Insider/Outsider: Living Between Two Cultures

John Smelcer is a member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska. The Ahtna People inhabit eight small villages, mostly located along the silty, glacial-fed Copper River, from which the word is derived ('Atna' tuu). Ahtna Native Corporation is one of the thirteen Native corporations established in 1971 by Congress under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), the largest indigenous land claims settlement in U.S. history. Under the Act, Ahtna was conveyed 1.6 million acres of land. Alaska Natives born before 1971 are tribal members (called shareholders) of one of the thirteen Native corporations. As the direct descendant of an Alaska Native, John Smelcer is a voting shareholder in Ahtna Native Corporation and a member of the Native Village of Tazlina, a federally recognized tribe (by law, only Natives can vote). John is a member of Tsisyu "Paint" Clan (pron. shish-you). In the early 90's John built a little cabin on his BIA Native allotment land in Tazlina. From 1995 to 1998, Dr. Smelcer was the tribally appointed executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. Over three decades, John's tribe has supported his undergraduate and graduate education with scholarships, including at Harvard University. His full-blood Indian grandmother was Mary Joe Smelcer. In 1999, Ahtna Chief Harry Johns held a special ceremony to designate John Smelcer a Traditional Ahtna Culture Bearer, a term usually reserved for elders with significant cultural knowledge.


Click on "ethnicity" to learn more about John Smelcer's ethnicity, why he resigned from the University of Alaska, and about the willful ignorance of bullies who relentlessly attack him.

"What impresses me most about John Smelcer, aside from his powerful writing, is his indomitable spirit. He has never given up; he has never let others quiet his voice. He continues to write and the world continues to listen to what he has to say." James Welch, author of Fools Crow & The Indian Lawyer

"John Smelcer is Alaska Native...just one voice among millions of Native Americans. His is a well-honed voice, however. There's much to be gained from listening to him." Anchorage Daily News

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. Over four decades, John Smelcer has participated in dozens of potlatches across Alaska, including the potlatch for Ahtna Chief Harry Johns and Chief Walter Northway of Northway Village, who, it is said, was 117 years old when he died! John has been part of the hosting family on numerous occasions, such as when his great aunt and great uncle, Morrie and Joe Secondchief, died, and when his beloved uncle and grandmother, Herbert and Mary Smelcer, died. This practice of sharing resources is at the very heart and soul of subsistence living in Alaska. As was once the case in Indian communities all across America for almost a century, many of John’s Indian relatives were sent away by the government to distant boarding schools, where, among other hardships, they were prevented from speaking their own language. In the very late 1800s, the federal government outlawed the potlatch in Pacific Northwest Indian cultures. John's great grandfather, Tazlina Joe, was instrumental in taking the potlatch underground until the government eventually lifted the ban sometime around the 1920s or 1930s. During those decades, traditional ceremonies and dances across Indian Country were outlawed by the government.

All his life, John Smelcer was raised to know traditional Indian ways. He tried to pass on those traditions to his daughter, Zara. His father taught him especially how to hunt and fish and how to exist on the land—above all, to respect it. At his father’s encouragement, John attended Army training in mountaineering and arctic survival, sometimes at fifty or sixty degrees below zero, even though John was still in junior high and high school. Even as a boy, John was involved in special programs for Alaska Native schoolchildren. In 1978, while in eighth grade, John was selected by the Fairbanks School District to participate in an exchange program sponsored by the Johnson O’Malley Program, a federally funded program for Alaska Native/Native American schoolchildren. Indian students from Fairbanks were sent to Nulato, a Native community on the Yukon River to participate in a week-long annual Native ceremony called the Stick Dance. John spent his junior year as a foreign exchange student in Sweden. During his senior year back home at Lathrop High School, and on recommendation of U. S. Senator Ted Stevens, John was awarded a four-year Army ROTC scholarship to attend any university in America. Wanting to stay close to home, John choose the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. In the summer before beginning university, John explored the Alaska Arctic coastline by foot and by kayak, encountering polar bears and discovering a frozen wholly mammoth near Demarcation Bay.

