John Smelcer’s Ethnicity, the University of Alaska Anchorage,
the End of a Controversy, and the Willful Ignorance of Bullies
Who Attacked Him for Years Regardless of the Truth
"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, despite his marginalization by the very people who should encourage him most."
-James Welch, American Book Award winning author of Fools Crow & The Indian Lawyer
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
By all applicable laws of the United States, most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA; 1971, 1987 Amendments), the largest indigenous legislation passed by Congress in American history, I am Alaska Native/Native American. I am the son of a half-blood Native father. I am a voting member (called a shareholder) of Ahtna, Inc. and the Traditional Native Village of Tazlina, a tribe recognized by the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (I have voted every year since 1994; only Alaska Natives members are eligible to vote). I was raised Native. The State of Alaska issued me a license (based on federal laws) authorizing me to create and sell art as authentic Native handicraft. For much of my career, I have served as an administrator for numerous Native organizations. For years, I was the tribally-appointed executive director of my tribe's Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to preserve our culture, language, and Traditional Native Ways of Knowing. 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 (click on dictionaries on the menu to download the dictionary or to watch episodes of me teaching Ahtna on YouTube). In 1997, I published a collection of our traditional mythology after interviewing every single living Ahtna elder (an expanded second edition was published in 2016). 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 HOW THE CONTROVERSY ENDED IN 2018, AND HOW CYBERBULLIES MISREPRESENTED THE TRUTH FOR DECADES, READ ON.
(Warning: This article is comprehensive. I apologize if it seems defensive. It has to be by necessity. It is a quarter of a century in the making. It is recommended that you read it in sections. To learn How the Controversy Came to an End in January 2018, scroll down to the end of the first section. Scroll down about halfway to learn the truth about the 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards, the 2004 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and about Racism in the World of Native American Writers.)
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, especially when one of my books is up for some prestigious award, 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 I have never met attack me for reasons best known to themselves or to their therapists; they needlessly attack my credentials, my writing, my lineage, my language, 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 adjunct instructor, and in the previous year I was Director of Faculty and Instruction for a unique, federally-funded program for Alaska Native/Native American high school seniors interested in careers in the allied health sciences. The program was housed at UAA in partnership with the neighboring hospital where students interned. 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 gladly helped the president of the African American Student Association to receive the Chancellor's Men of Excellence Award, which came with a substantial scholarship. 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. Although I was a junior faculty member, I was instrumental in working with the university's leadership to establish the awarding of Professor Emeritus status on retiring faculty who had served the institution with distinction. 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’ (Laguna Pueblo-Anishinaabe) invitation, and at the urging of his sister, Paula Gunn Allen, and James Welch (Blackfeet), 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 Native 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 much of the 1980s, I was instructed in traditional Native Ways and spirituality by my relative, Walter Charley (below), 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; also called a Certificate of Degree of Indians 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, Charles Smelcer—a half-blood Alaska Native—was a willing accomplice. Apparently, my father failed to tell the reporter that in September of 1987 he wrote a letter to the U. S. Army as a retired Lt. Colonel and Vietnam War veteran, in which he praised my integrity and stated unequivocally to the U.S. government that he is my father (see letter below).
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 a couple years earlier, 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. By happenstance, I saw him having lunch with the opposing party a few days later. I knew then that he would make good on his threat. 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 my father that spring day in 1994 asking if I was his son, my father saw another opportunity to hurt me. And so he did. My father denied I was his son. Armed with my father’s dehumanizing lie, the newspaper ran damming front-page stories for months, regardless of the truth. My father's heartless action was meant to diminish my credibility as an emerging writer with a growing national audience in order to silence me out of fear of what I might disclose in the future.
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 with my uncle's help 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 (see Prof. Larry Vienneau's letter below). 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, Ahtna Native Corporation immediately hired me as an archaeologist.
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 Alaska Native under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, a federal law passed by Congress (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 the tribe’s Heritage Foundation, charged with the task of documenting and preserving its culture, language, traditions, and Native Ways of Knowing. Shortly after it was announced in the tribal newsletter that I had been appointed as the new executive director of the Foundation, my father tried to get me fired. Ahtna stood up to him. A few months later, the new chancellor of UAA visited our tribal offices in Glennallen, where he learned firsthand that the tribe had appointed me executive director of the Foundation. I doubt he ever told anyone back at the university 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 of Alaska and his commissioners appointed me to serve on various state commissions for Alaska Native issues.
For 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. One of my Ahtna relatives was Katie John from Mentasta Village. Katie became an important voice in Native rights after she challenged the State of Alaska for traditional subsistence rights at Batzulnetas, her familiy's traditional fish camp along the Copper River. The federal government eventually ruled in favor of Native rights in 2001. Katie was one of the many elders who worked with me on the Ahtna dictionary. Over three summers, I planned and facilitated our annual Ahtna Culture Camp along the banks of the Copper River near Gulkana. I loved my job. I resigned only after a new president of Ahtna, Inc. was elected and immediately directed me to change the focus of the foundation, ordering me to manufacture Native trinkets to sell in tourist traps, to design souvenirs for the annual Shareholder's Meeting, and to organize corporate banquets and events, all contrary to the Foundation’s mission statement to preserve and teach our culture and language. He told me, "It was his way or the highway.” I refused to compromise the integrity of the foundation, and so I left in June 1998. 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.
Since 1994, my writing has appeared in nearly a dozen acclaimed anthologies of Native American literature published in the US and the UK, and I co-edited two highly successful anthologies: Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry (1995), taught in Native American literature classes at universities across America, and Native American Classics, named one of the hottest graphic books of 2013, which I co-edited with my longtime friend and Abenaki writer, storyteller, and scholar, Joseph Bruchac. Important university presses, including UCLA's American Indian Studies Center (which published mine and Sherman Alexie's earliest volumes of poetry), Fairleigh Dickenson University, and Truman State University Press have published my books of poetry related to the Native experience.
I've endured these malicious misrepresentations for far too long. It is now the dawn of a third decade, and yet they persist, perpetuated mostly by a woman named Debbie Reese, who, since 2007, made it her personal crusade to ensure that no publisher would publish my writing about the Alaska Native/ Native American experience. I’ve suffered much from the injustice and been excluded from countless opportunities along the way. I’ve been shunned by other Native writers, many I respect and admire. Some of those Native writers have convinced editors to exclude my writing in anthologies. Because of the sheer volume of criticism about me on the Internet, it has been difficult for me to get jobs. As a consequence, 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 was my daughter (my tribe supported her college education with scholarships). 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 more than two decades 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).
JOHN SMELCER VINDICATED AFTER DEBBIE REESE KILLED OFF HIS FATHER
For nearly a quarter century, every negative article and social media attack against me and my writing has been based solely on a single sentence uttered by my abusive father to a newspaper reporter in 1994 and repeated to a woman named Debbie Reese more than a dozen years later: That he is not my father (and therefore I must not be Native). Everything else stems from it. For over a decade, Debbie Reese has reported the statement as if it was an indisputable fact and has relentlessly tried to destroy me based on it. After more than two decades of scurrilous attacks, I finally posted a letter my father wrote in 1987 to the U.S. Army in which he stated unequivocally that he is my father. I also posted my official birth certificate (see below) that proves my father is my father. Both documents threatened to undo everything Debbie Reese had ever said or written about me. I imagine that in a panic, Debbie Reese tried to contact my father, leaving a series of desperate phone messages telling him about the documents and demanding an explanation and that he help her refute them. Sick and tired of Reese harassing him, unable and unwilling to refute the documents, and no longer wishing to perpetuate the tired controversy, my father asked his wife to tell Debbie that he had died so that he’d never again be bothered by her or anyone else. And so, shortly thereafter, on June 9, 2016, Debbie Reese published an article on her blog in which she pronounced that my father was dead (see screenshot taken on January 2, 2018).
For eighteen months after Reese published her deceitful article, friends contacted me to ask if I had heard that my father had died. Some even offered their condolences. It surprised me that no one ever searched for an obituary for my father… for there is none. My father is alive and well. In fact, he was seen at a salmon fishing charter on June 8, 2017, a year after Reese said he was dead, and he was a door prize winner at our Native corporation’s annual meeting on July 8, 2017, thirteen months after Reese said he was dead (see below). It astonishes me that Reese did not verify my father’s death before publishing it as fact, but then she has always been loose with facts when it comes to anything related to me.
In response to me posting my father’s letter and my birth certificate, Debbie Reese complained in her dishonest article (see above) that she is “frustrated” and that I “cloud the issue by posting such documents”—documents that prove the truth that she has been wrong about me for over a decade (most people would say evidence clarifies an issue). Because of the untrue things Reese has said about me, I have been unjustly abused by people who have tried to censor my writing, denied me opportunities, shunned and excluded me, sent me hate mail and death threats, questioned my integrity, and mistreated my children, while some organizations have surreptitiously blacklisted my books from even being considered for awards, while others unilaterally rescinded my awards—all because they believed what my father and Debbie Reese said about me. Some misguided individuals who aren’t even Native felt compelled to attack me out of a false belief that I had “appropriated” my Native identity. The basis of the controversy has always hinged on the credibility of what my father said about me in 1994 and repeated to Debbie Reese a dozen years later. No one ever questioned his credibility. But when my father feigned his own death in order to avoid talking to Debbie Reese and to distance himself from the controversy—the controversy he created—his veracity must come into doubt, and therefore the veracity of anything he ever said about me is in doubt.
