John Smelcer is an American poet and novelist whose claims to Native American (Ahtna) heritage and citizenship have been the subject of multiple controversies.
Smelcer is a shareholder in Ahtna, Incorporated, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation associated with the Ahtna tribe. He is an enrolled member of the Native Village of Tazlina, located in Tazlina, Alaska. Neither of Smelcer's birth parents is Native American.
Smelcer was appointed as a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of an effort to increase the number of ethnic minority faculty. However, his credibility was subsequently called into question as details of claimed publications in the New Yorker and elsewhere turned out to be incorrect.
Smelcer is the literary editor of Rosebud, a literary journal published in Madison, Wisconsin.
In 2004, Smelcer won a $10,000 James Jones Literary Society First Novel Award to support the writing of his 2007 novel, The Trap. The award was rescinded in 2015 when it was discovered that Smelcer had published an earlier novel under a pen name. The Trap, a young adult novel, was well received. The Wisconsin State Journal called the book a "spare and lyrical" story about a boy and his grandfather facing up to challenges in a remote part of Alaska. Without Reservation (Truman State University Press) won the 2004 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award given by Binghamton University. Stealing Indians was nominated for a PEN Center USA literary prize. But was subject to some controversy.
In 2016, two of Smelcer's poems were published in the Kenyon Review. A backlash among Native American writers led to the journal withdrawing this publication and replacing the poem with a statement from the editor that read in part "these poems contained damaging stereotypes of Native people. I deeply regret the manifest distress this has caused and take full responsibility." First Nation author Terese Marie Mailhot (Seabird Island First Nation) subsequently wrote that "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."
In 2017, Smelcer's young adult novel Stealing Indians was nominated for a PEN literary award. In response, Nambe Pueblo educator Debbie Reese among many others protested at Smelcer's inclusion. Smelcer's nomination was withdrawn. He was also accused of including a blurb from Chinua Achebe. Achebe had died four years earlier. Rich Smith in The Stranger described him as "Native American Literature's living con job," though confirming that Smelcer is an enrolled Tazlina village citizen.
- Smith, Rich (30 August 2017). "Meet John Smelcer, Native American Literature's 'Living Con Job'". The Stranger (newspaper). Archived from the original on 7 March 2019. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
- Mailhot, Therese Marie (3 September 2017). "Book no longer up for PEN Center USA prize". Los Angeles Times Book Review.
- Native American citizenship laws vary between tribal nations and often originate in constitutions created by the US government. Legal citizenship almost always depends on descent and often involves questions of blood quantum: however this is not true for all tribes. Some tribes such as the Cherokee Nation recognise all descendants from recorded Cherokee citizens as legal tribal members: other tribes actively work to reduce the number of legal tribal citizens. The Alaskan situation, however, is unique, as Indigenous peoples are shareholders of one of thirteen Alaska Native Regional Corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) in settlement of aboriginal land claims.
- Mailhot, Therese Marie (25 August 2017). "Writer's claims are questioned after PEN Center USA names his book a finalist". Los Angeles Times.
- Meyerowitz, Robert (1994-05-03). "UAA Finds Professor isn't Native: University Reviewing Records". Anchorage Daily News. p. B1.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2018-12-15. Retrieved 2019-05-15.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-09-04. Retrieved 2019-05-15.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Moe, Doug (13 January 2009). "Against the Odds, Lit Journal Finds Success". Wisconsin State Journal.
- "James Jones symposium to focus on Robinson". The News-Gazette (Champaign–Urbana). 20 October 2004.
literary awards to John Smelcer of Chugiak, Alaska, for his first novel
- Trinosky, Kelli (22 February 2007). "Story of wilderness survival ties generations in Alaska (book review)". Columbus Dispatch.
- Lindgrin, Merri; Schliesman, Megan (13 February 2007). "Just Right for Winter". Wisconsin State Journal.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-09-10. Retrieved 2019-05-15.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- "John Smelcer: Indian By Proxy". IndianCountryToday.com.
- "John Smelcer's STEALING INDIANS a finalist for the PEN Center USA 2017?". American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL). Archived from the original on 2019-01-30. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
- "John Smelcer dropped from YA award amid 'concerns' over integrity". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2019-01-09. Retrieved 2019-05-15.