John Smelcer dropped from YA award amid ‘concerns’ over integrity

From The Guardian:

PEN Center USA has dropped John Smelcer’s novel Stealing Indians from the shortlist for its young adult award, after Smelcer’s integrity was publicly questioned by several writers, including Man Booker prize winner Marlon James.

Smelcer’s Stealing Indians was one of four titles in the running for the award. Telling the story of four Indian teenagers taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools in the 1950s, it was first published in 2016, but featured a quote on the cover from Chinua Achebe. (“A poignant story of colonisation and assimilation, something I know a little bit about. A masterpiece.”) Achebe died in 2013.

. . . .

Smelcer, who describes himself as being of the Native American Ahtna tribe, was awarded the James Jones first novel fellowship in 2004, but it was rescinded in 2015 after a unanimous vote when Kaylie Jones, author and daughter of the eponymous novelist, accused Smelcer of faking a blurb from Norman Mailer on his own website shortly after the author died. Jones said she had been terribly upset by the quote, “which Mailer’s biographer and I knew for a fact was not written by Norman Mailer”. When she researched Smelcer further, she found that “a number of Native American writers and scholars had been decrying his claim to a Native American heritage and his blatant exploitation of his dubious position in the Ahtna tribe”. Jones called “this entire fiasco … a terrible stain on the reputation and integrity” of the prize.

. . . .

The announcement follows detailed investigations by the Stranger and the LA Times into Smelcer’s past and his claims to Native American heritage, and how he has used this disputed heritage to his professional advantage. “John Smelcer has been held in great suspicion and contempt in the Native world for 25 years,” the award-winning Native American writer Sherman Alexie told the Stranger, whose investigation also found that Smelcer’s agent, Johnny Savage, was actually Smelcer himself. The author told the website: “I invented the agent because of Debbie Reese and her rabid followers who for years (20) send me anonymous hate emails and death threats.”

. . . .

“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,” writes Smelcer, criticising the “wilful ignorance” of the “bullies” who “attack him”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

35 thoughts on “John Smelcer dropped from YA award amid ‘concerns’ over integrity”

  1. Oddly enough, here in the US you can pretend to be a Native American and get voted into Congress, then become a millionaire.

      • Identity politics, appropriation posses, and racial preferences guarantee this will continue.

        If there is money to be made through misrepresentation, misrepresentation will follow the money.

        • Yep. The part that fascinates me is the seemingly arbitrary criteria for when a person who does this can get away scot free (Senator Fauxcahontas) vs. the person who must be drawn and quartered (Dolezal).

          I guess if there’s enough money in it then it’s worth the risk for a con artist, but still.

          • The amount of money determines the grade of con-artist.
            Bigger bucks will draw in more competent misrepresentation, less money will draw in the desperate. But as long as there’s a prize…

  2. This is not a new thing. A writer named Jackie Marks won a Newbery Honor in 1978 while claiming to be a Native American and using the name “Jamake Hightower.” Iron Eyes Cody (actor) and Chief Jay Strongbow (wrestler) are two others who spent most of their lives pretending to be Native American. Both were actually of Italian descent.

    • Chief Jay Strongbow is a blast from the past. Makes me remember how much I liked wrestling then, and how much I don’t like it now.

      I’ve seen many a Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden. Captain Lou and the Moondogs and rowdy Roddy Piper were some of the most entertaining.

      • It is scripted, but it is not fake. The blood is blood. Wrestlers break bones often, usually fingers. Were it not scripted, Andre the Giant would never have lost.

        WWE is violence as theater. I do not enjoy it.

      • This is my limited understanding:

        Individual tribes determine the percentage; some don’t use percentages at all. In some cases, you could in fact be 50% and not be enrolled(and thus not have the right to claim yourself as X). The blood quantum also doesn’t count if the parent is from a different tribe in the cases I’ve worked with in the past.

        I’m not familiar with this particular tribe so I can’t speak to his right to make a membership claim.