After a quarter of a century, the controversy is finally over as it has been proven conclusively that my father deceived Debbie Reese, just as he deceived the newspaper reporter in 1994. Nothing Reese says about me or my father can be considered credible. Certainly, Reese’s most fanatical followers will not change their opinions of me. I doubt a single individual will apologize for their unkindness, for like “Birthers,” some folks are too stubborn to admit they were wrong even in the face of the overwhelming evidence that’s been public for years that proved I am Native. I’m counting on the rest of you to see this for what it is—the end of the controversy. (To share this story with others, download the pdf below.)
THE MALICIOUS & WILLFUL IGNORANCE OF CYBERBULLIES WHO ATTACKED JOHN SMELCER FOR DECADES DESPITE THE TRUTH
Since 2007, Debbie Reese (Navajo) led the criticism of me on the Internet and orchestrated social media attacks against me saying that I had no business writing about Alaska Natives or about Native Americans, not even about my own grandmother and her sister 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. Over many years, I interviewed elders from my own tribe and others to learn more about the plague, which Natives referred to as "The Great Death." I have visited old village sites that were abandoned because of the plague. In her blog, Debbie Reese accused me of “culturally appropriating” my Native identity and the historicity of the novel, as well as the Native words and phrases I used in the book, 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. An epidemiologist from Anchorage even talked about the devastating effects of the plague on Native communities on NPR. And yet, more than one Alaskan librarian has informed me that, in her desperate effort to discredit the book, Debbie Reese contacted them and asked if the plague really happened. Not only did they tell her it did, at least one librarian sent her newspaper clippings from the period to prove it really happened. None of that mattered to Debbie Reese. She slammed the book nonetheless on her blog, withholding the truth from her readers just as she lied to readers saying my father was dead.
This is what Debbie Reese has done to me for more than a decade: she deliberately misrepresented the truth about me and my writing so that no one would read these amazing stories as related to me by the people who witnessed and survived them (most of whom are gone now). She demeaned those elders who told me their stories about what happened to them and their families and their villages. She relentlessly emailed the disingenuous 1994 newspaper story and her own deceitful articles about me to people in an attempt to alienate and to injure me.
On April 8, 2016, Debbie Reese 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. Following suit, some of Reese's supporters go on amazon and give my books one-star ratings without ever having read them. 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. Other journals have told me the same thing.
If you are a school or public librarian, stop listening to anything Debbie Reese says about American Indian literature for young readers. She is not impartial or fair. She is not a spokesperson for Native Americans in any way, not even for her own tribe. She should not be a gatekeeper for Native writing. Indeed, it is dangerous to allow a few individuals to be the arbiters of an entire ethnicity. Read the books for yourself and make your own decisions based on merit. To learn what other Native American writers and scholars think of people like Debbie Reese, read Lee Francis' powerful article (pdf) at the end of this webpage.
In May 2016, Reese 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, the one that says I am Native). A woman named Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who had previously been kind to me and praised my books for almost a year after she first provided blurbs for them, suddenly became cruel and vicious. To placate Debbie Reese, she claimed that I "conned" her somehow, which is untrue. When I implored the woman to read this webpage to see documentation that I am Alaska Native, she replied that she wouldn't look at anything, stating that Debbie Reese had "told her I wasn't Native and that was good enough for her" (the same Debbie Reese who lied when she published that my father was dead). I'm constantly amazed at how quickly a person will try to destroy another person all because someone else told them they shouldn't like him. My heart is a cemetery full of the holes left by such people.
Over three decades, I cultivated a network with other writers in the literary world. As the poetry editor of a national literary magazine (Rosebud), I communicated with tens of thousands of writers--some famous, even iconic; others just beginning--and received an estimated 200,000 poems! The Boston Globe once called Rosebud "the best literary journal in America." For most of that time, I gave personal, handwritten comments on every submission (no form letter). Some of those fine authors offered a few kind words of praise for my writing, sometimes, I think, because I was writing from the allure of Alaska, but also because they aware of the efforts to marginalize me and they wanted to help me. But mostly they gave blurbs because they recognized that my books had some value to the world. Over three decades, I have submitted my own writing to hundreds of editors around the world, establishing an even broader network in the literary world. I have given blurbs for dozens of books by other writers. I'd like to point out that Rosebud is a 501 C3 nonprofit. It has never profited from a single issue, and in all those years, I was never paid a single dime. It was a labor of love. Over those many years, I have paid thousands of dollars in honoraria to writers out of my own pocket. Over the decades, I have judged numerous national and international literary prizes, for which I have never received payment. I have spent my life volunteering in the service of promoting contemporary literature in the world. The same can be said of my two dictionaries of endangered Alaska Native languages, both of which have always been available for free, and of my collection of myths from my tribe, Trickster, for which I donate all royalties to my tribe's scholarship fund (the same scholarship that supported my college education as well as my oldest daughter's).
Debbie Reese and/or her surrogates have contacted publishers, journal editors, and literary award committees and tried to coerce them to withdraw my writing from publication or awards consideration. Unfortunately, some have caved to the organized social media pressure, afraid of negative publicity. An outright lie she and her surrogates propagate is to say that my writing perpetuates negative stereotypes of American Indians to discourage librarians and other folks 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. I'm an Insider--a tribal member and culture bearer who is also a cultural anthropologist; I've been a university professor of Native American literature and co-chair of Native Studies, I speak my Native language. My books don't stereotype. They don't "appropriate" Native culture. They celebrate it. Many of them tell histories that have been forgotten or marginalized. It's part of their m.o. They criticize my occasional use of the word "Indian" in my writing, even though Sherman Alexie, one of the most successul Native writers, once wrote, "Indian is not a derogatory word. It's what we call ourselves." In fact, two of his books include the word "Indian" in the title: The Toughest Indian in the World and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In his autobiographical essay "The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me" (Here First, Random House/Modern Library, 2000), Sherman writes, "I have never met a Native American. I have met thousands of Indians" (4). Alexie next describes a panel discussion where a white woman in the audience asks, "Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian? It's so demeaning." To which Sherman replies, "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians, pronounced In-din.We own it, and we're not going to give it back" (4). From my own experience, my fellow tribal members proudly refer to themselves as Indian and wear tee-shirts that proudly declare "Indian Pride." Debbie Reese and her mob criticize me for using the word "Indian," saying it stereotypes, but they don't criticize Sherman Alexie (who is in their small clique) when he does the same thing. To illustrate this double standard, in the spring of 2016, Kenyon Review's long-time poetry editor, David H. Lynn, who has published my poems in KR since his first days as poetry editor in 1994, retracted two of my poems after a few folks like the white lady in the audience in Sherman's vignette, claimed they negatively stereotyped Native Americans. At first Lynn retracted them stating that I had previously published the poems embedded in an essay about Native literature and that it was against KR policy. I told David the mistake was inadvertant and apologized. But shortly thereafter, he removed that statement and posted the following: "In the Spring issue of KROnline, we published two poems by John Smelcer, “Smoke Signal” and “Indian Blues.” I appreciate the many readers who have contacted us to point out that these poems contained damaging stereotypes of Native people. I deeply regret the manifest distress this has caused and take full responsibility."
David's statement is a perfect example of the double standard applied only to me. One of the two poems, "Smoke Signal" is based on a true event that happened to me while riding my motorcycle in upstate NY in the fall of 2010. Up around Syracuse, I met a full-blood Native biker from an upstate tribe at a diner and we cruised together for a while (see photo below of John Smelcer with his youngest daughter in Binghamton, NY, May 2011). The poem is about two Rednecks in a pick-up truck who shout racist taunts at a Native biker on a red Indian brand motorcycle at a red light. When the light turns green, the motorcycle peels away in a fury, the rising smoke from the tailpipe looking like a middle finger. It's an unflinching poem about pride and resistance in the face of racism. Compare my poem to the following from Sherman's "The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me": "Summer 1995. Seattle, Washington. I am idling at a red light when a car filled with white boys pulls up beside me. The white boy in the front seat leans out his window. 'I hate you Indian motherfuckers,' he screams. I quietly wait for the green light" (9). Both are examples of poetry as literature of witness. Both were written in response to ignorance and racism against Native Americans. Did readers object to the fact that my character shows his justifiable anger and resentment while Sherman was passive? Did readers object to the name of my character in the poem: Duke Sky Thunder? One of Sherman's most famous literary characters is Lester FallsApart, a character whose very name evokes the trope of the drunk Indian. Would Mr. Lynn have retracted Sherman's writing as well? Would he have issued the same apology saying it "contained damaging stereotypes of Native people"? Why is it okay for Sherman but not for me? Sherman and I are both members of federally recognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest. His tribe is no more important than my tribe or any other tribe for that matter. We both have CIBs from the BIA saying we are Indian. We are the same age. My work also appeared in Here First. Is it because Sherman "looks more Native" than I do as some folks have suggested on Facebook? None of this is meant as a criticism of Sherman's writing in in any way. His essay in Here First is brilliant and innovative. I am simply illustrating the double standard that exists. It is worth noting that both poems appeared in my poetry book Indian Giver (2016), of which the author of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States had no objection to a single poem and wrote that the book "tells the harsh truth about the continued genocidal colonialist noose around the neck of every Native American.. This is not just history, and perhaps the reality can be captured only through poetry wrought by the hand of one of our most brilliant poets." I don't wish to make an enemy of David Lynn. For almost twenty-five years, he has been supportive of my poetry. But his statement was disengenuous and illustrates the world I have inherited because of folks like Debbie Reese and her mob who perpetuate lies about me and puts social media pressure on editors to censor my writing in an effort to silence my voice.
