Unflattering Imitation

Very quickly: as I’m rereading/auditing (*insert Scientology joke here so that Andy doesn’t have to*) The Poets’ Anagnorises – among other endeavors – I find yet another example of a White American male attempting to capitalize on being a member of a population who have historically been marginalized and of which even now very few members do get that chance (to use their underrepresented experience to catapult them out of their social caste). With the most optimistic consideration possible, Josh wonders if this speaks to our society’s bend towards inclusion. While I will herald that day with the rest of you, we have to start in reality. This is just good ole fashion, bold-faced lying and worse: a slap in the face. The best part is that when I read about his winning of the James Jones fellowship and his subsequent success, I felt momentarily guilty for looking at his picture and wondering why he was being referred to as a Native. When I read the fact that he was the last surviving translator, that is. And, of course, that was before figuring out that the entire bio of his in the JJ newsletter was based solely on his word. Which we’ve just figured out is worthless.

John Smelcer

Now, the reason for the guilt is being a part of the complex Black caste. Meaning, being a different race from my parents who were different races than their respective parents. My father is dark. My grandfather passed. And still could have right up to his death. But part of why the John Smelcers of this country really disturb me is that they did not live this complex experience. They weren’t ever in a position to die if found out. They’ve never felt the anxiety that accompanies putting one’s life on the line to escape the unacceptable status and treatment that your race bestows upon you. They just capitalize on the novelty that America has assigned by appropriating the identities. And, let’s remember: my grandfather passed because of what was really in his blood. He didn’t just tell a bold-faced lie to sell a brand. Having for the majority of his life benefited from the institutional privilege that no actual Native American could grasp without being in that complicated position of “passing”.

The Great Death is a fictional piece with a factual background. It is the story based on the lives of Smelcer’s two full-blood Indian grandmothers” is anything but ambiguous. If you wanna play the “adopted” card, let’s follow that logic. So you identify as Native, although you’ve known you’re not your entire life. You’ve registered knowing it would be assumed based on your adopted father’s last name already being in the registry. This is much more inconsiderate than the inverse situation because of the effort taken to have statistical accuracy within a tribe, especially one that has already lost the last full-blooded member (of whom you are claiming to be a “descendant”)… This is not about an identity complex or crisis. It couldn’t be. You’re a White man living in America. Regardless of what you tell people with whom you actually converse, you have been and will continue to reap the benefits of your Whiteness immediately and by virtue of your phenotype! The limited number of actual Natives capitalizing by the sharing of their story makes it irritating to more than few, I’m sure, when someone else gets to.

Will there a come a day when caste and race are overwhelmingly historical? I should hope so. But we don’t get there by jumping over the present ramifications of the past. This should be obvious whether I’m making myself clear at 11:45 or not.

So, obviously, I don’t know the meaning of “very quickly”. Though I’d intended to talk about our Easter Weekend (with Ana, Thanos and Auntie Annie) and our visit to Wilder Ranch, I’ll just whet your appetites with this:

Josh in Bonnet


29 thoughts on “Unflattering Imitation

  1. Well said, Bethany. I felt cheated when I learned about Smelcer’s disingenuous disclosure of his identity. In schools, kids do “author studies” and it bothers me that he is misleading them this way. Full disclosure of who he is and how he’s lived his life would be more educative than what he’s doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Debreese. I agree with your suggestion of full disclosure. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged him if he spoke as a knowledgeable White male who’d been raised by a member of the tribe.


  3. MMm. Hmm. That blog you linked is good reading too.
    Since I’m not really a part of the system, I don’t have much room to comment on what is and isn’t Indian, but one of the commenters on her page makes an interesting point about what constitutes and Indian.

    But of course the guy should have just said he was “adopted by an Indian” to start, so these points are moot; he was deliberately obscuring the facts of his history for his own gain.


  4. I love how his father was like, “He said what? Oh Gee. My son’s a lying liar.”
    And don’t ask how I know this… but I think there was a similar issue with Shania Twain claiming to be a Native American when she (technically) isn’t. Her stepfather was Ojibwa, and since she was adopted by him she is recognized by the tribe as being an Ojibwa herself.


  5. You know, it’s not about people identifying with the culture. That’s totally understandable to say that it’s the culture you’re most familiar with — even though the adopted father in the above story denied even that claim; it’s just be clear about what you honestly have in your blood, especially if there’s a question of it bringing you novelty that translates to financial gain.


