John Smelcer’s Ethnicity, the University of Alaska Anchorage,
and the Willful Ignorance of Bullies Who Attack Him
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
By all applicable laws of the United States (tribal, state, federal), most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA; 1971, 1987 Amendments), the largest indigenous legislation in American history, I am Alaska Native/Native American. I am an enrolled member of Ahtna, Inc. and the Traditional Native Village of Tazlina, a tribe recognized by the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The State of Alaska issued me a license (based on federal laws) authorizing me to create and sell art as authentic Native handicraft. For years, I was the tribally-appointed executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. In addition, I am one of the last speakers on earth of our severely endangered Native language, having learned it from every elder who spoke Ahtna. In 1998, I published a dictionary of our language. In 1999, Ahtna Chief Harry Johns held a special ceremony to designate me a Traditional Ahtna Culture Bearer, a term usually reserved for elders with significant cultural knowledge. These facts should satisfy any curious person about my ethnicity. So what is the controversy?
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN THE WHOLE STORY, INCLUDING WHY I RESIGNED FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA IN 1994, AND ABOUT THE BULLIES WHO CONSTANTLY MISREPRESENT THE TRUTH, READ ON.
Anyone with a high public profile will understand the following complaint. We live in a society that includes folks who simply cannot abide the success of those of common background or with whom they have (imagined or not) legitimately contested and lost. In addition, and in this particular case, there are disturbed people whose malevolence goes beyond the normal issues of petty jealousy and competition. Every ten years, or so, someone digs up the old story of how I resigned from the University of Alaska Anchorage in the summer of 1994 and imagines he or she has discovered something new that must be shared with the world. People who I have never met attack me for reasons best known to themselves or to their therapists; they needlessly attack my credentials, my books, my poetry, my lineage, and even my children. They send me anonymous threatening letters. Behaving as nameless cowards, some individuals even send anonymous letters to places where I work and to organizations which I belong in an attempt to get me dismissed. The problem is, of course, the story is not new at all, nor is it true.
Of course, there’s some truth to the story. Good rumors always have a basis in fact, no matter how perverted. Quite rightly the rumor begins with the fact that in 1993 I was hired as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage (I had taught there for years as an instructor). Ethnicity had absolutely nothing to do with my hire. But halfway though my first year, the provost and dean converted my contract from “visiting” to “tenure track” based on an initiative to increase the number of Alaska Native faculty on campus. There was no application process. I did not apply for this gratefully received promotion. In my case, I was promoted simply because I was an Alaska Native descendant.
For the most part, 1993-1994 was a very good year. I co-chaired the Alaska Native Studies Program. I served on numerous programs and committees to increase student and faculty diversity on campus, served as faculty advisor for the Alaska Native Students Association, and I was on a number of thesis and dissertation committees, including as an outside reader for a doctorate in Education from Harvard’s prestigious American Indian Education Program. I served on the university’s tenure and promotion review committee, and I was hand-picked by the president of the University of Alaska Statewide System to serve on the committee to hire a new chancellor for the university.
Before the end of the year, hundreds of students nominated me for the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence for service to students. I had a couple books that were published or were forthcoming, was co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of contemporary Native American poetry entitled Durable Breath, was poetry editor at a Seattle-based journal of multicultural literature, and I even had a poem accepted in the Atlantic Monthly. At Lee Francis’ invitation, and at the urging of his sister, Paula Gunn Allen, and James Welch, I became a founding member of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers, a national organization. As I said, it was a good year. I looked forward to a long and distinguished career at the university.
But behind the scene, there was a tenured full professor who wanted to get rid of me. (Anybody who has been on a university faculty will understand why that was a problem.) To this day, I believe he was resentful of my success as a junior faculty and saw me as a threat, especially after I was converted to the tenure track (either that or he resented a direct hire in his department.) He did everything to get rid of me. There wasn’t a week that went by that Dean Miller didn’t tell me of the professor’s relentless and fruitless attempts to get me fired. The tenured professor was Machiavellian in his scheming to get rid of me. But finally, he found a way. I never gave a minute’s thought to how one proves his or her ethnic heritage. How does one prove such a thing? Could you prove yours? I grew up being told I was Alaska Native. In fact, I grew up knowing only my Native side of the family. Even in junior high school I was a member of organizations for Alaska Native students. In fact, it was my father who signed me up for them. In 1978, for instance, I participated in a program for Alaska Native students funded by the Johnson O’Malley Program of the Fairbanks Native Association. We spent several days in the Yukon River village of Nulato participating in their annual potlatch ceremony called The Stick Dance. My father signed the permission forms and took me to the airport. When we students returned, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner ran a story about our experience (c. April 4, 1978; note the first sentence):
For most of the 1980s, I was instructed in traditional Native Ways and spirituality by my relative, Walter Charley (left), a renowned Athabaskan elder. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Ahtna, Inc. supported my college education through its scholarship program, eventually named after Walter Charley after he died in 1992. (In 2013 and 2014, Ahtna awarded me scholarships to pursue postdoctoral studies in world religions at Harvard University.) As I said earlier, I had never given a thought to proving my ethnic self. I was aware that I had no letter from my tribal Native Corporation and no CIB (Certificate of Indian Blood) from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. That distressed professor jumped on this and convinced a scurrilous newspaper reporter (who turned out to be one of his former students) that he should run with the story and that the angle should be that I had perpetrated a fraud. It didn’t help that my father—a half-blood Alaska Native—was a willing accomplice. Apparently, my father failed to tell the reporter that in the fall of 1987 he wrote a letter to the U. S. Army praising my integrity and stating that I was Alaska Native.