In that deceitful June 9, 2016 article where Reese declared that my father was dead (see above), she "concluded" that I somehow parlayed my Grandmother's Gift of Transfer of Stock into getting a CIB (Certificate of Indian Blood). She's absolutely incorrect and ignorant of the laws. A Transfer of Stock simply transfers shares of our Native corporation stock from one family member to another, which determines how many votes you can cast in elections and how much you receive in annual dividends. Stocks may only be gifted to a direct family member who is Native. I received my CIB from the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) simply because my father is half-blood Alaska Native. My Uncle Herb, Chairman of the Board of Ahtna Native Corporation, helped me to send my birth certificate to the BIA, which checked to find my father's name on a list of registered Native enrollees. I suspect Debbie's parents did the same for her. Even when she or other individuals (including so called "reporters") call my Native Corporation and my village association, recognized as a tribe by the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which both informed them I am indeed a member, they causally dismiss the fact and take it upon themselves to proclaim publicly that they don't think that means I'm Native or that I have any right to say I come from a Native heritage or that can write about Natives. What makes them think they have the right to make that judgment?
What woud you do if someone kept posting on the Internet that you are not African American, Irish or Scotch-Irish, Hispanic, Asian American, German American, Italian American, or Jewish?
The 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards
Stealing Indians, my novel about the American Indian boarding school experience, went through more drafts than any other book I have ever written. I re-wrote the ending half a dozen times. I knew it was an important story. I interviewed dozens of Native elders from across America who had attended such schools. While writing the novel, I was helped along the way by many other wonderful writers. More than anyone else, my longtime friend, Ursula K. Le Guin, sent me "back to the drawing board" to create more sympathetic characters and to give the novel more balance. I will always be grateful for her help. Over twenty years or longer, I published Ursula's poems in Rosebud, and she graciously allowed us to establish a fiction award in her name. I published three of Ursula's poems in issue 63 of Rosebud just weeks before she passed away in late January, 2018. Days before she died, she wrote a kind letter expressing her enduring gratitude to Rosebud (see below).
I was honored when I learned that Stealing Indians was a finalist for the 2017 Pen Center USA book awards. But within two hours after receiving a congratulatory email from PEN Center USA in mid-August 2017, Debbie Reese sent out a barage of emails to her followers across the nation urging them to attack me with the purpose of getting my book withdrawn. (I know this to be true because one of the emails was accidentally forwarded to me with the rallying call to attack me in the Subject Line.) Within hours, her surrogates began an orchestrated effort to derail my book, posting and publishing negative articles about me on social media and even on PEN Center USA's website. The posts were hateful to say the least. One cruel individual posted that my youngest daughter is not really my daughter, because they once saw me pushing her around campus in a baby stroller and they thought she "looked Asian" (see the photo above of me and my daughter on my motorcycle around that time). The individual claimed that I must have adopted her to make people think she's Native and therefore think that I'm Native.What kind of sick person says such a thing? The truth is she is my biological daughter (both my daughters are). How will she feel if she reads that online someday? These are the kind of people who attack me--callous cowards who say whatever they want online, regardless of the truth. The truth is my daughter's mother is a descendant of Myles Standish and Stephen Hopkins, both of whom were aboard the Mayflower. Before his Mayflower voyage, Hopkins was aboard the ill-fated Sea Venture, which sunk off the coast of Bermuda, shipwrecking the crew for almost a year, during which time Hopkins was convicted of mutiny for trying to persuade his marooned companions that British authorities had no legal power over them. He was later pardoned and eventually joined the pilgrims on the Mayflower. Both Standish and Hopkins helped found the Plymouth Colony, both signed the Mayflower Compact, and both participated in the legendary first Thanksgiving supper. Scholars believe that the Sea Venture’s shipwreck was the basis for The Tempest and that Shakespeare named the mutinous character Stephano after my wife’s and daughter’s great-great grandfather.
Kaylie Jones, a former colleague in a graduate creative writing program where I was once faculty, and Marlon James, a former graduate student in the program, both demeaned my Native language on Facebook. Both had heard me reading my poems in Ahtna at a public event more than a dozen years ago at which I had been introduced to the audience as a member of the tribe, as the former director of my tribe's heritage foundation, as one of the last Native speakers of the language and the editor of a dictionary of the language, and that I had published many of my Ahtna poems in journals worldwide (click on "poems & stories" to read two of the many poems I have published in Ahtna). Kaylie posted how at one point during the reading, a student sitting beside her leaned over and told her, "He speaks good Klingon." Kaylie posted how "she almost fell out of her chair laughing" at the joke. Although it's been many years, I remember them sitting in the audience and laughing at me. I also remember how much it hurt me at the time. Kaylie especially should have known better. She knew previously that I was a member of a tribe in Alaska and that I spoke the language (see her facebook post below). In fact, that very summer the James Jones Literary Society's (of which Kaylie is a founding member and the longest-serving board member) newsletter published a story about me that stated that I'm Ahtna Athabaskan Indian and that I speak Ahtna and wrote a dictionary of the language (vol. no 2, p. 8). Marlon James, a writer whose many successes I have followed with admiration and unmerited pride, recklessly posted that I "invented the language," even calling it "gibberish." He even allowed his comments to be published in a Minneapolis newspaper despite the fact that he was made aware by other Facebook users that the language was real. In fact, he was sent links to the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Native Language Center to prove it was real, yet he did not retract his statement nor apologize for it. Before posting such a racist statement, Marlon could have spent a few minutes on the Internet and learned that Ahtna is a real language (see map below of Alaska Native Languages, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska Native Language Center; note Ahtna in red). Within seconds on YouTube, he would have found my Ahtna language instruction project: Ahtna 101.
Kaylie Jones and Marlon James shamelessly ridiculed a severely endangered Native American language with only a dozen or so speakers left, myself included, and then they proudly posted it on Facebook (I have saved screenshots of their Facebook posts). In their racist remarks, they disrespected an entire culture. I have spent my adult life working to preserve and teach my Native language (and even another endangered Alaska Native language), but instead of being respected for it, people like them mock me. Would they have made fun of someone speaking Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, Maori, or Swahili? Kaylie and Marlon attack my integrity, but where is their integrity? Where is their decency? Where is their shame? Marlon James would sabbotage another ethnic writer's chance to win a book award all because he didn't recognize a language the author spoke? (According to Nat. Geo. there are 7,500 languages in the world.) There is nothing noble about their attacks against me. They are bullies bent on injuring another human being who has never done any wrong to them. I have never said a negative word about either. As far as I recall, I have never wronged them. Yet they viciously attack me, their memories clouded by an anger they didn't have until they read one of Debbie Reese's fallacious articles about me. Debbie Reese "recruited" Kaylie and Marlon to attack me, convincing them that I appropriated my Native heritage, yet she never corrected them for ridiculing a Native American language. How is Reese a defender of Native authenticity if she did not correct these two non-Native individuals for publicly ridiculing a severely endangered Native language as spoken by one of its very last speakers, despite the urgings by other Facebook followers to do so? Reese knew better. She knows for a fact that Ahtna and Navajo are related members of the Dine' language family (see map above, inset in red).
Marlon James's racist comments in August 2017 did not escape the attention of PEN Center USA. Their lawyer stated that "he found Marlon James's comments to be disgusting."
On his Facebook page, Marlon James also implied that my surname, Smelcer, being of German origin, proved I wasn't Native. (My full-blood Indian grandmother married a man named Smelcer. Does that mean she was no longer Native? What about her children? See the photo below of me and my grandmother and her sister.) The fact is Native Americans don't have names like "Dances With Wolves." It's stereotyping to think so. Again, Facebook followers demanded that Debbie Reese denounce Marlon James's racist comment. She did not. You see, Debbie's own surname, Reese, comes from Old Welsh "Ris" to Welsh "Rhys" and then into German as "Reese." Just like me, Debbie Reese's surname is German, but she didn't want to point that out to Marlon James and take the steam out of his attacks against me. As far as I know, no one was attacking Louise Erdrich for her German-derived surname. It should be pointed out that Theresa Mailhot's surname is French (Normandy) in origin, from Mailot, Mailott, and Mailett ("mallet"). Debbie's first name (all variations) comes from the Hebrew for "bee," Theresa's (all variations) from the Spanish and Greek for "harvester/reaper," and Sherman Alexie's first name comes from the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) for a "shearer of woolen garments." According to Marlon James's racist stereotyping, neither Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, or Sherman Alexie are Native. (I have saved screenshots of these Facebook posts.) It was also posted in a thread on Marlon's Facebook page that I can't be Native because I don't "look Native." I've even heard that someone posted that I can't be Native because my hair is gray and all Natives have black hair. Every full-blood Native elder I have ever known eventually gets gray hair (see photo below of Chief Harry Johns, Ruth Johns, and my great aunt, Morrie Secondchief. See photo of my father near the beginning of this web page). It is human nature for hair to lose pigmentation as we age. Native Americans are no exceptions. These shameful episodes prove that Debbie Reese is no is no defender of Native identity or authenticity. She will use anyone who is willing to blindly attack me, even when their public comments are racist, stereotyping, and demeaning to Native Americans.
Despite Debbie Reese's efforts to suppress Stealing Indians, the book was taught in schools on the Navajo Nation. In a Skype session, Navajo students told me they loved the novel and that their parents and grandparents who read it also loved it.