      • To receive tribal benefits as a member of an enrolled federally recognized tribe, it is 25%. However, some groups have the right to determine membership based on tribal custom, so for example, you might be 50%, but if it is maternal instead of paternal, you are not considered a tribal member. And then you get people who are adopted in and are considered culturally to be members of the tribal group, and follow its customs and traditions, but are not “really” tribal members as the federal government defines it.

        It’s really complicated.

        • Tribes do differ. I think Jewish membership follows a matrilineal rule. The father doesn’t matter.

          And American Indian? Lots of people are paying $99 and discovering their Indian heritage just ain’t there.

  3. 1. one can have native ancestors and their dna will still show in the far progeny

    2. one can have native ancestry and their dna will not show, as the generations have played out by intermarriage with non natives

    3. one twin can have native ancestry and the other twin not, for dna is not equally divided amongst siblings.

    4. One can be as we are, mestizo, half native, half african, or half natire and half spanish or other euro heritage, and there are no set asides for tribal people in mex, and central and sur america the way there are in canada and usa

    5. Many people have Native blood who look ‘not native’ in terms of certain stereotypical skin colors and features. They are likely mixed race.

    6. MANY native americans in Canada and the usa have mixed blood; many centuries of exposure to the french, russian trappers, irish, german rail workers, and miners from all over eu.

    7. Enrollment in tribes has many layers to it, depending on the tribe, some are enrolled immediately when born of a non native mother and a native father. Others want proof of enrollment of one’s grand or great grand parents. Other’s require other ‘proofs.’ The issue of enrollment is fraught, and those adopted into most tribes, if decent people, will be respected as kin.

    8. Many persons who are native, in the last century and the century before were disenrolled from their tribal groups, so though their generations forward definitely have native blood, but their old relatives will not be found in the tribal rolls. They were disenrolled mostly because they missed the deadline date set by fed govt; most could not read.

    9. One question is if one has 10%, 20%, 30, 40, 50% native blood and is not enrolled, what are they allowed to do as a person carrying native blood re writing? Likewise same question, if one has 10%, or any other percentage native heritage and are enrolled, are they allowed to write ?? And a third question, in most tribes more than 50% of enrolled do not live on the rez, do not want to. Is it blood alone, and proofs of that that allows a person to write from their NA heritage as they know it, imagine it?

    10. Last question, where does identity politics really lead… to purity? that cant be it, for most people are mixed blood, with or without na
    heritage. Even the most remote amazonian tribes have now mixed race babies who came about as non-native men with boats came far far upriver.

    Sherman, who is a friend, has called out persons claiming to be NA heritage who absolutely are not, this fellow spoken about in article
    is only the most recent. The fellow I’m thinking of, copied Sherman’s tone and way with words and published at least two books to great acclaim, apparently fooling people into thinking he was what he wasnt.

    • 9 & 10 are the crux of the issue.

      Plus one more: who is the judge?
      Who gets to say what somebody else is or isn’t?
      Who gets to say one heritage is worth more than others? One life experience more worthy?

      • I agree Felix. Who is the judge of all this, is a good question. It would appear that each group says they are worth more than x, that life experience can only be written about if certain criteria are met.

        Some days it looks like there’s some kind of competition for who has had the most suffering. As a history interest, I have not yet found a person whose ancestors were not slaughtered somewhere in time.

        Somehow, self-pride has seemed to sometimes get mixed up with what one’s genetics are. I dont know the answers: i’ve been on all sides of it, and most of all, I hope for peace and regard, no matter who is what. But there is a set aside for some who it appears are doing some version of ‘identification with the oppressor’ by doing to others ‘you dont belong’ that was done to their ancestors. Its for some like some centuries long lamentation that can apparently
        never be remedied no matter what.

        • In today’s politics of victimization, history starts when one’s tribe was “victimized”, not when it was the one victimizing everybody else.

          The clearest example can be found in the 9/11 manifesto from bin Laden, when he demanded the return of Al Andaluz and the Balkans to Islam, as if the only history that mattered was the Crusades and newer and the Islamic invasions on Byzantium and the Visigoth kingdoms could not be challenged by the victims of Islamic aggression.