Throughout the entire 1980s, John was a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF), earning bachelor degrees in anthropology and archaeology, English, and education. He put himself through college in part working at Down Under Guns, the same gun store where Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild) bought his hunting rifle for his ill-fated journey. It was during those years that John went moose hunting on Tyone Lake near the abandoned Tyone Village (in Ahtna Country) with Michael Dorris, who was then Director of Native American Studies at Dartmouth. During those years John Smelcer apprenticed under Ahtna elder and respected culture bearer Walter Charley, learning almost forgotten Ahtna Ways of Knowing. Always a leader, John ran for UAF Student Council president in 1984. After graduating, John ran for the Board of Directors of UAF's Alumni Association. He lost to Joe Usibelli, Jr. While a student at the UAF, John served in the United States Army Reserve, where he was trained in arctic survival and mountaineering. He eventually received an honorable discharge. In 2010, felow alumni nominated John for UAF's Distinguished Alumni Award. In the summer of 1985, at the age of 22, John and his younger brother, James Ernest (family always called him Ernie), climbed 16,237 foot Mt. Sanford. John's acclaimed novel, Savage Mountain, is based on that event. Tragically, Ernie committed suicide in the spring of 1988, just weeks before his twenty-third birthday. Even in their early teens, John and Ernie hunted together in the perilous wilds of Alaska. Around that same time, John worked for U. S. Senator Ted Stevens (R, AK) interviewing Aleut elders for the Aleut Restitution Act, a co-legislation with the Japanese American Restitution Act that compensated Japanese American citizens for wrongful interbment during WWII.

Throughout the 1980s to the mid-1990s, John Smelcer was a nationally and internationally ranked weightlifter and bodybuilder, setting numerous records, mostly in the 132 lb/60 kg class. Stories about him appeared in newspapers around the world. For his contributions to the sport, John was awarded a citation by then U.S. President Bill Clinton. In the early 1990s, after earning college degrees in anthropology (including archaeology and linguistics), English, and Education, John became a professor of English and Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he co-chaired the Alaska Native Studies program and served as faculty adviser for the Alaska Native Students Club. In 1994, John was student-nominated for the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Service to Students. That same year, the president of the University of Alaska Statewide System personally appointed John to serve on a committee tasked with finding a new chancellor for the university. The summer after leaving the University of Alaska, Ahtna Native Corporation hired John as a tribal field archaeologist. John spent the summer living in a camper, tromping all over Ahtna’s lands in search of archaeological sites to identify and protect, and having frequent close encounters with moose and grizzly bears. He discovered and documented a number of abandoned villages and historical sites. The findings were published in The Archaeological Prehistory of the Kotsina, Copper and Chitina Rivers (1995). Around this time, John and his uncle Herb operated Copper River Indian Adventures, a Native-owned ecotourism river-rafting company.

In the winter of 1995, John was appointed by the Ahtna Board of Directors to serve as the executive director of Ahtna’s Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization funded by the corporation to preserve the Ahtna language and culture, as well as to distribute over $150,000 in college scholarships annually to Ahtna shareholders and their descendants. John himself had received scholarships from Ahtna throughout his college education. His uncle, Herbert Smelcer, was chairman of the Board of Directors. Herbert was an influential Alaska Native leader, serving variously as president of Ahtna, Inc., as president of one of Ahtna’s subsidiary corporations, and as a member of the Board for decades. Herbert signed key legislation with President Carter. Hundreds of important Alaska Native leaders attended Herb’s funeral service held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. John and his uncle spent a good deal of time together hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and operating the family’s subsistence fishwheel on the Copper River, just below its confluence with the Tazlina River, which in Ahtna means “Swift River.” John's subsistence permit allowed him to catch 500 salmon a year. For decades, Herb lovingly instructed his nephew in the Indian ways of knowing. Herb briefly served as the interim superintendant of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Alaska Interior Division. In that important post, Native villages often invited him to participate in cultural events. Several times, John was invited to accompany Herb to participate in traditional hunts with Eskimo communities. Both were invited to be part of the effort to save a family of gray whales stranded in the ice near Pt. Barrow, which became the basis for the motion picture Big Miracle, starring Drew Barrymore. When Herb graduated from Prince William Sound Community College in 1997 with an associate's degree in business, John, then a part-time faculty member at PWSCC, presented his uncle with his diploma at graduation.

From late 1995 until the summer of 1998,
John Smelcer drove 170 miles each way to work at his tribal office in Glennallen, living in his small, rustic cabin on his BIA Native land allotment without electricity or running water, television or telephone or a toilet, cutting firewood for a wood stove, and writing by the flickering yellow light of oil lamps. During his tenure, he held over a hundred workshops with Ahtna elders to compile and publish a dictionary of the Ahtna language. The end result was that John became a living repository of the Ahtna language with its four (now only three) distinct dialects. In the summer of 1998, John published a dictionary of nouns common to the language featuring a phonetic pronunciation guide. Today, aside from a couple linguists, only John and a few elders speak the language fluently. He is the only tribal member who reads and writes in Ahtna. If nothing changes, by the time John dies, so too will the Ahtna language. Carl Sagan, the world famous Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award winning scientist, once wrote that “no other ethnic writer shares such a heavy cultural burden.” John regularly publishes his bilingual poems around the world, most recently including The Language Raven Gave Us (Farleigh Dickinson University, 2009), The Complete Ahtna Poems (Truman State University Press, 2011), and The Indian Prophet (2012). They stand as the only literature in his language in existence. During 1995-1998, John instituted an annual Culture Camp along the banks of the Copper River near Gulkana at which he and elders taught workshops on language, traditional storytelling, subsistence practices, clanship, potlatch dancing, and cultural history. He received a grant from the State of Alaska to create Positive Pathways, a language, culture, and literacy program for Indian youth. John also worked with Ahtna elders to compile and publish a book of every existing myth in the memory of the culture. That book, In the Shadows of Mountains (1997) was later expanded and republished as Trickster (2016), featuring an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder. John also compiled and published an oral history collection, What We Leave Behind (foreword by Barre Toelken), and a bilingual children’s picture book called Walk About. (Click on dictionaries to download the book). On the 25th anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), one of the boldest Indian legislation in U.S. history, John published An Act of Deception, a book that examined the negative impact of the Act on Alaska Native Peoples. John and former Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) president, Emil Notti, wrote introductions.