No one ever questioned my father’s motives or why he would go out of his way to so publicly destroy his son. No one ever questioned why my younger brother committed suicide only a few years earlier. No one mentioned that the year before, my father blackmailed me for $5,000 during a child custody battle, threatening to lie to the judge about me to make me lose my daughter—his grandchild—if I didn’t pay him. Fearful of losing my daughter, I paid him, against the vehement protests of my mother and my uncle (my father’s brother). When the newspaper reporter called him, my father saw another opportunity to blackmail me again. This time he demanded $10,000 from me or else he’d tell the reporter I wasn’t his son and get me fired and ruin my career. Convinced that I’d face a lifetime of blackmail if I gave in to his demands, I stood my ground and did not pay up, and so he made good on his threat. His lie had the double purpose of damaging my integrity in the event I ever made public his heinous abuse of me and my brother. Armed with my father’s terrible and dehumanizing lie, the newspaper ran damming front-page stories for months, regardless of the truth.
Early in the controversy, after the first newspaper story appeared in late April of 1994, Ahtna elders, as well as several tribally-elected Ahtna, Inc. Board of Directors (my uncle Herbert included) went to the university and to the story-hunting newspaper reporter stating that I was, in fact, accepted as a member of Ahtna. My grandmother, Mary Joe Smelcer (above), my father’s full-blood Indian mother, sent a letter (above) to the university. My uncle Herbert Smelcer (below), Chairman of the Board of Directors of our tribe and past-president and an influential Native leader who co-signed important Native legislation with the president of the United States, even faxed university officials and the newspaper reporter my birth certificate and notarized documentation that Ahtna, Inc. was in the process of making me a shareholder (tribal member) and that the process might take several months (Alaska Natives born before Dec. 18, 1971 are shareholders in one of thirteen regional Native corporations, Ahtna being one of them). The newspaper reporter flatly replied that none of that mattered and that he wasn’t going to publish anything that helped me. He told me the same thing in a telephone conversation.
Just a week earlier, during the last week of the school year, the Anchorage Daily News ran a story about the only other Alaska Native faculty at UAA (a Haida woman in sociology) hired under the same initiative, who was resigning after mistreatment by her department. In the article (below), she cited part of her decision to resign was based on the way I had been unfairly treated by the university. The article also stated clearly that the only reason there was a controversy was because my department resented a direct hire for a tenure track position instead of the usual process. My “Native-ness” was not the issue (“Teacher quits in protest,” April 24, 1994, B1-B6).
Two days after the newspaper published yet another disingenuous story on May 19, 1994 my uncle Herb (my father’s younger brother) sent a letter to the university and the newspaper stating that “John is native” and repeated that Ahtna, Inc. was in the process of issuing me shares to become a voting Native shareholder. He also re-faxed copies of the executed document to the university and the newspaper. I told the university and the newspaper that I had sent my birth certificate to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but was told it could take half a year to process. I asked for time to resolve the issue. But again, the reporter at the Anchorage Daily News refused to make the contents of either documents public or to publish them. Friends also wrote supporting letters, which were never printed or made public. I stood my ground for a while, maintaining that I hadn’t misrepresented myself. But I was thirty years old and this was my first real job. I had no money to speak of, and I had a wife and a six-year-old daughter at home. I paid a lawyer $1,000 to represent me. It was all the money I had. As anyone knows, even counted in 1994, a grand doesn’t go very far with a lawyer. On August 1, 1994, I handed the new chancellor—the one I helped to hire—my letter of resignation, not because I had done anything wrong, but because I had no more resources to continue to fight and because it was clear to me that I was no longer welcome in a department full of colleagues and friends I had worked with part-time for years. Ironically, I was hired as an archaeologist by Ahtna Native Corporation.
