a good basis for the argument. In that case writing and getting published would be easy for full-bloods and it is not.

Selling books is a marketing mechanism of presses and have nothing to do with our sovereignty or our responsibilities as indigenous peoples.

In my tribal belief systems, we are tied to a specific landbase, have one mother and one father, and many, many little relatives who collaborate with us for continued success in preventing the failings of man from collapsing the world.

In my tribal region we have Tamanwit, the Natural Law, given to us by the Creator to live lightly and appropriately upon the land and a mandate to do "no harm" Kind of like the "Golden Rule."

I am not opposed to John Smelcer's claims, but it is not my community directly effected by his assumptions. If it is the hiring policy of AK Universities at issue, that is where the attention should go. John Smelcer will not get rich from his misrepresentations.

If we were make such issues of more import, than we wouldn't buy books by those with 1/4 blood quantum or less of a "federally recognized" tribe.

Alaska has a different set of circumstances with ANSCA, and a deeply lived culture that is still in each and every day of an Alaskan Native.

That is all.