There is an underlying assumption that the people who attack me have integrity. They do not. They will misrepresent the truth or withhold the truth, misquote people out of context, or outright lie to fit their agenda. From their blatant racism, they will demean and stereotype Native Americans.
Kaylie Jones also alleged on a Facebook post on August 16, 2017 (see below) that I told her I had a PhD from Oxford. The last time I ever spoke to her was at a late night coctail party for faculty in mid August 2006. I hadn't seen her in half a year, such was the nature of the low-residency program. When Kaylie asked me what I had been up to since the last residency, I told her that I had just returned from a summer semester at Oxford, and I was just about to begin my first semester in a PhD program in New York (see letters below). In her memory, Kaylie must have "married" the two pieces of information. Kaylie Jones posted on her Facebook page that in January 2005, she and another faculty member discovered that I did not have a PhD from Oxford and that I was "immediately dismissed from the faculty." The fact is I didn't even apply to Oxford until January 2006 and wasn't accepted until mid-March and didn't attend until July (see letters below). I was proud to learn that I was the first Alaska Native accepted in the program. Oxford University wasn't mentioned in any way on the c.v./resume I sent the university in 2004 (although Cambridge University was listed as I studied Shakespeare there in 2004). The fact is I taught in the creative writing program for two years, until the end of the fall semester of 2006. I was not "dismissed immediately" in January 2005 as Kaylie stated. During that mid-August 2006 residency, I received an award in recognition for co-founding the John Gardner Playwriting Award with another faculty member in affiliation with Gardner's estate, the university, and Rosebud magazine. I was keenly aware during the mid-August residency in 2006 that Kaylie Jones had been coniving to get me dismissed from the faculty. I just didn't now why. Kaylie "recruited" her colleague, Laurie Loewenstein, to attack me on social media as well, repeating Kaylie's accusation that I claimed to have a PhD from Oxford, despite the fact that Laurie wasn't even at the coctail party and had no direct knowledge of our conversation whatsoever. When other Facebook users confronted Laurie and requested that she provide evidence of her accusations, she offered nothing. On Facebook, Laurie lauded Kaylie as some kind of hero for her public and racist rants against me during the August 2017 PEN Center USA social media attacks.
The 2004 James Jones First Novel Fellowship
At the end of Kaylie Jones's August 16, 2017 Facebook post, she stated that in 2015 the James Jones Literary Society voted to rescind my 2004 book award (see below). Yet, throughout the August 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards controversy, the award was still listed on the JJLS webpage with no mention that it had been revoked two years previsously. In fact, Kaylie's post was the first time I'd ever heard about it. I told PEN USA's lawyer as much. If my book was revoked in 2015, why was I not informed or asked for any explanation or defense? Why was the award still listed on the JJLS website in mid-late August 2017? The fact of the matter is, the listing of my award was not removed from the JJLS website until after PEN Center USA announced its decision at the end of August 2017. The James Jones Literary Society revoked the only book prize they have ever awarded to an enrolled member of a federally recognized Native American tribe. Further, the specific reason Kaylie provided for rescinding my 2004 award was an outright lie of which she knew better. The fact is, I wrote to David Nightingale, the president of the JJLS Board of Directors, in January 2004 before submitting The Trap for the contest, asking for clarification of submission guidelines, and he wrote back that I would not be disqualified from entering, and he encouraged me to submit my manuscript for the contest. David and his wife came to visit me in Alaska during the summer of 2005 (see photo below). During that visit, David told me that he had told Kaylie about my submission query the year before. I suspect the reason why the JJLS kept the 2015 revocation of my book so secretive (i.e. why they didn't remove it from their website in 2015 or make a public statement or contact me) was because Kaylie Jones worried that I might still have the correspondence between me and David Nightingale. I do have them. After decades of people like Debbie Reese and Kaylie Jones viciously attacking me, I have learned to save everything related to my writing. Kaylie Jones knew about David Nightingale's response for over a decade. She only chose to "weaponize" her lie when she saw an opportunity to harm me in mid-August 2017 during the PEN Center USA attacks when other bullies were attacking me. The James Jones Literary Society has not responded to requests for an explanation from me or my attorney. I have been contacted by members of the JJLS who are appalled at the society's unilateral and racist decision to rescind my book award. One individual told me he will not renew his membership when it expires.
Kaylie Jones admitted on Facebook that her obsession to find some excuse to rescind my 2004 JJLS book award began years ago after she read one of Reese’s non-peer-reviewed blogs that cited what my father had said about me in 1994. In fact, Jones posted it was an “incontrovertible fact” that I was “not Native whatsoever.” But now it has been proven that my father deceived Debbie Reese and his statement is no longer credible. As a colleague I respected, a great deal of bad-blood and grief could have been avoided all these years if only Kaylie had asked me to help her understand the issue instead of jumping to conclusions. I would have gladly shared with her my father's letter and my birth certificate.
Kaylie Jones posted that she told her mispresentations to PEN Center USA on the evening of August 15, 2017 in an attempt to have my book withdrawn from the Finalists List. If PEN USA's lawyer had taken a minute to look at the James Jones Literary Society's website, he would have seen that my award was still listed with no statement that it had been disqualified, despite that Kaylie told him it had been rescinded in 2015. It should have raised a red flag about her truthfulness. What possible excuse could Kaylie have given to explain why the award was still listed on the JJLS website in late August 2017, more than two years after she said it had been rescinded? Can she credibly claim that the JJLS webmaster simply forgot to remove it from their website until after PEN Center USA's decision in late August 2017? It is preposterous to believe that the JJLS board of directors made an historic decision to revoke the only book award in their history--and that of a member of a federally recognized Native American tribe--and yet they didn't announce the decision or immediately remove it from their website.
How would you feel if some organization took away an award you had received (or a professional license or a college degree) without ever contacting you and you only learned about it years later as second-hand news? What if you learned that the basis for their decision was a lie and that lie had negatively influenced the decision of another organization? What would you do if they didn't even respond to your queries or those of your attorney? How far would you go to right the wrong and clear your name?
PEN Center USA has been provided documentation of Kaylie Jones's misrepresentations to them. The truth is that none of the allegations Kaylie Jones posted about me in August 2017 are "incontrovertible facts" as she stated (see below).
One of the most outrageous lies that Kaylie Jones posted on Facebook was her claim that I owned Leapfrog Press, the independent New York press that has published many of my books in the past few years. Kaylie claimed that she "did the research" and "discovered the truth." For the record, I have no ownership stake in Leapfrog Press. I am not on a board of directors. I am just one of many writers they have published in their many years of existence, a fact the actual publisher posted in response to Kaylie's unfounded lie. I am proud that my publisher has stood by me over the years, despite the constant harassment by Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and others. It amazes me how someone like Kaylie Jones or Marlon James will try to destroy another person's life and career based on innuendo and hearsay, without taking a couple minutes to look at my website to learn the truth. They are bullies who only attacked me when Debbie Reese and her surrogates were already kicking me.
At that August 2006 faculty coctail party, Kaylie also asked if I was working on anything new. I told her that Henry Holt had just bought Stealing Indians, my novel about the Native American boarding school experience, a fact they both knew because it was published in the summer 2006 newsletter of the James Jones Literary Society (vol. 15, no. 2, p. 7), of which both Kaylie and Marlon are members. Stealing Indians was eventually published ten years later in 2016 by a different publisher. On Facebook, people like Kaylie and Marlon accusingly questioned how it was possible that I had a blurb from Chinua Achebe on the book when he died in 2013. It's because I had published Chinua's poems in 2004 (see below), the year my novel, The Trap, won the James Jones Literary Society's book award, and we remained friends up until his death. I frequently visited Chinua while I was living in upstate New York. Mr. Achebe said Stealing Indians was a masterpiece.
Stealing Indians is the very same book that Debbie Reese, Kaylie Jones, and Marlon James attacked so viciously on social media in mid-August 2017 in an attempt to have it withdrawn from the list of finalists for the 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards. In their posts they repeated the same old lies: that I'm not Native; that I don't look Native; that I "invented" my Native language, among others things. They were so malicious and vocal, in fact, that at one point PEN Center USA stated on their website that: "Debbie Reese, Kaylie Jones, and Marlon James do not speak on behalf of PEN Center USA." Yet, I have learned that PEN Center USA privately contacted Kaylie Jones on the evening of August 15, 2017 and used what she said about me as basis to withdraw my book. There is also reason to suspect that one of the PEN Center USA judges contacted Debbie Reese to give her a "heads up" about my book more than a month-and-a-half before it was even announced as a finalist.