"There are very few remaining Native speakers of our language. John [Smelcer] has done a great deal to help preserve our ways, and we know that he will continue to do so in the future. He is our descendant, and it is trusted and hoped that he...will carry on our heritage and the knowledge of our traditional ways." -Chairman of the Board of Directors, Ahtna Native Corporation (September 1994)

"John Smelcer 'alt'senii, tsin'aen koht'aene kenaege' ghanii nilna'sghidaetl'."
"We say thanks to John Smelcer for bringing us together to save the Ahtna language."
-Ahtna Traditional Chief Harry Johns, 1999


"I know my cousin (John's grandmother) was very proud that her grandson was working so hard to save our culture for the future. I'm proud of him too."  -Traditional Ahtna Chief Ben Neely, 2012

"John a tribal member in the Ahtna Native Corporation. His [full-blood] grandmother and uncle say, "Being Alaska a way of life. John has been raised to know these things, which are the essence of who were are. He is one of us." -News from Indian Country (America's largest Native-owned newspaper)

“I’ve worked with two really dedicated linguists in my life: Michael Krauss and John Smelcer. Michael has worked tirelessly for 45 years to preserve Eyak language and history. Much younger, John has worked just as hard to preserve Ahtna and Alutiiq. I’m always happy whenever either friend comes calling.”

-Eyak Chief Marie Smith Jones, Anchorage, Alaska (February 9, 2007)

"Preserving a language with so few speakers must be near impossible. Yet it is a very important task. One important step in trying to achieve this would be to write down their language as John Smelcer has done so that some “script” is available to record the way the language is spoken."

-His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama (2010)


"Few writers carry such a heavy cultural burden."  -Carl Sagan

"We thank [John Smelcer] for his continued dedication to documenting the Ahtna language."

-Michelle Anderson, President/CEO, Ahtna Native Corporation

During those years, Ahtna Native Corporation nominated John to serve on numerous statewide committees related to Alaska Native issues. John was part of a small group of Native leaders determined to establish a residential tribal college in Anchorage specifically for Alaska Native students. At the end of his service to the Ahtna People, John was nominated by his uncle, Ahtna, Inc., MIT linguist Ken Hale, and others for the Alaska Governor’s Award for the Humanities for his efforts to preserve Alaska Native languages and cultures. In 1999, Traditional Chief Harry Johns led a special ceremony in Copper Center to designate John Smelcer as a Traditional Ahtna Culture Bearer (a term usually reserved for elders with signficant cultural knowledge) and presenting him with the beaded necklaces of the late Chief Jim McKinley. John's uncle, grandmother and great aunt participated. Chief Johns passed away in 2003 at the age of 94. Ben Neely, who was John's grandmother's first cousin, became the new Ahtna chief. Ben was a very spiritual man and one of John's Smelcer's longtime mentors. Ben passed away in 2014. Indeed, all three chiefs were related to John's grandmother. John Smelcer was one of the first adventurers to mountain bike an Alaskan glacier, navigating the Matanuska Glacier.


In 2003, John led a national protest against McDonald's for its erroneous policy of excluding Native Americans from their college scholarship program. Eventually, the NAACP (Julian Bond included), the Native American Rights Fund, and the Federation of Alaska Natives joined him, as well as a number of U.S. senators and congressmen (including decorated WWII veterans Sen. Daniel Inouye and Sen. Ted Stevens); a real David and Goliath story. Fred Gray, attorney for Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks (and one of the architects of the early civil rights movement) also helped. John lost. McDonalds maintained its exclusionary policy in the belief that Native Americans are all rich from casino money and don't need their help, despite U.S. Census Bureau statistics to the contrary. That same year, John warned Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man) about the dangerous and unpredictable nature of bears, advice that Treadwell ignored at the cost of his and his girlfriend's lives. In 2004, a Chicago-based foundation recognized John for his enduring commitment to Alaska Native/Native American Peoples. Tribes across the nation have invited John to speak at their reservations about language and cultural preservation and to facilitate grant-writing workshops. During those reservation visits, John interviewed elders who had attended Indian boarding schools when they were children. Twice in the past decade, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation appointed John to be a nominator for the prestigious $625,000 MacArthur "Genius" Fellowships.