          These days, when confronted with identity politics, the first question we need to ask is “where is the money/power”. In previous decades demagogues would rush to wrap themselves in the flag but these days it is more effective to wrap themselves in ethnicity. Of course, little attention is being paid to the downstream reactions and longer term consequences.

    • In reference to 9, I imagine it behooves any writer of stories about Native Americans, whether officially acknowledged Native American or not, to do the research necessary for producing the most accurate depiction of Native American history in their books, whether fiction or nonfiction, they possibly can. The Native American authors who take their identity seriously (as in, are not using it simply to promote their writing, as it seems–to me–Smelcer is doing), do take the time and put forth the effort to research what they’re writing so what they’re portraying is as accurate as they can possibly make it be.

      It behooves any author of contemporary or historical fiction with a focus on a particular aspect of life for ethnic characters to do this research, even if they’re writing from their own ethnicity’s pov. Smelcer (and others who identify as Native American yet who do not do this research) is simply being held accountable, as any author should be, for not performing enough research to accurately portray Native American experience in his book.

      I say this because, despite being a member of the LGBT+ community myself, when I started writing gay romances, I had to do a massive amount of research. Just because a writer identifies as a member of a specific social or ethnic group doesn’t necessarily mean they automatically know all the pertinent information for accurately portraying other members of their social or ethnic groups in their stories. The fact is, individuals even in one social or ethnic group have a wide range of experiences within that group. While some such stories may be told without such research, I feel it is absolutely necessary for any writer who’s writing any sort of book, be it fiction or nonfiction, set in a particular ethnic or social group’s past, even the ethnicity they themselves identify as, to assiduously research what they wish to portray, particularly when, among a specific ethnicity there are subgroups, as there are in the Native American identity, which frequently have vastly divergent cultures and thus different tribal identities.

      In other words, Smelcer failed to research his characters well enough to differentiate between his MCs’ different tribal identities with any sort of detail, and that is one of the things Debbie Reese points out in her review of the book–I linked it above. She’s not arbitrarily nitpicking stuff to complain about. For many Native Americans who are sincere in their Native American identity, having accurate portrayals of themselves and their experiences and culture is extremely important. That Smelcer has apparently made no attempt to do this research is an insult to many Native Americans who have been fighting for years for accurate portrayal of themselves not only in fiction, but also in contemporary newscasts, et cetera. They’ve been fighting an uphill battle pretty much since whites settled the Americas, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to demand authors writing about their cultures to do so with as much accuracy as possible, particularly when that author is claiming identity as a Native American as well.

      • Indeed, just because you identify with a given ethnicity it doesn’t mean other members of that ethicity accept you.
        Each tribe has its standards, whether it be native american, asian, or european.

        And since everybody knows they are *normal* it is too easy to project one’s own experiences and biases where they don’t belong.

        So yes: research, research, research.
        But bear in mind that even the best research won’t protect you from politically-minded lynch mobs because in modern politics truth is no longer a valid defense.

  4. you may Felix have hit the most unpleasant truth

    “…we need to ask is “where is the money/power”. In previous decades demagogues would rush to wrap themselves in the flag but these days it is more effective to wrap themselves in ethnicity.”

    there is money in awards to persons of certain ethnic backgrounds, certain publishers salivate to fill out their ‘stable’ of na, latino, asian, african-amer, etc. There are writing programs geared to Na people. There are government payouts for certain na groups and individuals.

    you might be sadly right. I never considered that. But I dont see substantial award of money for people who are hibernian or barbadian, or austrian american… I dont see museums by the federal govt dedicated only to the chinese in america, nor govt payouts to those of irish american background, year after year.

    That would make sense about why there is some to a lot of jockeying and lelbows by some persons in some groups about what and who shall and who shall not be ‘allowed’ to write as they choose. Might be competition for the money. Actually that’s a sickening thought.

    • Human nature + targeted largesse. Unavoidable outcome.