In order to create an "air of suspicion" around my writing, Debbie Reese contacted the daughter of Mark Strand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet I had published in Rosebud and who had generously provided a blurb for my poetry book Indian Giver. (As far as I can tell, Reese tried to contact every person who provided a blurb for the book. This is not normal behavior for a book reviewer by any standard.) As she always does, Debbie Reese manipulated Mark's daughter, making her suspicious and mistrustful of me. There is nothing suspicious about a poet sending his poems to the poetry editor of a major national literary journal, especially to an editor who had personally invited him to send on a poem. There is nothing suspicious about a poet writing a few words of praise for a fellow poet's book, especially a friend. Rod Clark, co-publisher of Rosebud magazine with me for more than twenty years, posted on Facebook that he remembered that the letter from Mark Strand with his poem and the blurb for my book had been mailed to him in Wisconsin (Rosebud's home office) and that he forwarded it on to me months later. He admitted that as Rosebud's fiction editor, he did not recognize Mr. Strand's name and that's why his letter ended up in the "slush pile" for months. Another allegation was that I didn't know Ray Bradbury and that he would never have given blurbs for my novels, The Trap and Lone Wolves. Rod again settled the matter on Facebook, posting that we had published Mr. Bradbury's writing a number of times over the years and that the estate of Ray confirmed that Mr. Bradbury had indeed provided blurbs for both books. He also posted that Mr. Bradbury's biographer and a close friend of Mr. Bradbury both confirmed that Ray considered Rosebud to be the best literary journal in America. Another unfounded allegation during the PEN Center USA attacks was that I could not have possibly known National Book Award winner, Ruth Stone, who wrote a wonderful foreword for Indian Giver. Again, Rod debunked the lie, posting on Facebook that he and Ruth Stone had been friends since back in their college days in Madison, WI during the late 1960s. It was Rod who introduced me to Ruth. Ruth and I had another connection in that we had both taught creative writing at Binghamton University, SUNY. I am also friends with one of Ruth's daughters and have published her artwork in Rosebud. Before it was included in the book, I obtained permission from Ruth's estate after her death to use her lovely foreword, which stated: "John Smelcer is one of the truly great poets I have come across in my life. His poetry is of genius."
Again, there is nothing suspicious about one of the longest-serving editors of a major American literary journal knowing lots of other writers and having meaningful and enduring friendships with them. There is nothing suspicious about writers giving "blurbs" for fellow writers. It's part of the profession.
To make matters worse, two of the judges for the award immediately and recklessly joined in the attack on my book and my character, claiming I wasn't Native. (There is no stipulation in the PEN Center USA guidelines for submission that a writer must be of any particular ethnicity.) One of the judges stated on PEN's website that she was going to try to get my book removed from the Finalists list (I suspect it was she who leaked to Debbie Reese news of my book rising up to the Finalists List, another breech of professional ethics regarding standards of literary contest judging). How did my novel ever have a chance of winning when even the judges (who had yet to announce the winner) were joining forces with these three individuals? When Rod Clark told PEN Center USA's lawyer in a phone conversation of his concern that two judges were so publicly against my book, he was astounded when PEN Center USA's lawyer said that he saw no conflict with judges attacking a book or the author of a book for which they were tasked with judging and for which the winner would not be announced for weeks. I knew from that moment on that my book had no chance whatsoever of remaining a finalist, let alone winning. Since the mid 1990s, Rod and I have administered dozens of national book awards. In the fairness of impartiality--the hallmark of any ethical literary award process--we would have dismissed any judge or co-judge who publicly attacked a book or its author while that book was under consideration for an award. Through PEN Center USA's lawyer, I was requested not to respond to the social media attacks and accusations, i.e. I was asked not to defend myself. I played by PEN Center USA's rules and kept quiet. Knowing this, Rod Clark did his best to defend me on Facebook, as did others. When the publisher of my book tried to support me by contacting PEN Center USA, she was told to stay out of it, that she wasn't helping matters. And yet, incredulously, PEN Center USA privately communicated with my attackers like Kaylie Jones, who later bragged on Facebook that PEN Center USA had contacted her.
It is a fact that Kaylie Jones lied to PEN Center USA with malicious intent to injure my professional reputation and to have my book withdrawn, and that she did so with foreknoweldge of the truth and out of a long-standing personal vendetta that's more than a decade old. It is also a fact that Kaylie Jones admitted in her Facebook post that over the years she has read the fallacious "articles" written about me by other Native writers like Debbie Reese and then shared them with her colleagues in an effort to injure my professional reputation.
Racism in the World of Native American Writers
During the organized media attacks to have my book withdrawn as a Finalist for the 2017 PEN Center USA book awards, many outrageous accusations were published about me. One of the most racist statements came from Sherman Alexie, the Native writer I most admired until now, who stated in a Seattle newspaper article during the mid-August 2017 attacks that I couldn't be Native because when he met me at a conference for Native writers in Neah Bay, Washington in 1994, I didn't "get" the inside jokes or lingo of other Natives like him who grew up on a reservation. I realize that Native Americans prefer the word "Nation," but I am quoting Sherman Alexie who wrote in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: I "was just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spoke Indian Reservation" (7). Of course I didn't their inside jokes! I grew up 2,400 miles away in the interior of Alaska where there are no reservations. We don't call ourselves "Skins" or use the word "enit" or make frybread or venerate and grow corn like they do; we don't have pow-wows and fancy-dancing. But that doesn't mean the more than 100,000 Natives of Alaska (according to the 2015 State of Alaska Census) are any less Native than he is. Sherman's tribe near Spokane, Washington doesn't hunt caribou, seal, walrus, or whales as Alaska Natives do. We are culturally different. There are over 500 different tribes in the United States, each one defined by geography, culture, and language. By such a racist statement, Sherman Alexie implies that only Natives raised on a reservation like him are truly Native (what he calls "Skins"). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 22% of Native Americans live on reservations. Sherman implies that almost 80% of all Natives in the United States are not Native because they didn't grow up on a resevation as he did. (I suspect that Debbie Reese and Theresa Mailhot hold the same opinions, which explains why they work so hard to exclude and even destroy so many emerging Native writers.) Sherman says I'm not Native because I don't "get" his inside jokes, but in his own words, Sherman does not speak his Native language, while I am fluent in mine, published a dictionary of it, have published poems in it for decades, and teach it to others so that it might survive for future generations.
Debbie Reese posted on Facebook the racist question of whether or not I had ever published other Native writers during my near quarter century tenure as poetry editor at Rosebud. Rod Clark, publisher of Rosebud responded that we had published many Native writers and artists over the years. (Let it also be said that over the decades, I invited many distinguished African American writers.) The fact is in 2010, I personally invited Sherman Alexie to send me some poems for Rosebud and he declined because I was the one asking. Of the hundreds of editors who have published Sherman Alexie's writing over the years, I doubt any of them were Native--testament to the kind of racist discrimination I am subjected to by people like Debbie Reese, Sherman Alexie, and their clique. What is very telling is the fact that Sherman did not correct Debbie Reese and inform her that I had personally invited him to send poems for Rosebud. In the fall of 1994, Sherman sent me the most racist letter I have ever received. In the letter, he wrote that he "wouldn't respond to any more letters from [me]," and that "[he] and the other True Skins will never have anything to do with someone like [me] with an eye-dropper full of Indian blood." He wrote that "people like you are never really Indian." I wrote about Sherman's letter as far back as the summer and fall of 1995, while I was doing archaeological fieldwork for my tribe, quoting from it in my autobiographical essay in Here First (p. 334) and in my poem "Skins," which I wrote around 1996 at my cabin in Tazlina Village. When I related the contents of Sherman's letter to our mutual mentor, James Welch, I recall that James was disappointed in Sherman. He hated the way some Native writers were alienating other Native writers. For over two decades, editors have told me that Sherman (and other established Native writers) had discouraged them from including my writing in anthologies of contemporary Native literature. Below is a pdf of my invitation in 2010 to Sherman Alexie to send me poems for Rosebud. (I hope it does not escape you that despite Sherman's hateful letter of 1994, I was kind enough and forgiving enough to invite him to send me poems for Rosebud sixteen years later. Please remember, Sherman Alexie attacked me in the Seattle newspaper in August 2017 with the express intent to get my book disqualified from the 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards based upon his comments and those of others. While I admire his writing immensly, I have the right to respond to his harsh attack.)
Taken together—Sherman Alexie’s implication in the Seattle newspaper that only Natives raised on reservations are truly Native and his 1994 letter in which he refers to himself and others like him as true "Skins" who will have nothing to do with Natives of lesser blood quantum or who were not raised on "reservations" as they were, as well as Sherman’s eagerness to publicly attack another Native writer, reveals the racism within the world of Native American writers. The facts speak for themselves: almost 80% of all Natives do not live on reservations; not a single one of the 100,000 Alaska Natives was raised on a reservation as there are none in Alaska; statistically, according to the US Census Bureau, Native Americans are increasingly living in cities for socioeconomic reasons, including Sherman Alexie, who lives in Seattle. The Nazis similarly differentiated themselves as True Bloods or True Skins, only they called it the “Master Race.” The truth is, individuals like Sherman Alexie, Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, and their surrogates want to control the narrative of who is a Native writer (or artist) in America. They would exclude more than 80% of all Natives in the nation— anyone who doesn’t measure up to their racist ideals. They blatantly disregard the fact that the members of the other 500 tribes in America may have different experiences from their own. They mask their witch-hunts under the guise that they are rooting out “Fake Indians," purposefully using politically-charged words like "cultural appropriation" in their attacks against other Native writers (or artists) to give their attacks a kind of legitimacy.
It has been variously reported to me over the years by other Native writers that Debbie Reese at first loved and praised my novel The Trap for its authenticity. I have been told that parts of the book reminded her of being at her grandmother's house when she was young. I wrote those parts from similar memories of being at my grandmother's house in our village. It was only after Reese read the disingenuous 1994 newspaper article about me that she began attacking me and my writing, which implies that her criticisms of my work is more about racism and identity politics than about authenticity and quality.