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  7. I really need to clarify a couple issues regarding John Smelcer. I have known John for nearly 20 years and believe the entire incident with UAA was political motivated (department resented a minority hire) and was completely unfair to John.
    John’s father adopted him as a boy after he married John’s mother. Charlie was a cruel hostile father and his neglect contributed to the suicide death of John’s older brother. They bitterly divorced yet John was still considered “family” by all of this cousins, uncles and grandparents. His Uncle Herb was, in fact, the father John never had. He nurtured John and taught him the value of Alaskan Native traditions. Ironically John’s father is less “Native” than John. He does not take part in family functions and is regarded as an outsider while John has maintained strong family ties. Charlie Smelcer does not help family members in need while Herb, John and his cousins hunted caribou, moose, and harvested salmon for older family members and tribal elders. John was genuinely loved by his grandmother. John is also one of the last people to speak Athabascan Athna, His is also the last person able to write in the language. In 1998 he was wrote the Ahtna Noun Dictionary. He was also an member of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, he is a BIA card holder, and recognized as Native because as an adopted son he is entitled to inherited his father’s blood line. Regardless of what Charlie Smelcer may say, John has always seen the Smelcer family as the only family he has ever known.
    I wrote to the Anchorage paper on Jon’s behalf, as did Herb, and other family members. None of these letters in support of him were ever published while the only opinion that was made public was that his bitter adopted father. That is wrong.
    John is Native in his heart and soul.

    Please read the following:


    The adopted child is treated by law as the natural child of the adopting parents, upon the entry of the final adoption decree.
    The adopted child, therefore, gains the right to inherit from the adoptive parents and adoptive parents’ relatives. Adoptive parents and other adoptive relatives also gain the right to inherit from the adopted child.

    Adoptive Parents in Relation to Adopted Person
    Citation: Alaska Stat. § 25.23.130
    A final decree of adoption creates the relationship of parent and child between petitioner and the adopted person,as if the adopted person were a legitimate blood descendant of the petitioner, for all purposes including inheritance.

    Larry Vienneau (1/8 Blood Band, Blackfeet if it matters)


  8. I think what people are upset about is that he isn’t. Biologically. Native.

    While I appreciate your love for him as your family, this is not the account that most people will ever hear – for better or worse – and also is not the list of “facts” that will be relevant to the discussion on people who have represented themselves as a marginalized ethnicity of which they are not biologically a part. I do not in any way want to trivialize your familial relationship with him. But there is a difference between how he is recognized and received in your intimate setting and representing himself as such to the general public, without this lengthy explanation so as to avoid unnecessary or intentional deception.
    I do appreciate your comment and for what it’s worth, it does affect how I personally feel about his stance.


  9. Final thought: adoption does not impart race or privilege. He was no less white for being adopted and having the privilege of “native” life. Likewise, he will lose none of the privileges imparted to him based on his Caucasian phenotype, privileges that stem from a history of institutionalized racism.
    I more than anyone wish we lived in a world where your explanation was the one thought paramount. But we’re not there yet and when we are, I hope it’ll begin with the equalizing of experience for marginalized people before the privileged, no matter how compassionate and loving they may be.


  10. I guess he does look to white. I taught at the University of Alaska and know a faculty member 1/2 white, 1/2 Native, the problem is he looked white, the interesting thing was than no native person every doubted his race, it was only the white folks that had the problem. I am part Native, married to a Chinese women, my kids could pass for Native while I have trouble. Imagine if Obama looked more like his mother that his father, as a politician would he be better off?


  11. By the way, thank you for your comments. For years I have tried to get people to understand more about John’s background and his intimate knowledge of the Ahtna people. But the truth is most people feel it is easier to condemn him than understand his point of view. Legally he has every right to call himself Native and biology really has very little to do with it.My grandmother, though she looked native, had no legal claim to call herself Native since she was part of a band that fled from Montana through Canada and settled in New England. She had no tribal affiliation while John obviously has plenty.


  12. “He looks too white” ~ Just to clarify, isn’t he white? I mean, it’s not like his parents are “native” and he just happens to look white… he is white, correct? Race is 100% debilitating because it’s not about the truth. It determines your social status so it’s a lot more loaded than that. As a Black American, no one knows and most don’t care what my actual race is. My cultural heritage is still determining my American caste. Believe me, I don’t like that system anymore than anyone else: it makes other people feel like they get to tell me what I can claim, regardless of the truth.
    *Book on this specific topic forthcoming


  13. The only reason it matters (what race we claim and the biology behind it) is because we live in a hierarchical society. That’s the depressing part: that we could do away with it if we all really wanted to. Thanks for your comments, as well.


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  15. Smelcer has a new book out… On my blog (today) I posted a timeline of my work on Smelcer. I’m posting it here, too, for your reference, and hopefully, your feedback.


    Tuesday, October 20, 2009
    Who is John Smelcer (author of THE TRAP and THE GREAT DEATH)

    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.”

    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
    Charles 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? Charles Smelcer told me that John tricked Charles’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. Charles has talked with John about misrepresenting who he is but he continues to do it.