      Think of college admissions and affirmative action: wouldn’t a poor white blonde be better off dying her hair black and pretending to be minority to get into a larger college, maybe on scholarship, than going to a community college on her own dime, maybe working nights and weekends?

      The left loves to trot out stats as percentages but they rarely if ever quote the absolute numbers because it would reveal there are far more poor young whites than all official minorities combined.

      This imbalance between the public narrative and the reality on the ground on “white privilege” is already having a reaction, as documented most recently at five thirty-eight:

      This strain of white identity politics, which sees white people as the group in need of special protection, is relatively new. In 2005, 6 percent of both Republicans and Democrats thought white Americans experienced “a great deal” of discrimination, according to a Pew Research Center survey.2 In 2016, the share of Republicans had jumped to 18 percent, while Democrats ticked up only slightly to 9 percent.3 Forty-nine percent of Republicans — compared to just 29 percent of Democrats — said whites face at least “some” discrimination.

      The percentage change may not look scary until you look at the absolute numbers. They’re talking millions of people changing attitude. Polarization always runs both ways.

      The D’Souza quote is the most chilling, methinks:


      Tribes of all kinds have the right to define who is kin and who is other but the outsiders are bound to resent it.

      The way things are headed, ethnic misrepresentation is the least of the problems coming.

  5. thanks Felix. I’ve often wondered why ‘white’ which is in itself a misnomer, but nonetheless for sake of discussion, is not included in people of color trope…

    in painting, without white to make different shades, tones, hues, all other basic colors would be the same color tone value. That seems an oddity to leave out an entire color.

    But. I understand the circle the wagons against the oppressor. And huge numbers of people of all colors, including poor ‘whites,’ when poor, often have true egregious charges against some of those in charge; in the past and present, that often appears to be a thin crust of ‘white’ people at the top who represent their interests only, and look ever for a slave population or any population to take the most of and give the least to.

    Ive never been able to understand how some do not perceive poverty amonst ‘whites.’ Not sure where one would have to grow up not to see that society is layered from top to bottom and many on the bottom are from all different colors, including white. Where I grew up, everyone was poor, in education, in skills, and in money.

    To my mind, coming from folks who couldnt read or write, education is the blessing everyone deserves. It is the single most strong-bow to launch a young person into a world larger with far more oppys than they grew up with. To my heart everyone deserves to develop creative spirit whether in entrepreneurship whether in farming or digital world, or the arts or research/science.

    We are a multi-racial family, meaning we have african americans, latino-native american, asian and euro heritage members. We are just trying to still get past the stares when we go out to dinner and call one another dad, mom, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, son, daughter, grandson, grand daughter. Our skins dont match. lol And just personally, I wonder some days and some times why we arent way farther ahead, even at that level, meaning light social, going out to dinner without stares.

    My experience as military, there has often been far more acceptance I’ve seen, that one might bivouac with a person[s] from anywhere, any heritage, any color… and it being no notable deal. The first item is how well each does their job, and with good attitude. Not skin, not heritage, not religion. More like patience, competence and humor.

    re Repub and Demos, I dont know man, some days most everyone in power seems to have foggy glasses about a lot of things, making promises based on ‘what sells’ rather than ‘here’s the plan, here’s my part, here’s your part.’

    • My own experience in the tech world is that people don’t care where you come from as long as you do your job. Respect is directly proportional to competence.

      As for the political parties, the problem stems from demographic thinking and party loyalty. Both parties have long sought to lockup specific segments of the electorate…and have succeeded. Only, now they are prisoners of these “bases”. In the process, they have fractured and polarized the electorate by tribalizing politics.

      Where politics was once market driven, with both parties featuring both liberal and conserative wings competing internally to bring their ideas before voters, the dominant tribes in each have driven out challengers. The first to go were southern democrats in the 60’s, followed by the defense hawks of the party in the 70’s around the time the Rockefeller republicans (the original “Progressives”) grew extinct.

