John Smelcer’s young adult book “Stealing Indians” has been withdrawn from contention for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. Smelcer’s status as one of four finalists in the young adult category, announced Aug. 10, directed renewed attention to his claims to Native American heritage and other questions about the author’s work.
For more than 20 years, the Native literary world has wondered about Smelcer's bona fides. Numerous controversies have sprouted up around him, including a high-profile dismissal, winning a literary prize that was subsequently rescinded, questions about the authenticity of quotes praising Smelcer from deceased authors and accusations that he misrepresented himself as Alaska Native.
Repeated attempts to reach Smelcer for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
I first wrote about Smelcer's claims to Native heritage in 2016 in an Indian Country Today critique. The Stranger further explored the issue, quoting that piece in a story headlined "Meet John Smelcer, Native American Literature's 'Living Con Job.'"
Smelcer's detailed online biography notes that he is a member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska, a voting shareholder in the Ahtna Native Corp. and one-fourth Native blood.
A representative said that Ahtna Inc. is not a tribe, but an Alaska Native Regional Corporation, and such corporations routinely have shareholder-owners who are not enrolled in any tribe. Meanwhile, the shareholder records coordinator for Ahtna Inc., Dorothy Shinn, whose signature appears on a document Smelcer has posted on his website as evidence that "his Blood Quantum is 1/4 Alaska Native," tells the Los Angeles Times she never signed it.
Smelcer's disputed lineage would not matter if it did not play a major part in his career successes writing fiction and poetry about Native experiences.
In 1994, Smelcer's heritage made the local papers when it was learned that the University of Alaska Anchorage, as part of efforts to diversify its faculty, had appointed him to a full-time teaching position. At the time, he was only the second full-time Native faculty member on staff at the university, which had many Native students.
"We believed John Smelcer to be an Alaska Native at the time of the hire," a university spokesman told the Anchorage Daily News, which reported that Smelcer was "not an Alaska Native" and "is the adopted son of an Indian."
Smelcer had used careful wording during the hiring process. "The question was never put to me, point blank, 'Are you a full-blood Indian?'" he told the paper. "I was very careful with the dictionary, finding that word 'affiliated,'" adding, "After all, I was an English major."
Charlie Smelcer, the writer's adoptive father, said at the time, "He's a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian, just like anyone else is," disputing his son's claims to a Native upbringing, saying that it had been "middle-class … with cars and television and everything else." The elder Smelcer added, "If he's used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that's wrong."
On his website, Smelcer disputes his father's assertions and accuses his father of trying to "publicly destroy his son."
In the summer of 1994, Smelcer resigned from the university post, saying he was leaving for another position.
National book award-winning author Sherman Alexie met Smelcer in the mid-1990s at a number of Native American writer conferences and assumed he might have an Indian grandparent and be trying to connect with his roots. "He was socially awkward, meaning he had no ability to talk and laugh and joke using the everyday signs, signals and codes of general Native American culture," Alexie recalled, adding, "Not a crime." Over time, Alexie grew concerned about Smelcer's boastful portrayals of his heritage.
Following the announcement that he was among the PEN Center USA prize finalists, other literary figures took to social media to disavow Smelcer's work. Among the strongest views were those expressed by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Marlon James, who was a student at the Wilkes University master of fine arts program when Smelcer briefly taught there. "This is the man who at our class reading invented a language, claiming that it was an ancient Native American tongue, and he was its last speaker," James posted on Facebook.
When reached by email, Smelcer's agent, Johnny Savage, disputed James' critique, writing "Dr. Smelcer is one of the last of a handful of fluent speakers of Ahtna left on earth." Follow-up emails to Savage went unanswered and his phone number was disconnected. (Savage's agency has done no publishing deals since 2000, according to industry watcher Publishers Marketplace. The agency's website, which has since removed its content, featured a stock photo of a woman with a guitar and "The Vampire Diaries" actor Ian Somerhalder, who is represented by ICM.)
