Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who is John Smelcer (author of THE TRAP and THE GREAT DEATH)

John Smelcer, author of The Trap, has a new young adult novel out (The Great Death). Many believe he is a good writer. That may be the case, but, I find his claims to Native identity troubling, for two reasons. First, in schools, students often do author studies. Smelcer's website says he is Native. But, John Smelcer is not a Native person by birth or, and, according to the man who adopted him (Charlie Smelcer), he did not grow up on a reservation or with Native people. Second, in schools, we teach children to be honest. It seems that, if we herald an author who has not been honest with his identity, we are saying one thing (be honest) and doing another (by assigning his books, we say his deceit does not matter).

This particular blog post about John Smelcer is a difficult one to post for several reasons. First, it treads on concerns regarding adoption and identity of an adopted child. That is a body of literature that I have not studied. Second, Native identity is a contentious issue in many ways, with people claiming to be Native for personal or professional gain within a society (America) that does not understand the complex issue of Native identity and claims to Native identity. There are over 500 tribal nations in the U.S. Each one has its own determinations as to who it lists or otherwise recognizes as members or citizens. Last year, I was at a conference in Michigan at which Ojibwe elders spoke about this issue. Among their most powerful statements was that our ancestors fought like hell to defend our nations against Europeans who came here and wanted our land. They fought to protect the land, and their families, elders, grandparents, men, women, and children.  If they had not done that, we would not be here today as sovereign nations. It is in that framework that I offer this post.

December, 2007
I learned of a young adult novel titled The Trap, by John Smelcer, who said he was Ahtna (Native Alaskan). I ordered a copy of the book.

January 27, 2008
I started reading The Trap. The opening pages reminded me of my grandmother's kitchen. I blogged the memory. Upon uploading that blog post, I began hearing from people in Alaska who told me that Smelcer is not Native. The next day, I posted an updated to the Jan 27th entry.

January  29, 2008
I posted another update. In this one, I shared what I'd learned in the Anchorage Daily News. I'm pasting it here, for your reference. In brackets [ ] and bold are comments I'm adding today.

"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.

  • Smelcer 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. [Why did they think he was Native? Because...]
  • 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." [Ahtna is Ahtna, Inc., which is, quoting from the website, "one of 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations" and is comprised of eight villages, all of which are federally recognized tribes.]
  • 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 [as reported in the newspaper] is:
  • John Smelcer was adopted by a Native man named Charlie Smelcer, who said "He's a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian just like anyone else is." ["He" is John. Here's a photo from John Smelcer's website. He's older now. The mess at the University of Alaska took place in 1994, or, 15 years ago. ]
  • 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." [Very careful? Why? And "after all"??? He seems to, rather boldly, proclaim that he had to be careful with his word choice. Why?]

Smelcer also said he knew his letter would leave the impression that he was an Alaska Native by birth. [He knew the ramifications of presenting his identity the way he did...  That's disingenuous.]  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."
John 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." [He said he is confused, and it sounds like he was also troubled by this not-knowing who he is. Yet, he continues to identity and mislead his readers. Does he not care that he is confusing and misleading the young people who read his books and think he is Native by birth?]
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.

January 31, 2008
Charlie Smelcer wrote to me. In short, he verified everything in the newspaper article. On Feb. 3, 2008, I posted his confirmation as an update to the post pasted above.

March 26, 2008
I was away at the Returning the Gift conference where I received a Native Writer's Circle Award for my blog. While there, I got two emails from John Smelcer, asking me to remove what I said about him on my blog. He said he wanted to avoid a libel suit, and that he would mail me documentation showing he is Alaska Native. In the second email, he said that he has never lied about who he is. I did not respond to either email from him.

March 28, 2008
Still at the conference, I got a third email from John Smelcer. He said that, after 1994, he did "everything to 'straighten out' the Native issue." That he corrected the problem to the satisfaction of all. He said, that since 1994, his work has been published in many Native literature anthologies because he was able to "give them all my documents." Again, he asked me to remove what I'd written on my blog. I replied that I had spoken with his Charlie Smelcer and that he had verified everything in the newspaper. John Smelcer did not write to me again.

October 20, 2009
Earlier this year, I learned that John Smelcer has a new book coming out. It is called The Great Death. The November-December "Stars" in Horn Book include The Great Death. As yet, I don't know who reviewed it for Horn Book, but I do know that they review books for literary merit only. It doesn't matter who the author is. In this case, it obviously does not matter that the author is misrepresenting who he is.

