Praise for journalist Rich Smith’s article on The Stranger, “Meet John Smelcer, Native American Literature’s ‘Living Con Job’”: a profile of a fiction writer who starting claiming a strong Alaskan Native identity as early as 1994 and then appears to have run with a twenty-five-year string of inflated credentials and biographical details so elaborate that the resulting tale itself should be up for an award.
I don’t want to give the whole story away because it is an outstanding mystery with twists and turns best revealed in small doses throughout the narrative. But here is what the literary world is upset about right now:
We begin with John Smelcer’s 2016 book Stealing Indians, which has lately put Smelcer, a relatively unknown writer, in the spotlight with a PEN Literary Award nomination. At first, Smelcer sounds like a Rachel Dolezal; he was hired by the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of an effort to increase its diversity, with the understanding that he was an Alaskan Native. Smelcer’s teaching career unravelled when it came out that he was a Caucasian adopted by a man with Alaskan Native heritage. “He’s a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian,” his adoptive father told The Anchorage Daily News in 1994. “[I]f he’s used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that’s wrong.”
Today, out of three tabs on Smelcer’s site, one reads “ethnicity,” with a confusing rant about a vengeful professor who had wanted to get him fired, and goes on to provide extensive paperwork proving his heritage. At least one, claiming that “his Blood Quantum is 1/4 Alaska Native,” appears to have been forged, the supposed signatory tells Terese Marie Mailhot for the Los Angeles Times.
Smelcer maintains that he is a Traditional Ahtna Culture Bearer of the Ahtna tribe, and is one of the last speakers of the language Ahtna, which will die with him. His biography tells of a childhood subsisting on moose meat and caribou:
Dr. John Smelcer pursued a largely subsistence lifestyle, something of which his grandmother was very proud. John always shared his moose meat and caribou meat and salmon with his grandmother and her older sister, Morrie Secondchief, both born in Tazlina Lake Village, which was abandoned long ago. They called John “Canaani,” which means “Him with Hunter’s Luck.” He frequently brought porcupine to Morrie’s husband, Joe Secondchief, who was one of those very rare elders who never learned to speak much English.
Dubious cultural claims aside, then there was a forged acceptance letter for one of his poems on New Yorker letterhead, a fictitious PhD from Oxford, and a whirlwind of other fabrications which finally lands Smith at this paragraph:
When I tried to contact Smelcer directly through his website to ask about his Native status, his response to his critics, the New Yorker letter, the PhD from Oxford, the blurbs from dead people, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship that he still touted after it had been rescinded, and even the claim on his website that he had once personally discovered “a frozen wholly [sic] mammoth” while adventuring in Alaska, I learned that I needed to go through his agent, Johnny Savage.
And guess what? Johnny Savage turns out to be a headshot of actor Ian Somerhalder from Lost.
Smelcer is now being called out by fellow novelists like Marlon James, who knows Smelcer from being enrolled in the Wilkes University MFA program where Smelcer was dismissed from his mentor post when he was outed for the PhD. James points out that his book includes a blurb from Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013. (Incidentally, Achebe praises Stealing Indians on the Amazon page. He writes: ‘A poignant story of colonization and assimilation, something I know a little bit about. A masterpiece.’)
There is now an asterisk next to Stealing Indians on the PEN Literary Award site with a note indicating that the matter is being investigated.
Several other posthumous blurbs were provided by renowned dead authors such as Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and J.D. Salinger. The LA Times further investigated the matter and sometimes was able to confirm the claims; Stephen King, Noam Chomsky, and Stephen Pinker did throw him bones here and there. But then, this:
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.”)
Anyway, on the Amazon page, Ray Bradbury calls Stealing Indians “A beautiful and moving story of courage and love.”
A stunning tale of pathos and conviction.
Update, 8/27: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, is one of the writers whose accolades appear on the Stealing Indians Amazon page. She wrote to Jezebel that she has asked Smelcer to remove her blurb several times:
He was so intrusive, he kept lobbying me to give him a blurb. And I basically gave him one just to get rid of him. I was very busy on tour, and unbeknownst to me, he put it on a new book he just published. I’ve written him multiple times for over a year to take my blurb off his publicity, and he wouldn’t do it.
He uses all these famous dead people’s names. I never thought someone would be so brazen as to do something like that, but I thought, okay, I’m in good company!