James had encountered Smelcer at Wilkes, a low-residency MFA program in creative writing. In 2004, Smelcer won both the program's James Jones Literary Society First Novel Fellowship and its Milt Kessler Award for poetry. Bonnie Culver, the former director of the Wilkes program, gave Smelcer a two-term tryout to join the small teaching staff. "In all ways, he did not fit," she says. He was not asked to return.
Kaylie Jones, who chairs the fellowship named after her father, author of "From Here to Eternity," learned that Smelcer was not eligible for the James Jones fellowship, which was rescinded.
Both Jones and Culver were concerned by the connections Smelcer claimed to famous writers. In some cases, The Times was able to confirm them. Stephen King did give him a poem for a journal, Noam Chomsky did write the foreword for an anthology Smelcer edited, and Stephen Pinker allowed him to use a passage from "The Language Instinct" as an introduction.
However, the Dalai Lama's office confirms that His Holiness did not write an introduction for Smelcer (one attributed to him appears in Smelcer's book, "Alutiiq Noun Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide.")
And in some cases, authors' representatives expressed surprise and concern about blurbs Smelcer attributed to them, including Norman Mailer's biographer and the estates of poet Mark Strand and bestselling memoirist Frank McCourt.
Praise from deceased authors is common for Smelcer's work. More than 20 well-known writers who had all died three or more years prior to his books' publication were cited praising Smelcer's works — in blurbs, on his website or as authors of the books' forwards.
A blurb might have been a red flag for those reading Smelcer's YA novel "Stealing Indians,"the PEN Center award finalist. A quote from Chinua Achebe hails it as "a masterpiece." The book was published in 2016; Achebe died in 2013.
The managing editor of publisher Leapfrog Press, Lisa Graziano, told The Times that Smelcer got the Achebe blurb himself. "If an author brings in a manuscript with whole blurbs, he signs a contract that says, 'these are authentic and truthful,' and there it is," Graziano said.
"We have other books with famous blurbers," she added. "It's not a huge, big deal in general. Maybe the number of them is. This author likes to make efforts to meet and contact and talk to and get blurbs from famous people. It's sort of a hobby of his, I'm told."
Poet Joy Harjo confirmed that she did not write the blurb attributed to her that is featured on his website. "He has used famous writers' names, even some who were gone long before his book publications," she said.
"I just want to go on the record, in case I unexpectedly die, that I haven't read any book by John Smelcer," Alexie joked.
Native writers have raised concerns about Smelcer's successful history of portraying Native narratives to the publishing industry. It raises questions about how palatable that work is to an audience unfamiliar with indigenous cultures.
"Because Smelcer is a language speaker, fishes, has lived in his tribal community and writes nature poems and stories where animals unironically talk," Alexie says, "he presents as being Indian in a way that non-Natives and Natives agree is the 'most authentic' way of being Indian."
Alaskan poet Joan Naviyuk Kane says, "This makes me sad for writers like Cathy Tagnak Rexford, a tremendous Native writer — YA, poet and playwright." She continued, "It makes me grateful for Native spaces and communities, like IAIA [Institute for American Indian Arts], where indigenous writers catalyze and create, year after year, no matter what mistakes dominant American culture continues to make."
Does the blame for Smelcer's continued success lie with editors and publishers who fail to do their due diligence? Is it that Native voices are invisible? Or are voices like Smelcer's, that play on tropes of Native people, or discuss our plight in familiar ways, more palatable to publishers and prize juries?
Our communities, our histories, our art have been fractured — to the point where it seems authenticity or belonging is defined by anyone who claims it. If writers and readers, Native or not, could explore narratives beyond the tropes of indigenous life, where authority on writing about us didn't mean selling oneself as a hunter, or language speaker, or trapped in some primordial humanity, it would be harder for people to make dubious claims and write with absolute authority.
Terese Marie Mailhot's first book, "Heart Berries: A Memoir" will be published by Counterpoint in 2018. She is on the creative writing faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University and on Twitter @TereseMarieM.
2:43 p.m. Aug. 29: This article has been updated with the news that John Smelcer's "Stealing Indians" has been removed as a finalist for an award by PEN Center USA.