Sunday, January 27, 2008

John Smelcer's THE TRAP

5:29 in the morning in Illinois. Still dark out. I made some coffee and started reading John Smelcer's The Trap. I'm on page 25, not racing through it.

Savoring it, instead, because Smelcer's words, his descriptions... They're so evocative of my early childhood. I stayed with my grandparents a lot when I was little. Our houses, made by my grandfather and father out of adobe, were connected to each other, sharing a common wall at one end, with our house perpendicular to theirs.

The door to my grandmother's house opened right into the small kitchen. To the right was a table on which stood buckets of water that we'd haul from the river that runs through our reservation. That was before the Bureau of Reclamation build a dam to regulate the water. Sometimes there was a lot of water, sometimes it was a trickle, and after a thunderstorm, there was often a roaring flood. In the winter, we'd take a hatchet with us so we could get to the water beneath. (For those who don't know northern New Mexico, it is more like Colorado than Arizona.)

To the left was my grandma's wood stove. It had a damper on it that, in my mind's eye, I can see her reach out to adjust. There was always a pot of coffee on that stove. And underneath it was "the pot" we'd use during the night if we had to pee. Out by the woodpile was the outhouse.

The floor was wood planks, polished smooth, placed over the ground. Knotholes had lids from tin cans nailed over them. I'll have to ask my dad if there was a time when a rattlesnake was living underneath the planks. It's a memory, but, I don't remember how they got it out. It may have only been the vivid imagination of a kid.

In the evenings, I'd play at her feet, counting and sorting the buttons in her tin button box. I'd watch her feet work the paddle of her sewing machine as she sewed. I don't have a clear memory of what she made. Quilts, maybe, out of old clothes. But also traditional clothing we wear for our dances.

Reading Smelcer's book reminds me of all this. His characters and setting are very real to me. His story is set in the far north. I grew up in northern New Mexico. Hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, apart, but still so close.

More later...

UPDATE, JAN 28, 2008
---I'm hearing from readers about Smelcer's background, specifically, that he is not Native. As readers of this blog know, questions about Native identity are very complex. US government policies figure prominently in discussions of identity, largely because of programs that sought to "kill the Indian, save the man" and others like those through which Native women were sterilized against their knowledge and/or against their will. I don't know, yet, what the concerns are with respect to Smelcer's identity, but will post them here when I know more.

As I noted above, I've only begun reading his book. If the quality of the writing and its feel, for me, remain strong throughout, some may ask what it means with respect to the "who-can-write" insider-outsider debate. It does not, in my view, mean only Native people can write Native stories. What was, and will be, troubling, is the USE of Native identity when the person is not Native.

With that statement, we get into the "who gets to say" question about whether or not someone is Native. To that, my response is... Does the tribe claim that person? I can say I'm Nambe all I want, but if our tribal council doesn't claim me, then my claim is empty. Tribes differ in how they make those decisions. There are hundreds of tribes, bands, nations, and we all have different histories and ways of governing.

This very conversation about identity makes people nervous and anxious, and I suspect that some will say "why bother" when it is so complex. Some will say "let the book and the writing speak for itself." That is ALREADY the case in much of mainstream society. Looking at such things in isolation, however, is a disservice to all concerned. Context matters. History matters. These are questions of ethics and morality.



Anonymous said...

Interesting that I just finished this book last night...thought it was a great piece of writing. Would be a natural recommendation to any kid who likes Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, for example.

Definitely, Smelcer's identity is very important in my opinion. He claims to be a registered member of the Ahtna Tribe. I Googled around and there are many such claims in interviews, etc. I did wonder a bit how a teacher/librarian would determine if someone were making false claims to such a heritage.

Anyway, I hope that Smelcer is not fraudulent, because the story manages to be compelling, subtle, adventurous, and textured- not bad.

Matt Murrey
Urbana, IL

Anonymous said...

I haven't yet read this book, and I think that Paulsen's work is horrid, but I wondered about the responders to Debbie's post who claimed that Smelcher was non-Native. Could you perhaps post those comments here or ask the posters to elaborate on the blog. I had always thought that Smelcer was Native and I'm curious as to why others suspect he is not.

Anonymous said...

Get a life and find out there are more people than just indians. Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinners of every skin color- indians, whites, blacks etc.
By not allowing Indians in literature (as your comment in Little House on the Prairie), are you trying to erase that from our history?
No it may not be a happy thing, but indians did kill whites and whites killed indians. I dont teach my children to kill anyone unless they are in defense of themselves or their family. Dont try to lie about history.
be real
American MOM

Debbie Reese said...

Soon after receiving American Mom's comment, I responded. That response is here: