Earlier this month, a young adult novel called Stealing Indians was nominated for a PEN Literary Award. The author of the book, John Smelcer, isn't well-known. But some writers and academics say he is a grifter with dubious ties to the Alaskan Native heritage he claims.
"John Smelcer has been held in great suspicion and contempt in the Native world for twenty-five years," said novelist Sherman Alexie. "I saw through [Smelcer's] facade long ago" and haven't seen him "be part of any Native literature gathering, formal or informal, terrestrial or online, in many years."
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The Native scholar and writer Debbie Reese, who has written extensively about Smelcer on her blog American Indians in Children's Literature, finds "his claims to Native identity troubling," because "Smelcer is not a Native person by birth," because "he did not grow up on a reservation or with Native people," and because "students often do author studies." She went on, "In schools, we teach children to be honest. It seems that, if we herald an author who has not been honest with his identity, we are saying one thing (be honest) and doing another (by assigning his books, we say his deceit does not matter)."
Her statements are corroborated by a 1994 article in the Anchorage Daily News, which wrote that Smelcer said he "considered himself a Native even though his parents were not." However, he said then and continues to maintain that he grew up with Native people and has a strong relationship with them.
The novelist Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize in 2015, responded to the news of the PEN nomination on Facebook by calling Smelcer a "living con job."
Referring to Stealing Indians, James continued: "Let's leave the title for another day. This 2016 book has a blurb from Chinua Achebe. Achebe died in 2013." Other dead authors who apparently provided Smelcer with blurbs over the years include Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and J.D. Salinger.
One of the PEN award's judges, Kami Garcia, said on Twitter, "I'm one of the judges... We're working to get [the nomination] pulled. As a former teacher, I'm disgusted."
In a statement, PEN said they're aware of the claims made against Smelcer and that they're "investigating them further to determine an appropriate path forward in accordance with our mission to both celebrate literary merit and defend free expression for all."
None of the judges responded to my request for comment.
Smelcer's publisher at Leapfrog Press attributes these criticisms to racism against Native Americans and a general dismissal of small presses. "I do see that [Stealing Indians] is the only noncommercial press book, and that [Smelcer is] the only Native American author on that list" of finalists, said managing editor Lisa Graziano. "And both of those things make [the book] an easy target."
Marlon James knows Smelcer because he studied at Wilkes University's MFA program during Smelcer's tenure as a mentor there. Smelcer was dismissed from his faculty position after someone discovered he had inflated his academic credentials, according to Kaylie Jones, an administrator of the James Jones Fellowship, which is based out of Wilkes.
As Jones tells it, "He stated in his bio that he held a PhD from Oxford University. One of our faculty, herself a PhD who had access to an international database of all PhDs granted by universities worldwide, researched his claim and found that Smelcer did not hold a PhD from Oxford. He was immediately dismissed from the Wilkes faculty."
Jones already knew of Smelcer because he had been awarded the James Jones First Novel Fellowship a year earlier, in 2004. However, "after extensive research into his publishing history," Jones explained, she learned that Smelcer had "previously published a novel under a pen name," which disqualified him from submitting to the competition in the first place. Based on this information, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship committee voted unanimously to rescind Smelcer's award.
Nevertheless, Smelcer still touts the award on his website.
The accusations that Smelcer has fabricated his Native heritage for professional gain go back to the time when he was "hired by the University of Alaska Anchorage to increase ethnic diversity among its faculty," the Anchorage Daily News reported in May of 1994. Around that time, UAA officials realized that he was "not an Alaska Native" but rather "the adopted son of an Indian."
The newspaper quoted his father, Charlie Smelcer, saying, "He's a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian." He added that John was "in no way, shape, or form raised in a Native environment," and "if he's used my Native heritage for his personal or professional gain, then that's wrong."
At the time, according to the Daily News, Smelcer sent a letter to the university asserting his Native status, and said "he knew his letter would leave the impression that he was an Alaska Native by birth," but he accepted the position anyway because "he considered himself a Native." (Smelcer now claims on his website that the Daily News reporter had an agenda.)
Debbie Reese has been reporting her efforts to discover Smelcer's complicated relationship with his tribe over at American Indians in Children's Literature for almost a decade.
Reese details a number of Smelcer scandals on her blog, including his resignation from the University of Alaska in 1994 following accusations that he'd forged a letter of acceptance from the New Yorker for a poem he'd submitted.
As the administration began looking into the question of his credentials, according to an August 1994 story in the Daily Sitka Sentinel that Reese pointed to, a forged acceptance letter from the New Yorker turned up in Smelcer's paperwork. Universities prize high-profile publications, and the New Yorker is the most high-profile place to publish a poem in the country.
According to the Sentinel:
Smelcer had given the university a copy of a letter with a logo from the New Yorker at the top to document his claim the magazine planned to publish one of his poems. But the New Yorkers' [sic] poetry editor, Alice Quinn, sent the university a letter on letterhead different from the one Smelcer turned in. 'I am very sorry to say that the letter you faxed me is not one I wrote,' Quinn wrote, [adding that the magazine] 'did not accept a poem entitled "Autumn" by John E. Smelcer at any time.'
The Sentinel went on to report that "Dick Sutliff, Smelcer's lawyer, said his client denies having prepared the New Yorker letter: 'We don't know who did,' Sutliff said. 'There were a number of people providing documents to the university and trying actively to get him fired. It's possible one of them did it. But we don't know that.'"
And neither do I. But it is the question of Smelcer's status as a Native American that pertains especially to Stealing Indians, the young adult novel that the PEN judges admired so much.
On his website, under the headline that reads "John Smelcer's Ethnicity, the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the Willful Ignorance of Bullies Who Attack Him," he writes:
By all applicable laws of the United States (tribal, state, federal), most importantly by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA; 1971, 1987 Amendments), the largest indigenous legislation in American history, I am Alaska Native/Native American. I am an enrolled member of Ahtna, Inc. and the Traditional Native Village of Tazlina, a tribe recognized by the U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Smelcer produces photographs on his website of a "Certificate of Indian Blood" from the US Department of the Interior showing that he has a blood quantum of one-fourth Alaska Native, as well as verification of his status as a shareholder of Ahtna lands.
While Smelcer claims he's "an enrolled member of Ahtna, Inc.," a representative from Ahtna told me that Ahtna, Inc. is an Alaska Native Regional Corporation and not a tribe. Being a shareholder, the representative said, does not equate to being an enrolled member of a tribe. Neither, for that matter, does having a blood quantum of one-fourth Alaska Native. Individual tribes, not the US federal government, determine their own membership.
However, Leandra Hobson, program manager at the Native Village of Tazlina, one of the tribes that make up Ahtna, Inc., confirmed that John Smelcer is an enrolled member of their village. When asked if she'd ever seen or spoken to Smelcer, she said she hadn't.
Even though he appears to be an enrolled member of the Tazlina village, for years Native American writers and scholars have decried his books as stereotype factories—and so have some mainstream critics.
As Kirkus wrote in its review of Stealing Indians, which is about four Native children who were kidnapped and taken to a boarding school:
Though the book attempts to decry this blight on our history, without sufficient context and specifics, it may inadvertently encourage Native American stereotypes, particularly with teen readers.
In spring of 2016, the online arm of the prestigious Kenyon Review published two of Smelcer's poems that they ended up removing for perpetuating "damaging stereotypes of Native People."
You can read a few lines from one of his poems, "Indian Blues," over at Indian Country. Quoting from the poem, author Terese Mailhot says Smelcer's writing is "worse than his backstory," and adds that his poems "give poetry a bad name."
Reese said something similar.
"His representations of his own identity are a mess. His writing is a mess. But ignorance in mainstream society means most people don't know enough to see the problematic representations of self, or problematic aspects of his writing," she said.
"Smelcer lives on top of a huge pile of dubious claims," the author Sherman Alexie told me. "So why should we assume that Smelcer is telling the truth inside his books? Why should we assume his books are honest?"
When I tried to contact Smelcer directly through his website to ask about his Native status, his response to his critics, the New Yorker letter, the PhD from Oxford, the blurbs from dead people, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship that he still touted after it had been rescinded, and even the claim on his website that he had once personally discovered "a frozen wholly [sic] mammoth" while adventuring in Alaska, I learned that I needed to go through his agent, Johnny Savage.
Smelcer's website listed an e-mail address for "Johnny Savage, Founder & CEO SavageWerk Entertainment Management," which represented "the industry's hottest actors, screenwriters, writers & musicians in LA, Vegas, and across America."
Savage's name struck me as odd, but for the moment I didn't think about it. I sent Mr. Savage an e-mail and he didn't reply immediately, but while looking around on his website, www.savagewerks.com, I noticed a funny thing.
The image of Johnny Savage looked suspicious to me, so I did a reverse Google Image search and discovered that the person in that photo is an actor named Ian Somerhalder, who appeared on the CW television show The Vampire Diaries. Johnny Savage, it turns out, does not exist.
According to a public support ticket, a user named "jesmelcer" built Savage's website using a Wix template.
And while the domain registration for savagewerks.com was anonymized, I did locate another domain registered under Smelcer's name using the email@example.com address. Calling the phone number associated with the registrant sent me to Smelcer's voice mail.