Lee Francis, the founder of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers compared people like Reese, Mailhot, and Alexie to Nazi enforcers (read Lee’s article at the end of this webpage). It is worth pointing out that the author of the Seattle newspaper article about me contacted my tribe to inquire if I was a member of the tribe, to which he was told that I was. And yet he concluded his sham article by proclaiming that he didn't think that means I'm Native, echoes of Sherman Alexie's beliefs. When I first heard about the Seattle newspaper story being written about me, I told my publisher and others that I knew that the author and Sherman Alexie were friends. I told them that it was going to be a one-sided character assassination, which is precisely what it turned out to be. I said the same thing about the Minneapolis Star story when I learn that Marlon James (who lives in Minneapolis) was friends with the author. The Seattle Stranger, LA Times, and the Minneapolis Star articles about me were "Yellow Journalism" at its worst.
Again, I didn't respond to the allegations by people like Sherman Alexie, Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Kaylie Jones, and Marlon James in their sham newspaper articles, on social media, blogs, and elsewhere in August 2017 because PEN Center USA asked me not to. They were concerned it would only escalate the attacks. As non-Natives, Marlon James and Kaylie Jones should never have involved themselves in the racist attacks against me. (I can only imagine how I would be lambasted if I interjected myself in public discourse on who is African American.)
As I've said before, PEN Center USA questioned my integrity but they never questioned the integrity of the people who attacked me. How many emerging Native writers have been ostricized by people like Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Sherman Alexie and their small clique?
One of the most vocal attackers on PEN USA’s website was none other than the vicious woman I mentioned earlier, the one who praised my books, which she loved enough at first to provide blurbs, only to rabidly attack me after Debbie Reese told her she was supposed to hate me, not help me. She is the historian, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who posted on PEN Center USA's website and elsewhere that I somehow “conned” her into giving blurbs for my books, including Stealing Indians. She claimed that I lied to her about being Native. I met Roxanne on April 21, 2015 when she came to talk at the university where my wife is a department chair. In fact, my wife was one of the professors who invited Roxanne to speak to one of her classes. Roxanne also delivered a public lecture that evening, which I attended. Before the lecture, I joined Roxanne and a few colleagues for dinner at a restaurant. During dinner, I told Roxanne that I was a member of a tribe in Alaska, that I had served as director of my tribe’s heritage and cultural foundation, and that I was one of the last remaining speakers of our language and that I had worked with elders to publish a dictionary of our endangered language in 1998—irrefutable facts borne out by documentation in this article. In no way did I misrepresent myself. Sometime after her campus visit, I contacted Roxanne and asked if she’d offer a few kind words for my forthcoming books. She kindly did so. Indeed, she also agreed to allow me to use a foreword she wrote, but in the end my publisher decided it was too academic for a novel for young adults. As I stated previously, for almost a year she continued to praise the books, even saying how “honored” she was to be associated with Stealing Indians. During our year of "friendly" email exchanges, I even volunteered to help Roxanne edit An Indigenous People's History of the United States for a planned YA edition.
But shortly after my books were published, Debbie Reese saw the blurbs and immediately emailed Roxanne the 1994 newspaper articles about me (she didn’t email her the 2016 articles by the same newspaper that said I was Alaska Native). Roxanne instantly went from friendly to vicious. She demanded that her blurb for Stealing Indians be removed, despite the fact that the book was already in print, a fact explained to her by my publisher. As a seasoned author, Roxanne knew it was too late to have her blurb removed. She sent a barrage of hateful and very unprofessional emails to me and my publisher. I have never known a nastier individual. Her emails are so rude and venomous that I refuse to respond to them (nor do I read them any longer). My publisher eventually asked her to stop emailing her. As I stated previously, Roxanne flat out refused to even look at documentation that demonstrates I had not misrepresented myself to her in any way, saying that if Debbie Reese said I wasn’t Native that was good enough for her. I lost all respect for her scholarship after that. What critical thinking historian refuses to examine evidence? In her emails to me after Debbie Reese persuaded her to attack me, Roxanne implied that I had snaked my way into the dinner that night. The fact is my wife was asked to join the dinner after the her class, but she was unable to attend, and so she suggested that I go in her place, because she believed Roxanne and I had a lot in common. As the only non-historian at the table, I felt out of place. On PEN Center USA’s website, Roxanne spat out her lies that I had deceived her into giving blurbs for my books. Below I present a photograph of our meeting and Roxanne’s emails in which she praises both books and says how she was “honored” to be associated with them and how she gave her express permission for the use of her writing on both books (email addresses have been redacted to protect the privacy of both parties). It seems to me that if Roxanne had any concern about my “Nativeness” it would have manifested upon meeting me in person, not almost a year later at the behest of Debbie Reese.
I've said it before: it is astonishing how some one like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who harbored no ill-will toward me at all and praised my writing about the Native experience, will suddenly turn vicious and lie about me all because Debbie Reese told her to do so. For decades, other Native writers have at first admired my writing until Debbie Reese or someone like her told them not to.
During her April 21, 2015 public lecture at the university, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz admitted that she was not "Raised Native." She admitted that, growing up, she didn't even know her mother was part Native. She told the audience it was only after her mother died (when Roxanne was an adult), that she learned that her mother was part Native. On the other hand, I grew up surrounded by my Native family. I never even knew the "White side" of my family (my mother's side), who lived 4,500 miles away. I always knew I was part of a Native heritage. As a boy, I participated in programs explicitly for Native schoolchildren. I grew up learning our cultural traditions and subsistence customs. I grew up with elders like my grandmother and uncle teaching me our culture, history, myths, and language. I spent parts of summers living with my grandmother or with my Uncle Herb in Tazlina village. I speak my Native language fluently and served as the tribally-appointed director of our Heritage Foundation. By her own admission, Roxanne experienced none of this, yet she attacks my "Nativeness." When I offered to email her documents such as my CIB, Roxanne refused to even look at them, stating that Debbie Reese "said I wasn't Native and that was good enough for her." Because she is a personal friend of Debbie Reese, Debbie and her clique don't attack Roxanne. I wonder what Roxanne will think once she learns that Debbie Reese lied about my father's death?
I don't know if what Roxanne said during the public lecture was true. But if it is, it's unfortunate that the author of An Indigenous People's History of the United States attacks a member of a federally recognized tribe who, like her, is similarly trying to tell the marginalized histories of the Native American experience in the United States.
As proof that I did no wrongdoing whatsoever, a month after PEN Center USA’s decision to disqualify my book, Roxanne’s publisher negotiated an offer with my publisher to pay to have all unsold copies of Stealing Indians destroyed and to pay the cost of reprinting the book without Roxanne's blurb…de facto admission that I had done nothing wrong and that I had not “conned” Roxanne in any way (the narrative spun so publicly by Roxanne, Debbie Reese and her surrogates), but that Roxanne simply no longer wished to be associated with my book after Debbie Reese persuaded her to hate me. Very tellingly, in one of her emails to me, Roxanne stated that our mutual acquaintance, Howard Zinn, was known to give blurbs to anyone who asked him for one, especially for any book retelling America’s history from the point of view of “The Other,” which is precisely what Indian Giver and Stealing Indians are about. And yet, in the disingenuous attacks on me and my book, it was alleged that Howard Zinn would never have given me a blurb. You can’t have it both ways.
In point of fact, to date, despite the climate of mistrust and suspicion created by the many allegations during the 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards and in articles written by Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, and their surrogates to influence PEN Center USA’s decision, not a single living writer (with the exception of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) or official representative from any estate of any writer has requested to have a single blurb or foreword removed from a single book I have ever published. Nor has there been any complaint by any writer or any estate regarding my near quarter century tenure as publisher, associate publisher, poetry editor, and literary contest administrator and judge at Rosebud magazine.
PEN Center USA has the audacity to claim on their website that my book was withdrawn "for concerns about my integrity" without ever questioning the integrity of the people whom they talked to about me or who they allowed to post racist comments about me on their website. Where was the integrity of their judging process?
It is unconscionable that PEN USA allowed Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Kaylie Jones, Marlon James, and other individuals like them to post their attacks against me on the organization’s website, while at the same time requesting that I not respond to any of the allegations.
Contrary to stories circulating in the media and circulated by Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Kaylie Jones, and Marlon James, and others, PEN Center USA's decision was NOT about race or ethnicity. They made no judgment about whether I was Native or not. They NEVER stated that I was not a member of the Ahtna tribe. In fact, PEN Center USA's lawyer made it very clear that their decision was not and would never be based on ethnicity as it would be unlawful to discriminate against an author based on his or her race or ethnicity and especially as their guidelines for submission had no stipulation about race or ethnicity. In a phone conversation with Rod Clark, Rosebud's publisher, on August 16, 2017, PEN Center USA's lawyer told him that their decision would not be based on the "Nativist issue." Any individual or newspaper that states otherwise misrepresents the truth. I gambled that if I played by PEN Center USA's rules (i.e. to stay quiet during the weeks of attacks) then they would be fair with me. I was wrong. Like most institutions, PEN Center USA was only concerned about protecting its own welfare and reputation, not mine.
Let it be clear: I am Native. I am a voting member of a federally recognized Native tribe in Alaska and a member of Ahtna Native Corporation, of which members of our eight villages are members, as established by Congress in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Only member who are Native are eligible to vote.
In December 2017, more than three months after PEN's decision, I received my annual dividend from my tribe (below):
It's sad that no one talks about how my novel, Stealing Indians, rose all the way to the Finalists List of such a prestigious book award based on its merit...because it's a damn powerful novel about almost a century of American history about which most Americans are absolutely unaware, yet which impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Native Americans and subsequent generations. Read the book for yourself. Make up your own mind. Don't let censors do it for you. I will always be proud that my novel was a Finalist for the 2017 Pen Center USA Book Awards.