From the spring of 2004 until the summer of 2008, John was the tribally appointed director of Chenega Native Corporation’s Language and Cultural Preservation Project. Chenega, the village corporation of the Native Village of Chenega Bay in Prince William Sound, is one of the most successful Native corporations in Alaska. As he did with his own tribe, John spent several years working with elders to document and preserve the Alutiiq language and culture unique to the Chenega Bay region. During his tenure he produced a series of innovative language posters, two interactive language DVDs, and a noun dictionary of the Alutiiq language (click on dictionaries), making John one of only a handful of people able to speak, read, and write in that dialect of the Alutiiq language. As well, he worked with elders to produce two important oral history books:
We are the Land, We are the Sea and The Day That Cries Forever, a major contribution to Alaskan and Alaska Native history. In a book review in the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska’s largest newspaper, The Day That Cries Forever was hailed as “must reading for every Alaskan.” The book was later adapted into a play by the same name. Former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond said of the book, "The history of Alaska was incomplete before this book." Before working for Chenega Native Corporation, John was a tribal grants administrator at Chugachmiut, a nonprofit representing the Native communities around Prince William Sound. In the summer of 2006, John met with Aeronwy Thomas-Ellis (Dylan Thomas' daughter) in London to establish a literary prize in her father's name in America. It took almost three years, but the prize was eventually approved in 2009. John is appointed by the estate to serve as the life-time judge of the prestigious prize. In 2007, Dr. Smelcer was director of Health Education at the Alaska Native Medical Center/South Central Foundation. After filming parts of Into the Wild in Ahtna Country, actor/director Sean Penn was a guest at John's tribe's annual meeting in Copper Center (Ahtna had been hired as logistical support for the filming). John spent the day hanging with Penn. In the spring of 2009, Governor Sarah Palin asked John to nominate an Alaskan for the Governor's Award for the Humanities. He nominated fellow linguist, James Kari, who later received the award. In 2010, John Smelcer was nominated for the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Distinguished Alumni Award. Twenty-three years after the birth of his daughter, Zara, John's second daughter, Ayiana (literally: "eternally blossoming"), was born in the fall of 2010. In 2016, John contacted Walt Disney Company Chairman/CEO, Robert Iger, asking for increased representation (without stereotyping) of American Indians in the It's a Small World experience at all Disney Parks. John had encouraging discussions with representatives from Disney.

John Smelcer's formal education and professional experiences are eclectic. Supported by a
scholarship from his tribe, John was a postdoctoral student at Harvard University studying world religions. Aside from his many university degrees, his education also includes postdoctoral studies in English literature at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University, State University of New York, where he received the Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Graduate Research. At Cambridge, John was at the same college as physicist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time, et al). He even earned undergraduate credits in creative writing from Northwest Indian College and a certificate in Native American Museum Management from the Smithsonian Institution. John also earned a post-master’s Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in health care administration from Texas A & M University, which came in handy when he was an administrator at SouthCentral Foundation/Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, one of the most progressive indigenous health care institutions in the world. For over twenty years, John has taught at colleges and universities as far away as Russia and Australia, directing over 80 masters and doctoral theses, and serving variously as director, chair, and briefly as Dean of Students at a small vocational college. He was instrumental in establishing and directing an Alaska Native/Native American Studies program at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and a doctoral program in Hispanic Studies at Texas A&M University. In the fall of 1994, only a few years after the fall of communism, John was invited by the Gorky Institute to travel to Moscow to lecture at various colleges and conferences on indigenous studies and American Studies. Since 1995, John has been the associate publisher and poetry editor of Rosebud, one of the premiere journals of contemporary literature in the nation. Rosebud has been selected to appear on the film set of Anastasia Steele's literary magazine office in Fifty Shades Darker, the second installment of Fifty Shades of Gray and the subsequent installment.


John Smelcer was raised in Alaska to know and to participate in Native Ways, beliefs, customs, and subsistence practices. He is one of the last speakers of his severely endangered Native language. He has dedicated his life to preserving his Ahtna heritage, language, myths, oral history, traditional Indian knowledge, archaeological sites, and he has taught literature, creative writing, public speaking, journalism, and Native Studies for over twenty-five years. Dr. John Smelcer's novels, short stories, poems, essays, screenplays and articles, anchored in Alaskan culture, have been published and translated worldwide. Like you, John Smelcer is the product of the people who raised him and loved him and instructed him, as well as of a place and a culture. He can be no other.


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