Within four months of leaving UAA, and at my uncle’s and grandmother’s insistence, Ahtna, Inc. Board of Directors voted unanimously to issue me shares, a tribal ID card, and a letter stating that I was Alaska Native of one-quarter blood, and the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs issued me a CIB stating that I was Alaska Native of one-quarter blood, the legal definition of American Indian/Alaska Native under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (amended, 1987; see legal definition below). The story would have been very different if the university had just given me the time I had requested.
Four months after I resigned, I received a letter in the mail (below) from Associate Dean Arlene Kuhner, who had been Chair of the English Department for many years. Arlene was an honest woman and a dear colleague. She was also my mentor. Arlene was dying of cancer, but before she passed from this world, she wanted to set the record straight. She was appalled by the racist actions of certain members of her department. Dr. Kuhner bravely named the individual responsible for the wrong-doings against me. I guess she wanted a clear conscience. She told me that the professor bragged about how he got rid of me. She told me that she also sent the letter to the reporter at the Anchorage Daily News, who, having no desire to issue a retraction and admit wrong-doing, ignored it. She then sent it to the defunct Anchorage Times, also to no avail. She told me she mailed a copy to the New Yorker to clear my name. I thank her for her courage.
A year later, almost as an affront against the university and the newspaper, Ahtna Native Corporation—the very Native tribe that the Anchorage Daily News so publicly proclaimed I was not a member of—hired me as the executive director of our tribe’s Heritage Foundation, charged with the task of documenting and preserving our culture, traditions, and language. Not long afterward, the new chancellor visited our tribal offices in Glennallen, where he learned firsthand that the tribe had appointed me executive director of their cultural foundation. I doubt he ever told anyone what he had learned that day. I suppose no one wants to admit they were wrong. During my years at the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, the governor and his commissioners appointed me to serve on various state commissions for Alaska Native issues.
For over three years, I served as Executive Director of the Foundation, driving 170 miles each way to work every week and living in my rustic cabin on my BIA land allotment atop a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Tazlina River and the Copper River, where I could see my uncle’s cabin and our family fishwheel from my window. I eventually left my job at the foundation because I could no longer deal with the destruction of alcohol on our tribe, the senseless deaths, violence, and suicides related to alcohol. A heart can only take so much loss. It is not stereotyping to talk about the devastating effects of alcoholism on Native families and communities. It is a fact we live with every day. The real tragedy would be to ignore it. In 1999, Ahtna Chief Harry Johns (below) held a special ceremony in Copper Center designating me a “Traditional Ahtna Culture Bearer,” a term usually reserved for elders with significant cultural knowledge.
Five years after I left UAA, individuals statewide nominated me for the Governor’s Award for the Humanities for my work in preserving Alaska Native cultures and languages. Until his death in 2004, my beloved uncle Herbert Smelcer, my father’s own brother and an important leader in Alaska Native politics for decades, supported me as if I were his son. Since 1994, I have never missed a tribal vote (only Alaska Natives as defined by ANSCA can vote), and I regularly receive my annual tribal dividends. When my beloved grandmother passed away in 2003, of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she left me her tribal votes.
Over the next decade, I worked for different Alaska Native organizations in various leadership roles, including as a tribal grants administrator at Chugachmiut, as a department head at the Alaska Native Medical Center/South Central Foundation (I earned a certificate of advanced graduate study in Health Care Administration from Texas A&M University), and as director of Chenega Native Corporation’s Culture and Language Project, which I directed for almost five years. My uncle Herb and I briefly operated Copper River Indian Adventures, a Native-owned ecotourism river-rafting company. I served on statewide committees for Native issues, including the Commission for Alaska Native Tourism and the Alaska Council for the Arts committee on Alaska Native Museums after being trained by the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in 2004. That same year, the State of Alaska issued me my Silver Hand permit, authorizing me by state and federal law to create and sell handcrafted art as authentic Native art. In 2012, I delivered the keynote address to the FBI’s National Native American Heritage Program in New York City, mandated by Presidential Executive Order to increase multicultural awareness in federal agencies.
I've endured these malicious misrepresentations for far too long. It is now the dawn of a third decade, and yet they persist. I’ve suffered much from the injustice and been excluded from countless opportunities along the way. I’ve been ostracized from academia in Alaska, a place I love with all my heart. I’ve been shunned by other Native writers, many I respect and admire. My writing has been marginalized despite its merit. My family has suffered. More than a dozen years after I left the university, some heartless professors treated my adult daughter unfairly when she was a student in their classes after learning that she is my daughter. Thankfully and ironically, in a full-page article about my poetry book, Indian Giver, published on Sunday, May 8, 2016, the Anchorage Daily News (now called the Alaska Dispatch News), the very newspaper that published the untrue stories about me 22 years ago, acknowledged that I am Alaska Native (below). The same newspaper published a different article about one of my other books on August 20, 2016 again acknowledging that I am Alaska Native (below; see last paragraph).