Debbie Reese even dug up things I did as a teenager to use against me, even though I'm now more than half a century old. For the record, I have no convictions of any kind, and I have passed state and FBI background checks (for licensure) every five years since the 1980s. Debbie Reese knows this to be true, she's seen documentation of the fact, but she only tells people what she wants them to know about me and withholds the truth from them, as she did with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This may all seem new to you, but believe me, it's the same old story they rehash over and over, decade after decade, only every now and then they try new tactics and recruit new people like Kaylie Jones and Marlon James to join them in their attacks. Eventually, many of those people tire and walk away. Some have eventually contacted me to apologize, telling me that Debbie Reese misled them. I have forgiven them.
Debbie Reese never emails these people the 2016 articles by the same newspaper that say I am Alaska Native (see above). She never tells them about my birth certificate that proves my father is my father, or about my father's letter to the US Army in which he admits that he is my father and that I am therefore Alaska Native (and in which he praises my integrity). She never tells them about the letters from my father's own brother and his own mother that say I'm Native and was raised Native.
All three authors of the horrible articles about me posted and recycled in late August 2017 have direct connections to Debbie Reese and Sherman Alexie. Lee Francis called Natives like them the self-proclaimed "Guardians of Blood Quantum" (read pdf below). One of the "reporters" named Theresa Mailhot, a close friend of Debbie Reese, even sent a harassing email to my publisher more than a year earlier in which she wrote that my publisher should be ashamed of publishing my books. She and Debbie Reese have contacted people who gave me blurbs for my books in the past and tell them I'm some kind of criminal, blurb-faking conman who has undoubtedly misused them. They load the deck by sending them their one-sided, sham articles about me in an attempt to create suspicion and mistrust from the get-go. When writers tell them they did indeed give me a blurb for a book or that I published them or that they collaborated with me on some writing project many years ago, Reese and Mailhot disingenuosly reported that it must have been under shady circumstances, that I must have conned them.
For example, Reese and Mailhot did the same thing with my friend, Jack Zipes, arguably the world's most influential scholar of the fairy tale, who began his interest in the field after Albert Einstein personally told him it was a worthy pursuit. Jack has written blurbs for a couple of my books, including my collection of myths from my tribe, Trickster. When Reese and Mailhot contacted Jack and asked if he did an interview with me in 2010 on the nature of fairy tales, Jack told them that he had, and he went on to describe the process in which I emailed him questions to which he emailed replies; I then posed new questions based on his answers, etc. We had both agreed on the process beforehand. Before publishing the interview, I even sent Jack the final draft for his input. Although people have been conducting interviews via email since the advent of email, Mailhot and Reese went on to report in their article that while Prof. Zipes confirmed that he had published the interview with me, they disingenuosly reported (again) that it must have been under shady circumstances, i.e. that I had dome something "shifty."
This is not journalism, not by a long shot. This is nothing more than two spiteful people with a grudge abusing the media.
Because of the uncharitable way they portray me to authors or their estates, Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump--one of the most iconic movies in history--at first denied knowing me or writing a blurb for my novel The Trap or discussing with me the idea for my novel Stealing Indians, only to admit a couple days later that he did know me and that he did give me a blurb and he did discuss my other novel after I sent him evidence of our communications and after he read this webpage (see Winston's email from 2004 below; addresses redacted for privacy). In an email to Debbie Reese sent after I emailed him, Groom told her "that he didn't want to get in the middle of an old argument." That is what this is: an old argument and a personal vendetta. I doubt Winston had given me a second thought since our last communication. While it is understandable that a writer may have forgotten about a thirteen year old correspondence, it is inexcusable that he, like others, was so willing to jump into the public frenzy and attack me...all because someone he didn't even know told him to accuse me of dishonesty. Like others who have been contacted, Winston Groom came to realize that Debbie Reese had manipulated him. But Debbie Reese didn't tell you about his email or others just like it. She and her surrogates have an agenda, which should be obvious to anyone by now. They don't want you to know how many famous writers and pop icons, such as Stephen King, as well as Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning writers have confirmed that I published them or that they gave me blurbs in the past or that they worked with me on some literary project. They simply can't or won't accept that so many people have been kind to me over the years. In her emails to Mr. Groom, Debbie Reese--who lied in an article that my father was dead--admitted her role in writing the dreadful LA Times article about me. How could any articles written by any of these people ever be impartial or truthful?
Reese and Mailhot didn't contact people to inquire about me; they contacted them to persuade them to attack me.
Another example of the way Reese and Mailhot manipulate people is the how they contacted the estate of Howard Zinn. I met Howard in upstate New York in the fall of 2008. Howard very generously wrote a blurb for my books that re-vision the Native American experience in American history. Reese and/or Mailhot contacted Howard's daughter and manipulated her into becoming suspicious of me. Yet, through my attorney, we were able to satisfy the estate that Howard had indeed known me and that he had indeed written a blurb for my books. I know that Reese and/or Mailhot contacted other individuals and estates and manipulated them into becoming suspicious of me the way they had done with Winston Groom and Howard Zinn's daughter. Reese and/or Mailhot did the same thing to the estate of Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow. In late 2004, Mrs. King very kindly provided a few kind words for my novel, The Gospel of Simon, the story of Jesus's crucifixion from the point of view of Simon of Cyrene, the man who the Bible says was compelled by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross. Mrs. King once told me that she adored the book for its resounding and tireless message of love. The book is dedicated to her late husband and his clergy friend, Thomas Merton. Because of the way the King estate was contacted and manipulated, it was reported in the media that the estate, like Zinn's, was "suspicious" of me. My lawyer reprimanded Reese on social media for her mischaracterization, for he himself had contacted the estate half a year before the book was even published. To date, the estate of Coretta Scott King has voiced no concern about the use of Mrs. King's kind words for my book to me, my publisher, my attorney, nor any representative. To the contrary, Bernice King graciously invited me to attend the pre-celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the King Center in Atlanta in January 2018, almost half a year after the PEN Center USA attacks.
One of Reese's surrogates posted that I couldn't possibly have known Norman Mailer, who is thanked in the acknowledgements to Stealing Indians. The fact is, I did know Mailer. We corresponded. We discussed my book projects. We visited in Provincetown. And I even edited and published his writing in two issues of Rosebud (an excerpt of Stealing Indians appeared in issue 35 in 2006 along with Norman's poems (see cover below). Norman kindly gave me advice for three of my novels, including Stealing Indians. It was Norman's biographer who "introduced" me to Mailer in the fall of 2004. I was also a faculty colleague with Norman's son, Michael Mailer.
If you have been contacted by these bullies, first, let me say I am sincerely sorry that you've been dragged into this, and secondly, please take what they say about me with a grain of salt and don't let them manipulate you. Don't let them arouse in you a suspiciousness that you did not bear toward me previously. I have always been thankful and respectful of people who have shown me kindness. Please extend to me more charity than do the people who contacted you about me.
Let me say a few words about the allegations regarding my book jacket blurbs. I have been judicious when it comes to obtaining permissions to use blurbs. If too many years have passed since an individual gave me a blurb for one of my books (sometimes it has taken ten years or longer for me to find a publisher), I have diligently contacted that individual and asked if I still had their permission. Individuals are often grateful that I asked and some have used the occasion to edit their original blurb or foreword, as my long-time friend and Beat poet, Gary Snyder did for Trickster. If so much time has elapsed that the individual has passed away, I have gone to extraordinary lengths to contact their estate (including reaching out to their adult children) to obtain renewal of permission or to secure the name of the appropriate person to contact. Sometimes this process takes months. In some cases, after months of failed attempts to get a response via email, letters, phone messages, and Facebook messages, I’ve hired lawyers to contact the estate on my behalf. I have boxes full of hundreds of letters, notes, cards, emails, and contracts and agreements. Because of this respectful policy, I don't recall any living writer or their estate ever revoking a blurb for one of my books. A “reporter” who wrote one of the negative articles about my integrity was provided with numerous examples that proved the extent to which I have gone to obtain renewal of permission to use blurbs or forewords, a fact he failed to disclose in his article. It was also alleged that I didn’t have permission to use the Dalai Lama's words in the foreword to The Alutiiq Noun Dictionary. On August 26, 2017, after hearing about the allegations, I contacted the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and sent them 18 pages of emails spanning a decade, including emails related to planning to meet the Dalai Lama in New York City in March 2010. In the emails, it was clear that I had a history of respectfully asking permission to use and/or publish the Dalai Lama's writing and permission being granted in every instance. Neither the Dalai Lama nor any representative of his voiced any concern about the foreword to my dictionary (click on "dictionaries" to read the foreword).
Riled by Reese the way certain politicians rile hatred and racism, her surrogates have sent anonymous hate mail and death threats to me at my home. Because of this, I've had to take extraordinary measures to protect my family's privacy and peace of mind. Which brings me to the "fake agent" issue. Because Debbie Reese and her mob constantly incite hatred against me in public forums and on social media, online articles, and blogs, I wanted to circumvent receiving hate mail. A friend gave me the idea of creating a "middle man" so that I could receive legitimate emails related to my writing, as well as public speaking invitations while reducing hate mail. Who in their right mind would expect someone's agent to forward hate mail? At the same time I removed my mailing address from Rosebud's website and elsewhere so it would be more difficult for Reese supporters to mail anonymous letters and death threats to my home. I hope you appreciate the irony that Reese and Mailhot and others jump on the "fake agent" issue as proof that I'm some kind of conman, yet it was they who created the hostile conditions that warranted the necessity for it in the first place.