Johnny Savage's contact information was deleted from Smelcer's website shortly after I started making inquiries about Savage to Smelcer's publisher and to Mr. Somerhalder. Three days later, all the content on www.savagewerks.com was deleted.
When I asked Smelcer why he invented Johnny Savage, he sent me the following message via his publisher:
I invented the agent because of Debbie Reese and her rabid followers who for years (20) send me anonymous hate emails and death threats. They make fake gmail and yahoo accnts. By having a middle man, those vicious people realize that an agent would never forward such hateful messages. It cut them down 100%... I got peace of mind. Now I only get legitimate email messages.
When asked if he'd answer my questions about other dubious claims on his website, he said, again through his publisher, "I don't talk to newspapers cause [sic] from my experience they publish stories to sell papers regardless of the truth."
Sometime after that, evidently to corroborate Smelcer's story about why he invented Johnny Savage, the publisher of Stealing Indians e-mailed me a letter that appeared to be from Smelcer's wife, Amber Johnson, describing a piece of hate mail that had once arrived at their house:
Sometime in the spring of 2016 he received a letter delivered to our home address that was postmarked "Milwaukee, WI." It did not include a sender's name or return address. The handwritten letter inside said, "Stop saying you are Indian or else" and had a crude stick figure of a dead person—with the tongue sticking out and x's for eyes.
I did not have any way to verify this story, but I had to admit it sounded horrific. Nevertheless, the story didn't fully explain the ruse. The idea that Smelcer invented a fake agent named Johnny Savage in order to fool Reese and—oof—her "rabid" followers doesn't make much sense. If they truly were sending Smelcer mean e-mails, why would they stop using his personal e-mail, which he hasn't changed since at least 2007 (it was listed next to his name in his capacity as a poetry editor for a magazine called Rosebud), and start using this clearly phony e-mail for the SavageWerks website, which was set up in 2015? Reese, for her part, denies sending, or encouraging anyone to send, death threats to Smelcer.
Two more strange things about "Johnny Savage:" That surname is an old slur against Native people, and the full name, Johnny Savage, is the name of a character in Christopher Guest's film Waiting for Guffman, the title of which refers to Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.
The idea that Smelcer would use such a charged name—both as a slur for Native Americans and as a reference to a character in a movie about the nonexistence of a character—is striking. It opens up the possibility that Smelcer enjoys this game of inflating his own importance (his agent represents the "hottest actors, screenwriters, writers & musicians"), of taking subtle jabs at his detractors ("Savage"), and of making a fancy literary reference (Beckett).
Other examples abound of Smelcer using inflated, slippery, or charged language to make himself look important.
"My friendship with John Updike began in 1994 when he and I served as judges for the National Poetry Book Award. I remember very well the manuscript we selected that year," Smelcer wrote in the online magazine Ragazine in 2012, two years after Updike died. As Smelcer tells the story, after his wife read him poems from this submission, he was convinced that the manuscript would win the prize. "I carefully read the entire collection—I sent a photocopy of the manuscript to John [Updike], who called to tell me he agreed. And so Denise Duhamel's The Woman with Two Vaginas won the $1,000 prize and was published the next year."
The "National Poetry Book Award" sounds a lot like the National Book Award for Poetry, one of the most prestigious awards in the country. The casual reader might think that Smelcer and Updike had both been selected as judges for the National Book Award, but neither Updike nor Smelcer served as a judge for the National Book Award that year, or any year, for that matter, a representative of the National Book Awards told me, citing digital records that go back to 1989.
After more research, I discovered that Smelcer used to run a small publishing house called Salmon Run Press, which published 11 books between 1992 and 2000. The press gave out a prize called the "National Poetry Book Award," which included a book contract and $1,000.
The poet Denise Duhamel, author of The Woman with Two Vaginas, confirmed to me that she won the award, and that her book was published by Salmon Run Press. When I told Duhamel that Smelcer claimed that Updike was one of the judges, she said, "That is a weird story... I never heard that John Updike had anything to do with it." There are two reasons publishers pick famous writers to judge their contests. Number one: They have good taste. Number two: So the author and publisher can publicize the fact that a famous writer likes their stuff. Not telling an author that a famous writer selected their book is unheard of in the publishing world.
Another poet who won Salmon Run Press's National Poetry Book Award, Dixie Salazar, said that her book Reincarnation of the Commonplace was published in 1999, but that she never received her promised prize money. So she contacted Smelcer.
"I wrote to him later and asked about the money, but I didn't get a satisfactory answer," Salazar told me by phone. "He said he was rather put out that I would bring up that prize money. We had some contentious e-mails that went back and forth, but that's all I can say about that." She didn't press further, she said, because Reincarnation was her first book, and she was just thrilled to have a book out.
