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.

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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.
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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.

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