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. There's even a list they post online with the names of other people they attack because they personally don't think they are "Native enough" for them: a bullying list. She and her surrogates relentlessly criticize me for writing Native-themed books, but when I publish books that have nothing to do with Natives whatsoever, like my mountain climbing novel, Savage Mountain, they mercilessly attack those books as well and surreptiously prevent them from being considered for national book awards.
I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
Before it was even published, Debbie Reese criticized my new historical novel, Kiska, based on the true story of how 881 Alaska Natives were wrongfully interned by the US government during WWII just like Japanese-Americans were. More than a hundred Natives died during their imprisonment. Some villages lost a quarter of their pre-internment population, while some villages were burned to the ground by the US government. I learned about the story firsthand by interviewing survivors more than forty years after the war. This story, like so many others I have written, needed to be told. In fact, the elders who shared their heartrending accounts asked me to write about it someday so the whole world would know what happened to them. It took me thirty years, but finally their story is told. It is an important, yet little known event in America's history. Even Howard Zinn had never heard about this incident. When I told him about it, he encouraged me to write the book. It would be a tragedy if a few vindictive and racist people out to silence me kept their compelling story from being heard. And yet, that is precisely what Debbie Reese's followers are trying to do. In a review posted on amazon and Debbie Reese's blog, the reviewer admitted that she hadn't even read the book before giving it a one-star rating. Days later, after she received the book in the mail, she wrote a terrible review to fit her one-star rating, precisely what Debbie Reese did in her review of Stealing Indians a year earlier. True to form, Reese posted her own 1-star rating a few days later. Debbie Reese and her surrogates discount any postive reviews of the book as having been posted by me. You may not be aware, but amazon prohibits authors or anyone from the same household address from posting book reviews. I have posted no reviews or comments about Kiska on any website. It just goes to prove their maliciousness. They question any opinion that is contrary to their own, oblivious to the fact that some people may actually like my books. Coincidentally, my wife's grandfather was a Naval Fire Control officer on the island of Attu during the war in the Aleutian Islands.
I’m not proud of everything I’ve done in my life. I'm far from perfect, more so than most. I'm a little too prideful (my father was so abusive and demeaning to me that I learned to hide my insecurity behind an exaggerated need to excel in order that others might accept me). Like you, I have regrets, but my heritage and my books aren't among them. I've never misrepresented my ethnicity. As my birth certificate proves, I am the son of a half-blood Alaska Native father. He admitted as much in a letter to the US Army in 1987. By all applicable laws, most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and 1987 amendments, 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 and the law, Debbie Reese and her followers would deny me a family, a heritage, and a history—a man with no past and no future. She and her mob never considered the possibility that my father might have misrepresented the truth. But, as of January 2018, it has been proven that my father deceived Debbie Reese as he deceived the newspaper reporter in 1994. For all these years, Reese and her gang have attacked me needlessly.
After so many years, Debbie Reese is too invested to admit she was wrong. What would her followers think if she admitted she was wrong after they helped her to destroy the lives of so many people?
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 (Navajo). I know this to be true, because Stealing Indians was taught in schools on the Navajo Nation. Students told me how much they loved it. My late friend Lee Francis (Laguna Pueblo-Anishinaabe), 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. In the article, Lee suggests that, "Even when confronted with legal verification, some people [like Sherman Alexie, Debbie Reese and Theresa Mailhot] will not relent—for, like Nazi enforcers, they are incapable of admitting wrongdoing—and they continue their formidable efforts to alienate and destroy anyone in their sights, sometimes individuals respected and beloved in their Indian communities." (Click on the pdf below to read Lee's full article.)
One of the things that has hurt me the most over all these years has been the way I have been treated by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers. I was one of the early founding members. Its mission back in the early 1990s was simple: established Native writers volunteered to mentor emerging young Native writers, and we raised funding for awards to recognize new writers. But I was run out of the organization by folks who decided I wasn’t “Native enough” for them. Lee Francis and I spoke on the phone many times about the way I was being mistreated. He hated the way certain individuals anointed themselves to be the “Police of Indianness.” Lee named Sherman Alexie as one of the most insistent voices. It is my understanding that some years later Wordcraft Circle changed its exclusionary policy, opening membership to anyone of any ethnicity…anyone but me. I was never again invited to be a member. Over the decades, I have watched with sadness as other established Native writers have deservedly received “Lifetime Achievement Awards” from the organization while I, one of its founding members, have been marginalized out of existence.
One of the cruelest and most racist actions against me happened in Anchorage, Alaska in January 1996. A book release event was planned for a new anthology of Alaskan literature in which my writing appeared first in the book and more often than any other writer. Although the event was highly publicized and it was announced that many of the writers would be reading from their work, I was not invited to participate. Thinking it an error, I went to the event that night. I was stopped at the door and told I couldn’t go in. I told them I was one of the writers in the book. Still, they denied me entry. As I stood in the doorway looking in, I watched in disbelief as a another man walked up to the podium and read my story. The organizers had hired someone more “Native-looking” than me to read my writing! My pride and heart wounded, I left in tears. I remember how cold the dark streets felt that night. I also remember the feeling of shame that I felt. I wrote to Denise Levertov, who at the time was working with me on a poetry book, and told her about the incident. She replied that it was the most shameful thing she had ever heard. I later changed the title of the book to Songs from an Outcast. Because of the terrible things people like Sherman Alexie, Debbie Reese, Marlon James, and Kaylie Jones say about me, this is the world I have inherited--a world of hate and discrimination.
These relentless, ferocious and racist attacks over such a long time could diminish the spirit of even the strongest resolve. I would be untruthful if I said they haven't taken a toll on my spirit. Every time one of my new books comes out, Debbie Reese and her surrogates immediately post negative reviews of them, often without even having read them. They surreptitiously prevent my books from being considered for awards. It's disheartening. Not too long ago, I asked Alice Walker (The Color Purple, et al) how to deal with the criticism. I've framed her encouraging reply: "Once you've done your best there's no need to read reviews."
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 at twenty-two to escape our father’s abuse. I thought I had escaped his abuse when I moved out at eighteen. Many writers become writers out of a cathartic need to verbalize some trauma they suffered in their lives. In 1994, my father was concerned that as young, rising-star professor and co-chair of a department at thirty with an ever-growing national audience, I might eventually write about the trauma my brother and I suffered as children. He meant to silence me as my brother would be silent forever. But because of Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Sherman Alexie, Kaylie Jones, Marlon James and others, my father continues to hurt me and my family nearly four decades later. I never let bullies win, even when they have been much bigger than me. I became a bodybuilder and weight-lifter (see photos on "bio" page) to protect my brother and me. I never let bullies win, which is why I have to tell this story, even though I wish to hell I didn't. Who would want such a terrible and tragic family history aired in public for the whole world to see? But, I have learned bullies lose their power when they are revealed to the world for what they are. After nearly a quarter century of these attacks, I have come to realize the futility of trying to fight against such organized attacks and the weaponization of social media and the Internet. Folks ask me why I don't join in the social media fray. The answer is simple: It's impossible to find peace by fanning the flames of conflict. I choose to forgive and to be happy. There can be no peace without forgiveness. I understand that the people who attack me are angry and hateful because they are suffering and they want to make others suffer as they do. I sincerely wish their lives were happier and they no longer felt the need to injure or harm others. At the same time, I have the right to tell my side of the story and to protect the legacy of my published writing. I'm trying to do so with as much compassion as possible for the people who attack me, but it's difficult when the people who attack me are without mercy or compassion for me or my family.
Keep this in mind: Debbie Reese's stated agenda time and again is to destroy me. As Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump and many others have come to understand, Debbie Reese, Theresa Mailhot, Sherman Alexie, Marlon James, Kaylie Jones and their surrogates don't care about the truth; they only care about winning this "old argument" that's been going on so publicly for decades. Despite irrefutable evidence that I'm Native, they would destroy my life rather than admit they might have been wrong about me and that my father may not have told the truth about me. They would destroy any Native writer who doesn't measure up to their racist ideal.
But I tell you this: for more than thirty years, elders from my tribe and others--most of whom have since passed away--entrusted me to preserve and to pass on our language, myths, histories, and oral histories. I will never dishonor them. I will never stop working to pass on to future generations the things they taught me and the stories they asked me to share with the world. I'm not going to let others take away my dream of writing and telling stories that no one else could tell--not because I'm better a writer than anyone else, but because I have different life experiences. I have stories to tell that only I can tell. People tell me all the time that I am the happiest and most exhuberant person they know. I am proud that, despite all the attempts to destroy me, I remain undefeated. My late friend and mentor, James Welch, one of the most influential Native writers of the American Indian Literary Renaissance, once wrote that what most impressed him about me is my tenacity, that I never give up. He called it my "indomitable spirit." After so many decades of people shouting at me, this is my stand, my whisper amid all the ugly noise.
If you are in the publishing industry—a book reviewer, librarian (or member of the ALA), publisher or editor, newspaper editor, distributor or bookstore owner, or a literary prize committee member or board member—please stop empowering these bullies. Be courageous. Make a stand. Be the difference. Stop providing these bullies a forum and a voice.
***If someone emails you one of these hateful stories about me, please do not forward it but instead encourage whoever sent it to you and others to read this webpage. Stop reading their blogs and unfriend them on social media. Take away their audience and you take away their voice. That's how you stop cyberbullies.***