I mentioned the weirdness of calling the prize the National Poetry Book Award, and Salazar agreed. "I think there was a little sneakiness there," she said.
Like everything else about Smelcer, the question of blurbs from dead people ends up being a long story, too.
On Smelcer's website, he claims to have "collaborated" with internationally famous poets such as Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg, to have cowritten a poem with Seamus Heaney "at a pub in Dublin," to have "worked closely" with Michael Jackson "editing his poems/lyrics for a proposed collection of poetry," and to have been "one of the last students of the legendary John Gardner."
This last claim is odd considering that Gardner died in 1982, when Smelcer would have been 19 and just beginning undergraduate studies in Alaska. Smelcer graduated with a BA in 1987. Gardner taught at SUNY-Binghamton, in New York, where Smelcer eventually enrolled as a Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellow, but not until decades later. He earned a PhD in literature and creative writing there in 2011. Whether the two met under other circumstances is unclear.
As for the blurbs from Chinua Achebe, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and J.D. Salinger, those names alone are staggering. So is the coincidence that Achebe, Bellow, Mailer, and Salinger were all dead by the time their blurbs appeared on the covers of Smelcer's books. Salinger did not allow blurbs to appear on his own books, and he was famously reclusive.
When I contacted Stealing Indians' publisher, Leapfrog Press, to confirm the veracity of the Chinua Achebe blurb, Leapfrog forwarded me a document that Smelcer had provided to them. It appeared to be a 2007 e-mail exchange between Achebe and Smelcer:
Thank you for sending me STEALING INDIANS, which I have read. Such an insidious system of ethnic cleansing. I am very pleased to provide these words for the book cover: "A poignant story of colonization and assimilation, something I know a little bit about. A masterpiece." It's a compelling book. I read it in one sitting. I hope you don't mind I've made some edits and suggestions to your manuscript, mostly about giving balance to the story. Good luck with it.
Leapfrog also provided a document that appeared to be signed by Saul Bellow, authorizing a blurb on another of Smelcer's books. The contract was dated February 17, 2005, less than two months before Bellow died. I have called and written to the Wylie Agency, which represents Bellow's estate, in an attempt to verify the contract, but I have not heard back.
The Mailer blurb appeared on one of Smelcer's books of poems, Raven Speaks. According to Smelcer's website, Mailer's blurb read: "Raven is astonishing! Reading it I can't help feel my own poems wholly inadequate."
In another post on Ragazine, Smelcer boasts of a two-year relationship with Mailer, during which the two supposedly "collaborated on a number of literary projects" together. Smelcer writes that Mailer helped him "structure one of [his] novels" and encouraged him to write Stealing Indians.
When I asked Mailer's authorized biographer and bibliographer, J. Michael Lennon, whether it was true Mailer had given this blurb to Smelcer, Lennon wrote to say:
I was with Mailer at his home when Smelcer's letter arrived with a $100 bill in the letter. I can't recall what he asked for, whether it was for a blurb or something else. Mailer had sent Smelcer a poem for the magazine Rosebud, at another time. He was generous and would have sent a poem to anyone who asked. But he did not collaborate or aid Smelcer on any of his books, nor did he ever read them, or give a blurb. Mailer wanted nothing to do with Smelcer, who has clearly inflated his relationships with literary figures. Mailer was stunned when he saw the $100 bill and mailed it back to Smelcer.
After I contacted Smelcer through his website to ask about this, the page with the Mailer blurb on it disappeared.
Two years ago, Smelcer published a piece of writing on the Next Best Book Blog. In the post, which is titled "Tit for Tat: A Writer Apologizes," Smelcer writes about having a James Bond tattoo on his left shoulder, and he shows a picture of it.
The blog post is an apologia for his "007" tattoo and for his love of the fictional British spy, as well as a recognition that "much of the trouble of [his] life" was due to the fact that he'd "adopted [Bond's] shameful persona."
"I loved Bond. I wanted to be him," writes Smelcer about his childhood. Evidently, the fascination did not end there. "Even as I write this, I'm re-watching the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), for the umpteenth time."
Later in the post, he describes his young self as a charming deceiver. "I remember going to my eighth grade prom with one girl and, by the night's end, I had clandestinely (like a secret agent) asked three different girls to go steady with me."
"Bond made me do it!" he concludes.
When he was "a tweenager," Smelcer says he asked for his father's permission "to put a hundred nudie posters on [his] bedroom walls." When his mom came home from a trip to see her son's handiwork, she wasn't pleased. Smelcer's response?
"Again, Bond made me do it!" he writes.
After examining Smelcer's career, it seems Bond must have made him do a number of things.