      The tribalization of the parties has reached the point where specific issues have become party dogma and democratic leadership openly talks of litmus tests and expelling those who raise even the faintest dissent. It has reached a point where politicians have refused to solve a solvable problem because they prefer to have the issue open as a voter goad.

      Identity politics isn’t just a political matter anymore, though: it is becoming a widespread sociological problem in communities and businesses. The kneejerk villification of dissent is driving people to build facades and keep their true opinions and selves hidden (and in some cases leads to ethnic misrepresentation) while some see careers ruined and reputations destroyed and others are forced to move to other communities resulting in the “Great Sort” that only now is starting to be noticed by pundits. (The recent WP article about the rising popularity of the HALLMARK channels on cable totally missed the cultural counterprogramming underlying their success. They focus on the G-rated aspects without noticing the underlying cultural values and norms that provide real draw of their shows and movies. Just like FOX NEWS grew to commercial success by counterprograming the rest of the mainstream mefia’s strong liberal slant with a strong conservative slant of their own, Hallmark is succeeding by counterprogramming the “progressive” urban culture with stories of small town, hard working entrepreneurial religious people.

      Political tribalization is becoming cultural tribalization which is becoming geographical tribalization.

      The cultural tribalization, btw, is ongoing in genre fiction. Cozy mysteries, clean romances, adventure SF all provide a clear alternative to hot romance, erotica, gore-filled suspense and horror. I seem to notice that in romance small town romcoms are a booming business, displacing the urban career girl meme of earlier decades.

      There’s solid markets for all but it is reaching a point where touching the wrong hot button can land authors in hot water in some genres.

      All part of the rising intolerance of the Great Sort.
      The Culture War is peaking.
      Look around. It’s all over.

      • Of course, for writers this is both a problem and an opportunity. Pick a tribe, meet their cultural norm, and you’ll have a headstart at building true fans among them.

        It worked for FOX, it’s working for Hallmark.
        There is cultural chaos incoming but in Chaos there is opportunity. 🙂

  6. Thanks Felix, good to hear your insights, always food for thought, and I agree re respect based on competence.

    The most respected trainers [of horses] are often quiet men and women who befriend equus and make amazing progresses. The bloviator who has lots of opines and doesnt deliver a quality outcome consistently, well… the prob isnt what color they are, what heritage, rather I guess, as much as is their work respected, do they respect others [including the horse.]

    SMall town people seem sometimes to have that edge unless theyve been ruint by something/someone, for having a work ethic, competency-pride.

    That may be part of why this is true that you wrote “The cultural tribalization, btw, is ongoing in genre fiction. Cozy mysteries, clean romances, adventure SF all provide a clear alternative to hot romance, erotica, gore-filled suspense and horror. I seem to notice that in romance small town romcoms are a booming business, displacing the urban career girl meme of earlier decades.”– a very deep insight Felix, one I’d not heard before.

    I tend toward the more simple, if given a choice. I dont mean lack of depth; most of our pack are vets male and female who have seen what no one should ever see; and they are small town. Rodeo, stock show, state fair and cowboy arts are big here. Every year we see the pretend c’boy, city dudes ‘duded up’ with boots too clean, hat too new.

    But really = a good essence of humanity, it seems are in those who worked their way up from wrangler… values, I think you are right, though lots of city people are also decent, deep and good.

    When you say, “pick a tribe– meet their cultural norm” did you mean their woes and hopes and angers and etc?

    Norms, very interesting idea. Thanks FJT

    • Yes, I did.
      It is something we’ve talked before when discussing stories that are mislabeled or mistargeted.

      Readers/audiences have expectations about a story based on its cover, blurb, and nominal genre. Often you see reviews about comedies that aren’t funny or offensive humor or worse, unintentionally funny stories. Misfires: Misread norms, bad execution.

      The easiest recent example being the comedienne who thought a photo of her holding a bloody decapitated head of a certain politician would be well-received. In her own circles that appears to be true since nobody saw anything wrong until it hit the mainstream where it exploded into a crapstorm. Whatever some tribes might think in private, it certainly isn’t acceptable to present those ideas (yet) in public.

