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John Smelcer: Indian By Proxy

I don’t know what "Native" is. It’s become something so obscure that the more I talk about it the more abstract it becomes. I can’t say it’s about blood, or skin, or pain, or papers. But I know when it’s absent. The Kenyon Review published the work of John Smelcer, a white man who has published several books about the "Native experience," and, yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds. He’s published books like Savage Mountain, Indian Giver, and Stealing Indians. Never mind he was outed as “a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian” by his adopted father in the Anchorage Daily News.

His writing is worse than his backstory. His poems were so culturally offensive they were taken down by The Kenyon Review. Just to give you a taste, here are a few lines of his poem, “Indian Blues:”

old Indian mothers who had lost

their children and grandchildren

to alcohol and drunk driving. …

Two Fist travelled

from reservation to reservation

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and powwow to powwow

singing the blues. 

Yikes. Honestly, even if this guy was Native, those poems are bad. They’re what give poetry a bad name. Just from a conceptual standpoint they lack the innovation and craft a good writer should have. What really bothers me, though, is that it was published at all. Is this what literary magazines think of Natives? It’s bad enough we’re stereotyped by politicians, Kardashians, and everyday people who have an “Indian princess” in their very loose family histories.

Native writers have to deal with a lot. We get ethnic enthusiasts who look at our work like it’s socio-cultural anthropological evidence, and we get compartmentalized into the “Native Literature” section within institutions and bookstores. When we write about the contemporary experiences of Indigenous people, we are often told the world doesn’t want to hear it. We’re often told to “write Indian,” which means tropes about Indian mystics, nature, and how bad life is for us. The worst part about being a Native writer is competing with non-Natives, who will proudly serve up tropes about us to get a check and some limelight.

John Smelcer’s story can be found in old news articles like the Sitka Daily Sentinel, where his whole life of fraud unfolds. In the story, “UAA Prof Resigns As Credentials Looked Into,” they write, “Some faculty members opposed his appointment because he was hired through a special process aimed at increasing minority staff. And then university administrators discovered he was not an Alaska Native as first was thought …” And that’s not all, the article goes on to say John Smelcer’s assertions regarding publications didn’t check out while they were looking into his ethnic status. His résumé included a publication in The New Yorker that didn’t exist. What he lacks in writing talent, he more than makes up for in hubris. In another article his own adopted father clarifies that his son is not Native. I don’t think he’s Native in the same way that I don’t think my friends from foster care are white for being adopted by white families. They’re still Native, and he’s still white.

I don’t know what ‘Native’ is, but I resent people with dubious stories, who benefit from white privilege and refuse to be accountable to hardworking Natives who have to struggle against oppression and stigma every day.

Terese Mailhot graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Yellow Medicine Review, and is forthcoming in The Rumpus.