John Smelcer: Indian By Proxy

Terese Mailhot

I don’t know what “Native” is. It’s become something so obscure that the more I talk about it the more abstract it becomes. I can’t say it’s about blood, or skin, or pain, or papers. But I know when it’s absent. The Kenyon Review published the work of John Smelcer, a white man who has published several books about the “Native experience,” and, yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds. He’s published books like Savage Mountain, Indian Giver, and Stealing Indians. Never mind he was outed as “a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian” by his adopted father in the Anchorage Daily News.

His writing is worse than his backstory. His poems were so culturally offensive they were taken down by The Kenyon Review. Just to give you a taste, here are a few lines of his poem, “Indian Blues:”

old Indian mothers who had lost   

their children and grandchildren

to alcohol and drunk driving. …

Two Fist travelled

from reservation to reservation

and powwow to powwow

singing the blues. 

Yikes. Honestly, even if this guy was Native, those poems are bad. They’re what give poetry a bad name. Just from a conceptual standpoint they lack the innovation and craft a good writer should have. What really bothers me, though, is that it was published at all. Is this what literary magazines think of Natives? It’s bad enough we’re stereotyped by politicians, Kardashians, and everyday people who have an “Indian princess” in their very loose family histories.

Native writers have to deal with a lot. We get ethnic enthusiasts who look at our work like it’s socio-cultural anthropological evidence, and we get compartmentalized into the “Native Literature” section within institutions and bookstores. When we write about the contemporary experiences of Indigenous people, we are often told the world doesn’t want to hear it. We’re often told to “write Indian,” which means tropes about Indian mystics, nature, and how bad life is for us. The worst part about being a Native writer is competing with non-Natives, who will proudly serve up tropes about us to get a check and some limelight.

John Smelcer’s story can be found in old news articles like the Sitka Daily Sentinel, where his whole life of fraud unfolds. In the story, “UAA Prof Resigns As Credentials Looked Into,” they write, “Some faculty members opposed his appointment because he was hired through a special process aimed at increasing minority staff. And then university administrators discovered he was not an Alaska Native as first was thought …” And that’s not all, the article goes on to say John Smelcer’s assertions regarding publications didn’t check out while they were looking into his ethnic status. His résumé included a publication in The New Yorker that didn’t exist. What he lacks in writing talent, he more than makes up for in hubris. In another article his own adopted father clarifies that his son is not Native. I don’t think he’s Native in the same way that I don’t think my friends from foster care are white for being adopted by white families. They’re still Native, and he’s still white.

I don’t know what ‘Native’ is, but I resent people with dubious stories, who benefit from white privilege and refuse to be accountable to hardworking Natives who have to struggle against oppression and stigma every day.

Terese Mailhot graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Yellow Medicine Review, and is forthcoming in The Rumpus.

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Sammy7's picture
Terese, yes Indian identity today is complex. Speaking as someone who is Indian but not enrolled, but having heritage and living in traditional culture, I am in the minority outside the Nations. I too am embarrassed by the behaviors of too many self-identifying outlanders. I too see the problem. I also see the problem with three quarters of enrolled Indians who are largely assimilated and living outside of their core traditional cultures. In them I often see the same behaviors that I see in White culture. It would seem that core traditional Indians, specific by Nations, would have a common interest with non-enrolled traditional peoples. History and genocide has rendered these people separate, yet, in my opinion we have more in common than we have differences. In our commonalities I believe there exists a strong strand of common survival. We are more capable in this modern world together than we are separated. Would it not be better spending our time identifying traditional peoples, both enrolled and non-enrolled, and bringing them together rather than exclusively fighting outrageous wannabees? I believe there is more to be gained by respectful association. Just the opinion of one old Indian. Thanks for addressing this issue.
smacmill's picture
Shame on Smelcer and other pretenders. He deserves Terese’s outing. I agree though with Sammy7 that Native American identity is pretty complicated today. I am enrolled yet no one on the street would think hey she looks like an Indian. I never lived on my mother’s reservation. Can one choose where they are born and raised? Anyway, I bet if a study were done of DNA testing on North American Natives, the blood quantum results as a whole would be much lower than we would all hope. How could it not be that, with the passage of time? I’ll say it once again here, with the Native American population only being about 1% of the U.S. population, we need all the voices we can have, as long as they’re not pretenders.
Rachelle Powell's picture
Thanks for taking on this issue and for being so inclusive to all our Native brothers and sisters. Sammy7 and smacmill have hit the nail on the head: we have more power if we all stand together.
Rachelle Powell