So... what IS the story about John Smelcer? How does he happen to have those documents to prove he is enrolled at Ahtna? Charlie Smelcer told me that John tricked Charlies's mother into giving him some shares in Ahtna, Inc. Because of those shares, he has a document that he presents as though it proves he is Native. Charlie has talked with John about misrepresenting who he is, but John continues to mislead people. 

Right now, Smelcer's website says he "John Smelcer is the son of an Alaskan Native father from the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska." and "John's mother is white."

And, in "The Future of Native American Literature: A Conversation with John E. Smelcer," published in MELUS (a journal published by the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) in Fall 2002 (Volume 27, Number 3), the interview says "His Tennessee-born mother is part Cherokee and his half-blood Indian father was born and raised in the Copper region of Alaska." (p. 135). So, what IS the story on his mother? Charlie Smelcer told me that his wife (the woman John says is his mother) is not Cherokee and that John is misrepresenting this, too.

John Smelcer has a champion out there who sticks up for him, explaining that there is friction and dysfunction in the family, and that Charlie Smelcer's brother is the one who taught John what he knows about Ahtna traditions, but that brother has yet to speak up himself.

I've got a question for librarians and teachers who work with young adult and high school students. When you ask them to do an author study of John Smelcer, what will you tell them about him? Will you let them believe he is Native by birth? What are you going to say?


Unknown said...

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.

I'm sorry, but that quote just bugs me. There are so many assumptions about just what kinds of lives Native North Americans are living today, that the idea we can't possibly know what a TV is, or a FAX, or oh my stars and garters! A computer!

I'm sorry. I just had to say that.

Jonquil said...

Oh, God, the imaginary Cherokees. (Why can't some other tribe suffer for awhile?) It seems to me you did a good job of marshalling evidence that *he* knew he was exaggerating his credentials for advantage; further, if the tribe he claims affiliation with denies him, aren't they the appropriate authority in this case?

Sigh. I loved your cite from the Ojibwe.

Scotti Cohn said...

Wahiaronkwas - I also bristled at the suggestion that "Native environment" by definition somehow excludes modern technology -- and I'm not even of Native American descent (to the best of my knowledge)!

Jonquil - At least he didn't claim his mother was a "Cherokee princess." That's one of my favorites.

JCD said...

Wahiaronkwas: That quote bothered me as well - and like Scotti Cohn - I have not of Native American descent. It is so laden with implication - I didn't know a "Native Environment" meant you lived without 'cars and television and everything else like that". I didn't know that you couldn't be Native AND be middle class.

Unknown said...

Charlie Smelcer is apparently an Ahtna shareholder himself who was raised in Alaska. This all seems very complicated to me especially since John Smelcer was/is apparently very close to at least some of his adoptive father's family. Charlie may have been comparing the lifestyle of his Athabascan family in rural Alaska during the time he grew up to the way John was raised on military bases. There would not have been cars in remote villages during Charlie Smelcer's childhood as there are few today off the road system. I don't begin to have any answers; I can't seem to discount anyone's point of view! Alaska is a complicated place in lots of ways. We're small and everything seems to end up being a family feud of some type or another.

JS said...

I am parsing Charlie Smelcer's point as "I am Alaska Native myself, but we did not raise John in a particularly Alaska Native environment--like the one I myself grew up in."

Presuming that Charlie Smelcer is in his 60s or older, "cars and television" might have not been common features of his childhood, judging by my conversations with Alaska Natives and reading memoirs by writers like like William Iggiagruk Hensley.

It seems to me that John Smelcer should be direct and just say "My adoptive father is an Alaska Native" because I can imagine some ways that that would give him insights into Alaska Native culture and experience (talking with relatives, for example).

That's not exactly the same as being an Alaska Native oneself, though, and it doesn't sound, from his own comments, like John Smelcer's assertion of an Alaska Native identity is so much about a deeply held belief that an adoptive child is part of its adoptive parents', rather than its biological parents' culture (which is certainly a defensible though controversial point of view), but a strategic decision--if he had believed the former, my guess is he would have said something more like "My father is Charlie Smelcer, not the person whose sperm helped conceive me; Charlie Smelcer is Ahtna, and therefore I consider myself Ahtna."

Anonymous said...

John Smelcer has publically posted his birth certificate, filed in 1963, identifying Charles Smelcer as his biological father. What is Debbie Reese's response to that? Does she believe it an outright forgery? Why does she keep insisting that he was adopted?

kechiro said...

I'm an adopted person. My birth certificate lists my adoptive parents names, not my birth parents. When adoptions are finalized, generally the vital records are changed to reflect the adoptive parents' names. It's pretty standard, and I don't see Charlie Smelcer's name on John's birth certificate as a red flag.