One of the most prolific writers in America, John Smelcer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books. He was one of the last students of the legendary John Gardner, widely considered the best creative writing teacher in America. Aside from John's many novels and poetry collections, he has published books in Native Studies, history, folklore, mythology, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, as well as anthologies, plays, screenplays, dictionaries, and children's picture books. His short stories, poems, interviews, articles, and essays--read by millions--appear in hundreds of magazines and journals worldwide. John Smelcer's writing appears in numerous anthologies of the nation’s foremost Native American writers. His autobiography appears in Here First: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers (Modern Library/Random House, 2000) and his poems appear in Native American Songs & Poems (1999). In 1994, he co-edited the anthology, Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry, which was taught at hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation. With Joseph Bruchac, John co-edited Native American Classics (2013), a graphic anthology of 19th and early 20th century American Indian literature, which was named one of the hottest graphic novels of 2013. (To learn more about John's tribal affiliation click on bio)
John Smelcer's novel, The Trap, acclaimed a masterpiece, won the $10,000 James Jones Prize (James Jones was the author of such classics as From Here to Eternity, Some Came Running, and The Thin Red Line; Rick Bass won the award before me) and is listed as one of the 101 greatest novels to teach the English language worldwide. John was a colleague with Jones's daughter, Kayle Jones. The Trap and John's follow-up novel, The Great Death were both selected for England's National Literacy Book Trust. The Great Death was listed among the greatest adventure stories for young readers. John's survival novel Edge of Nowhere was named one of the best books in the UK in 2010 and was compared to Robinson Crusoe. His award-winning novel Lone Wolves was hailed as one of the greatest dog adventure stories of all time and is listed with I am Malala as one of the best feminist books in 2013 (Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014). The American Library Association's YALSA named John Smelcer's mountain climbing novel, Savage Mountain, as one of the greatest adventure/survival stories of all time, alongside Into Thin Air, Unbroken, Hatchet, and A Perfect Storm. Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) called John's historical novel Stealing Indians "a masterpiece." The Gospel of Simon, John's novel about the day Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem is praised by many of the world's most influential social justice and religious figures, including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Cardinal Edward Egan, Daniel Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, Coretta Scott King (MLK's widow), and Tom O'Horgan who directed Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Dr. Smelcer's forthcoming historical novel, Kiska, is about how the US government interned 881 Alaska Natives called Aleuts during WWII, just as they did Japanese-Americans. One of the most forgotten stories of American history. Read John Smelcer's article about it on NPR.
John's books on Alaska Native mythology include, Trickster, A Cycle of Myths and The Raven and The Totem, the bestselling collection of Alaska Native myths in history, now in an expanded 25th anniversary second
edition, which features forewords by Alan Dundes and
John's mentor Joseph Campbell, who helped
George Lucas create the archetypal stories and characters
in Star Wars. James Michener and John Gardner were also among John's early writing mentors. John's mythology book In the Shadows of Mountains includes an introduction by
Pulitzer Prize winner, Gary Snyder (with Jack Kerouac and Allen
Ginsberg, one of the original Beats), who also wrote a foreword to John's forthcoming poetry book, Raven, a project he began in the mid-1990s with Ted Hughes, England's Poet Laureate and Sylvia Plath's widower. John
Smelcer's poetry book, Without Reservation, won the Milt Kessler Prize for the best book of poetry published in America by a poet over 40.
It also won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Poetry. For over 25 years, many of John's books have been illustrated by Larry Vienneau.
In 2015, John Smelcer discovered the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, considered one of the most influential religious thinkers, philosophers, writers, mystics, and social rights and peace activists of the 20th century. Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain is considered one of the seminal coming-to-faith autobiographies of all time. Merton helped inform Martin Luther King Jr's practice of non-violent protest. In his September 2015 address to Congress, Pope Francis hailed Thomas Merton as one of the greatest Americans, alongside Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day, and Abraham Lincoln. The treasure trove contained hundreds of objects, many iconic (such as his white habit and black cowl and his denim jacket seen on so many book covers), and never before seen photographs of Merton. John donated most of the objects to the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, not far from the Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton lived his life as the most famous monk in the world. Other objects were donated to The Vatican and the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.