    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.”

    But, 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? Charles Smelcer said his wife (the woman John says is his mother) is not Cherokee. John Smelcer has a champion out there who sticks up for him, explaining that there is friction and dysfunction in the family, and that Charles 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 Smelcer, what will you tell them about him? Will you let them believe he is Native by birth? What are you going to say?


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

      Charles Smelcer’s Brother, Herb Smelcer died in 2004. He attempted to speak for himself but his letter to the editor in support of John was never published. (as were all support letters from friends, elders, and family) He was a friend and was more of a father to John than Charlie could ever be. If you had actually been doing your research you would have know he was dead three years before your blog post.
      I stick up for John because he attempted to kill himself due, in part, to this relentless regurgitation. He is emotionally unable deal with it.


      • In all seriousness, if your friend has been so forlorn over this situation, perhaps your support would better serve him directly than taking on the internet. No one who has been discussing the situation he created has made an attempt on his life, nor do I think it’s appropriate to go throwing that around, as sensitive a subject as it is.


        • very true, thank you. I think with my heart, not my head sometimes, he is a friend. This year there has been many anonymous letters and a string of Wikipedia entries which are reminiscent of some of the things said here and on other blogs. I fear that who ever is responsible has been a reader or is using blogs as a source. Not accusing anyone here, I am just fearful of the repercussions.


  16. Thank you again for your comments, Debbie.

    Thank you for all of this additional information – this post gets a lot of traffic and it’s very useful to have so much information on a matter that is clearly of interest to so many.

    The saddest part is that I get no indication that this person is considerate of the ramifications of his lying – at least to anyone but himself. Which – I’m sure you know what I’m going to say here – is a great indication of the level of privilege to which he is accustomed, whether he identifies it or not.

    While many people will think the two are separate and unique facts, the “careful” word choice, the credentials probe and the phony letter – which someone else would have had cause to include in a file to which they somehow had access? – are more indication of someone intentionally misleading for his own gain.

    How very disappointing. I would think his beloved Native family deserved better.


  17. Pingback: The Great Death by John Smelcer « Practically Paradise

    • If by the truth you mean what Mr. Smelcer and you would like everyone to take into consideration ASIDE FROM THE TRUTH THAT HE IS NOT NATIVE, then alright. The truth in question here has been his actual ethnicity, which is already established.


      • Wow we can go on like this forever. Thank you for posting this though. You are basing all your facts on second hand knowledge, and I have first hand knowledge, I knew all involved. The truth is his family considered him native, he was raised to believe he was a family member and, to John, that was his family and heritage… The truth is he was considered NATIVE by his family. .so who is right? He is recognized as blood native by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You have to ask yourself -“What kind of father would do this to his son” Have you ever considered that maybe the truth isn’t as easy to pin down and that the primary source (Charle Smelcer) should be suspect. I asked John’s Uncle why John’s father hated John. He said with a smile’ Because John is more native than his Dad”


        • What confuses me is that you and I are saying the same thing: he is not biologically native. Who’s right? Biology. There is no second and first hand knowledge, only facts. No one seems to dispute that he’s not native so it is rather underhanded for you to accuse me of somehow misrepresenting the truth. The fact is that your family does not have the final say-so when it comes to biological ethnicity. What you consider him has literally no bearing on the mass market, to whom he intentionally presented himself as native without the privilege of the entire truth. I appreciate your love for him, as much as I love my adopted niece but I cannot make her the same race as me, regardless of the culture we share.

          I have no problem with your continued comments, but please let’s stop repeating ourselves.


  18. John’s uncle wrote to the paper in his support. His letter was never published
    “My name is Herbert Smelcer. I am a Ahtna board member and brother of Charles Smelcer. I am writing this letter for my nephew John Smelcer who you have written about two days ago. I want to tell you that John has always been regarded as a member of our native family and he was raised to know the native ways..”
    I suppose the the question is what qualifies as a Native person. Compare a native child raised by a White family, completely removed for the culture and a non-native child raised by a native family and immersed in that culture. Who is native? To flatly say outright that John Smelcer is not Native is unfair to the family.
    Bethany, I do appreciate your willingness to post my opinion. I know that you have your mind made up. I hope my experience in this matter will offer people still undecided another point of view to consider.
    Thank you


  19. Bethany… you following the news about Smelcer, of the last two weeks? I’ve got a round up at my site: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2017/08/john-smelcers-stealing-indians-finalist.html

    Short version: his STEALING INDIANS was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award in the YA category. Marlon James posted on Facebook about knowing him years prior and that he should not be considered for the PEN award. There’s been several major articles about this, and yesterday, PEN removed his book from consideration. Fascinating articles.

    Liked by 1 person

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