October 24, 2009

Adopted Caucasian = Alaska Native?

Educator Debbie Reese helps expose another dubious "Native" author:

Who is John Smelcer (author of THE TRAP and THE GREAT DEATH)John Smelcer, author of The Trap, has a new young adult novel out (The Great Death). Many believe he is a good writer. That may be the case, but, I find his claims to Native identity troubling.An article in the Anchorage Daily News (5/3/94) tells Smelcer's story. It's titled "UAA Finds Professor Isn't Native. University Reviewing Records." Reese quotes from it and adds her own comments in brackets.John Smelcer was adopted by a Native man named Charlie Smelcer, who said "He's a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian just like anyone else is."

Smelcer was hired the previous year by the University of Alaska Anchorage in their effort to increase the ethnic diversity among its faculty. Administrators at the university were under the impression he was Native.

In a letter sent to UAA prior to his hire, he said he was "affiliated with Ahtna" and referred to his "Native American Indian heritage." [Ahtna is Ahtna, Inc., which is, quoting from the website, "one of 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations" and is comprised of eight villages, all of which are federally recognized tribes.]

"I was very careful with the dictionary, finding that word 'affiliated,'" he said, "After all, I was an English major." [Very careful? Why? And "after all"??? He seems to, rather boldly, proclaim that he had to be careful with his word choice. Why?]

Smelcer also said he knew his letter would leave the impression that he was an Alaska Native by birth. [He knew the ramifications of presenting his identity the way he did. ... That's disingenuous.] He said he considered himself a Native even though his parents were not. "My entire life has been surrounded by my Alaska Native family," he said.

But in a telephone interview from Juneau, Charlie Smelcer flatly denied that description. The senior Smelcer, a retired Army officer, said that, "in no way, shape or form" was John Smelcer raised in a Native environment.

"He was a middle-class kid who grew up around a military environment, with cars and television and everything else like that," Smelcer said. "If he's used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that's wrong."
(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 10/20/09.)

Comment:  I suppose I could say I'm "affiliated" with Pechanga. But I'd never claim to have a Native heritage. I'd say what Smelcer should've said. "I've met, studied, interacted with Natives for two decades. I think I understand their issues, even though I'm not Native myself."

For more on the subject, see "Actual Indian" Defined.

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