John Smelcer is one of the last speakers of the Ahtna language, a severely endangered Alaska Native language. Only a dozen or so elders, all decades older than John, still speak the language. He is the only tribal member who can read and write in Ahtna. If nothing changes, when John Smelcer dies, so too will the Ahtna language. Go to http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/761 to watch an interview with Dr. Smelcer on the Endangered Language Project. John is also one of only a handful of Native speakers of Alutiiq, a neighboring yet unrelated Alaska Native language from the Prince William Sound region. It too is endangered. One of John's mentors was the legendary MIT linguist, Ken Hale, who spoke over 50 languages and advocated for the linguistic training of cultural insiders. As with his work with Ahtna, John studied Alutiiq with every living elder who spoke the language over a four year period. One of the world's foremost scholars of Native American languages, John Smelcer is the editor-compiler of dictionaries of both languages, (click on dictionaries), the author of numerous articles and encyclopedia entries, essays, and a scholarly book chapter on the origins of Native American languages. John regularly publishes poetry in the Ahtna language. One of John's bilingual poems is on permanent display at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo as part of its World Language Conservation Project. In April 2011, John lectured at Harvard University as part of its Omniglot Lecture Series. The National Park Service occasionally consults John about issues of cultural and linguistic history of national parks in Alaska. John was taught traditional drum-making by Ahtna elder Henry Bell. Professor Smelcer has lectured broadly about contemporary socioeconomic and healthcare issues in Native communities. In 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), John and former Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) president Emil Notti, provided forewords to An Act of Deception, a landmark book that examined the negative impact of the Act on Alaska Native Peoples. At Lee Francis' invitation, and at the urging of his sister Paula Gunn Allen and American Book Award winner James Welch, John Smelcer was one of the founding members of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers. John Smelcer and Sherman Alexie were panelists at the 1994 Returning the Gift conference held on the Makaw Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington.
Many of the world's greatest writers, scholars, and icons have collaborated with John Smelcer, including John Updike who edited The Binghamton Poems, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker with The Complete Ahtna Poems and The Ahtna Noun and Pronunciation Dictionary, John's friend Carl Sagan with Tracks, Gary Snyder with In the Shadows of Mountains, Trickster, and Raven, Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg with Songs from an Outcast (UCLA's American Indian Studies Center, 2000), Norman Mailer and Nobelist Saul Bellow with John's novel The Gospel of Simon. (John was colleagues with Mailer's son, Michael Mailer), Chinua Achebe and Ursula K. Le Guin with Stealing Indians, Michael Dorris, James Welch, James Michener, John Gardner and JD Salinger with ALASKAN: Stories from the Great Land (winner of a gold medal in the 2011 eLit Book Awards), Ted Hughes (Sylvia Plath's ex-husband) with Raven Speaks (John was friends with Nicholas Hughes, the son of Hughes and Sylvia Plath, before his death in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2009), and Nobelist Seamus Heaney, who co-wrote a poem with John at a pub in Dublin. The Dalai Lama graciously provided a foreword to John's The Alutiiq Noun Dictionary and also co-authored a poem with him. R. Crumb illustrated John's poem "The Book of Genesis, Revised for American Indian History." John co-wrote a number of children's books with Ann McGovern, author of the classic Stone Soup. David Roberts, Jon Krakauer's (Into Thin Air) mentor and one of the world's greatest mountain climbers, helped edit John's mountain climbing adventure novel, Savage Mountain.