You would think the attacks would end now, but a woman named Debbie Reese continues to criticize me on the Internet, saying that I have no business writing books about Alaska Natives or Native Americans, not even about my own grandmother, who implored me for years to write my novel, The Great Death, about a pandemic that devastated Native communities all across Alaska nearly a century ago, including my own tribe. My mentor, Walter Charley, told me how he lost his entire family to the plague when he was a boy. In her blog, this dishonest woman accused me of “culturally appropriating” the Native words and phrases I used in the novel, purposefully concealing from readers the fact that I speak Ahtna fluently, am the only tribal member who can read and write in it fluently, and that I published a dictionary of the language in 1998—a fact easily checked on my website, which was listed on the book cover as well as on the audiobook. On April 8, 2016, she posted a review of my poetry book Indian Giver on amazon admitting that she hadn’t read the book yet, but she gave it a one-star rating nonetheless. She included in her byline that she’s a member of the American Library Association. I’m certain the ALA doesn’t condone members censuring books before they’ve been read. In fact, I know they don’t. The ALA is very much aware of her abuses. Because of her failure to be impartial, Kirkus, a book review industry leader, stated in June 2016 that they would never assign or publish a review of my work by Debbie Reese or knowingly by any of her friends. In May 2016, she emailed the 22-year-old disingenuous newspaper story to people who wrote blurbs for my recent books pressuring them to retract their praise (she didn’t tell them about the new story by the same newspaper). She’s contacted journals and tried to coerce them to withdraw my published writing. An outright lie she and her surrogates propagate is to say that my writing perpetuates stereotypes about American Indians to discourage librarians from ordering my books and to convince editors to censor my writing, again failing to disclose that my books include blurbs by major Native writers, historians, and scholars who praise the contents.
Because of Reese’s vitriol, her surrogates have sent harassing emails to my publisher and anonymous death threats to me. Because of the threats my mother decided it was time to speak up. For more than twenty years, I’ve avoided making my birth certificate public. However, circumstances warrant it. Parts of my birth certificate below have been redacted so my identity cannot be stolen. Would you post your birth certificate online for the whole world to see?
In 2008, I had a candid telephone conversation with Debbie Reese, offering to provide her many of the documents presented in this article, including my birth certificate. She told me flatly that “she didn’t care what I sent her, that nothing would change her opinion, and that she planned to destroy me and make sure that no one would ever publish my writing again.” Friends who have contacted her on my behalf have reported similar responses. Others have reported she has stated as much at public forums. I don’t understand her obsession with me. She and her surrogates relentlessly criticize me for writing books about Natives, but when I publish books that have nothing to do with Natives, like my mountain climbing novel Savage Mountain, they mercilessly attack those books as well, surreptitiously preventing them from even being considered for national book awards.
I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
Because these people marginalize my work regardless of what I write about, I will continue to write the stories and histories that elders have entrusted me to tell for a third of a century.
I’m not proud of everything I’ve done in my life. I'm far from perfect. But I've never misrepresented my ethnicity. By all applicable laws, most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, I am Alaska Native. I resigned from the University of Alaska Anchorage primarily because I no longer wanted to work in a department that didn’t want me. What future would there have been for me in a department where senior faculty (who vote for tenure) resented me? Regardless of the facts, Debbie Reese and her followers would deny me a family, a heritage, and a history—a man with no past and no future.
How many emerging Native voices have she and her followers silenced over the years? How many deserving books have been disregarded by the industry because of them? There are over 500 different tribes in America. In no way does Debbie Reese represent or speak for all Native Americans. She’s not even a spokesperson for her own tribe. My late friend Lee Francis, founder of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers, compared the racist actions of such hateful people to the witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Germany, and the McCarthy era. He even published an article about it, largely because of the way I was mistreated by other Native writers after I joined Wordcraft Circle. Click on the pdf below to read Lee's article.
Dean Miller once told me the most tragic part of this story is that my father hated me and my brother enough to destroy us. My brother committed suicide to escape our father’s monstrous abuse. I went down the same road for a while; but I’m a fighter. I never let bullies win, which is why I have to tell this story, even though I wish to hell I didn't. Bullies lose their power when they are revealed to the world for what and who they are.
If you are in the publishing industry—a book reviewer, librarian, publisher or editor, a literary prize or grants committee member—please stop empowering these bullies. Be courageous. Make a stand. Be the difference.
“What impresses me most about John Smelcer, aside from his powerful writing, is his tenacity—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, despite his marginalization by the very people who should encourage him most.”
—James Welch, American Book Award winning author of Fools Crow, Winter in the Blood, The Indian Lawyer & The Death of Jim Loney
Click on the PDF icon below to read James Welch's full introduction to Indian Giver