John has twice served as a nominator for the $625,000 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowships. With Jack Zipes, John co-authored "The Story-Telling Instinct: Why Fairy Tales Stick." With Seth Lerer, John co-authored "Beowulf and the English Literary Tradition." With Joel Gardner (John Gardner's son), John co-authored "Thirty Years Later: A Conversation on John Gardner." With Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman, John co-authored "American Studies at a Crossroads." At the turn of the millineum, John co-authored "The Future of Poetry in America" with X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. With Joseph Bruchac he co-wrote "The Boarding School Experience in American Indian Literature" and "The Dawes Act and the Great American Indian Lands Grab." His essay "We Are Still Here" is about how contemporary Native American literature re-visions American history. With Lucille Clifton, who he met at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, he co-authored "Identity, Multigenrism, and the Historicity of Jean Toomer's Cane," a reexamination of that seminal book and the rise of the Harlem Renaissance. "The Hughes-Plath Family Tree" is a recollection of John's friendships with Ted and Nick Hughes. John and Ted co-wrote the poem "Beowraven" over pints of Guinness in a pub in England in 1997. John's poetry book, Raven, which includes a foreword by Ted Hughes, is forthcoming in 2018 and features an illustration by Leonard Baskin, whose artwork graced the cover of Hughes's Crow. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is a memoir of John's friendship with John Updike. "Broken Man on Blue Water" is a memoir about Michael Dorris. John's memoir "Man of Words and Grace" is about his long-time literary friendship with Irish Nobelist Seamus Heaney. "America's Scrappy Novelist (and Poet?)" is a memoir about John's friendship with Norman Mailer. John Smelcer is often hailed as Alaska's modern day Jack London. Since 1995, John Smelcer has been associate publisher and poetry editor at Rosebud, one of the premiere literary magazines in America, where he has edited and published work by many of the world’s greatest writers and pop icons, including Stephen King, John Updike, Studs Terkel, Seamus Heaney, Elie Wiesel, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker, Pope John Paul II, The Dalai Lama, Paul McCartney, and Michael Jackson (John worked closely with Michael editing his poems/lyrics for a proposed collection of poetry). Poems published in Rosebud have been selected for The Best American Poetry.
For over a decade, John Smelcer was co-judge of the National Poetry Book Award with poets Allen Ginsberg, James Dickey, John Updike, Denise Levertov, X. J. Kennedy, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Thom Gunn, Stanley Kunitz and David Ignatow. In the mid-1990s, Allen Ginsberg named John Smelcer as "one of the best younger poets in America." John Smelcer is the co-founder of several major American literary awards, including the William Stafford Prize for Poetry, the Dylan Thomas American Poet Prize (with Aeronwy Thomas), The X. J. Kennedy Prize for Nonfiction, The Mary Shelley Prize for Fiction, and the John Gardner Prize for Playwriting (co-judged with Joel Gardner). In 2010, John Smelcer invited legendary icon Bob Dylan to co-judge the Dylan Thomas American Poet Prize (Bob Dylan aka Robert Zimmerman, took Dylan Thomas' name as his stage name). Throughout the many years he has served as poetry editor at Rosebud and as co-judge of the National Poetry Book Award, John estimates that he has received and read a staggering 300,000 poems!
John Smelcer has taught literature, creative writing, public speaking, journalism, and Native American Studies for a quarter of a century. He has given public readings worldwide, and he is represented by one of the world's premiere speaker agencies. He has been the keynote speaker at university convocations and commencements and at such venues as the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian. For his contributions to ethnic studies, ethnic American literature, and diversity in higher education, Baruch College of Manhattan, the most ethnically diverse college in America, asked John to deliver the keynote address at their fall 2009 Convocation. In 2010, John was nominated for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks' Distinguished Alumni Award. In November 2012, John addressed the FBI's Bureau Office in New York City as part of a program mandated for all federal agencies by Presidential Executive Order to increase diversity awareness. Professor Smelcer has held distinguished professorships and residencies around the the world. From 2006-2011, he was the Clifford D. Clark Fellow of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University, the honors campus of the State University of New York, where he was named one of the most prolific writers in the history of the university. In March 2010, John received the Chancellor''s Award for Excellence in Research. In the fall of 2011, The student newspaper named him one of the university's most interesting, inspirational, and remarkable professors. In 2013, John was recommended to The White House to receive the Presidential Citizen's Medal for his enduring efforts to preserve America's Native heritage. John Smelcer is married to archaeologist, Dr. Amber Johnson, who was the widow of Lewis Binford, one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th century. Coincidentally, John met Professor Binford in Alaska back in the mid-198os when he was a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Dr. Smelcer currently teaches Classical literature and mythology at a local college, and he writes a blog for The Charter for Compassion, a global nonprofit promoting peace, compassion, and nonviolence founded by Karen Armstrong (A History of God). Click on the icon below to go to John's blog.
Click on "bio" to learn more about John Smelcer's life.
Click on "dictionaries" to download Dr. Smelcer's Ahtna and Alutiiq noun dictionaries, as well as educational posters of both languages.
Click on "contact" for speaking engagements, publishing requests, or for general questions (teachers are encouraged to contact the author).
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