      As the old line goes: legal behavior is the minimum the state requires of you, moral behavior is the minimum behavior society requires, and ethical behavior is the minimum you (or you tribe) expects of you.

      Each level has rules and expectations against which you (or your output) are judged against. Norms. Violate then (especially unknowingly) and trouble follows.

      Write a story labeled Science Fiction that violates the established (mostly unwritten) norms and most readers won’t view it as mislabeled, they’ll just see it as a bad SF story even though it really is decent LitFic.

      (In sports, especially baseball, there are the unwritten rules about how to play the pro game “right”. Norms. Violate them and beanball wars ensue.)

      Target the wrong audience and you’ll find trouble even though the same behavior would be cheered by a different tribe. Public nudity at a beach is perfectly legal in many societies but legally or morally rejected in others. Different norms.

      Part of what defines human tribes are precisely these different norms. Each tribe develops its own standards or proper behavior, proper outlook, reasonable expectations. In class-based or caste-based societies the differences are very clear, but in nominally flat societies like modern democracies these differences are rarely discussed in “polite” society. They exist but admitting it and discussing them isn’t morally acceptable. Some call it political correctness. (Whole different discussion.)

      My own interest in human tribalism, outside of being trapped in the midst of the modern culture war between intolerant tribes, is how it feeds into Science Fiction world building, the genre I’ve spent most of my life enjoying and studying. Building credible alternate societies requires providing a framework where characters can behave as recognizable human beings even if (or especially if) they are imprinted with (to us) alien values.

      Other genres face similar issues to one extent or another–historical fiction a lot, contemporary romance more than might be expected, mysteries and thrillers, too. Very little *good* fiction can get away witbout at least some world building. And that requires understanding the cultural norms of the protagonists’ tribes (small town boy, uptown girl, immigrant family, whatever) and the audience you expect to reach.

      Staying within SF, the recent catfights over the now nearly-meaningless HUGO Awards is a perfect example of audience tribalism.

      SF as a field has grown from its roots as a tiny subculture all its own, where a fan could reasonably aspire to read all the stories published in a year, to a business trod upon by giant multinationals where a phallic symbol award named after a crooked publisher is worth great money and thus worth fighting over by those in traditional publishing channels. And as always, where there is money to be made, there will be schemes. And, these days, schemes involving tribalization.

      So we got one group pointing out the awards were not what they purported to be. And set out to prove it. Another group was, of course, offended. (Offense is an easy weapon to wield.) And we were off to the wars. Years later it finally settled out that, yes the awards are tightly controlled by a small group and no they don’t even vaguely represent the interests of even a plurality of readers. Which led to a different small group launching their own awards. And a year later, they got their own tribal mess to deal with.

      And so it goes as each tribe continues to pretend its norms are the only valid standards and must displace all others.

      Just life as usual in the 21st century where the world (to say nothing of countries and even cities) is too small to safely contain the myriad tribes of humanity rubbing against each other.

      We really need to get off the planet to get each tribe proper elbow room. Or else get serious about building walls. 🙂


      • What a instructive set of analyses Felix. Your example of sci fi is a good choice; the rumpus that has gone on there for quite a while in the awards, is a good example of ‘me/but not you unless i/we say so.’

        I suppose it is good that the covers have been peeled back so everyone can see the tangle under re Hugo… seems to perhaps give some more options, certainly lessons, sad ones, about the shadows some carry thinking no one will ever know…Dali’s surreal painting of his lover peeling back the ocean comes to mind…

        As I was reading along following your examples of sci fi, I was translating into academia and the poetry tribe which has several subtribes, the roughnecks, the mannered, the asianists if i could call it that, the slam community, and more .And yes. As long as people are thrilled by others’ works, it seems everything is copescetic. [sp]. But as soon as the coke bottle falls from the aeroplane into the village of mostly happy but not particularly competitive people, all hell breaks loose.

        I loathe to think that money money money, is the fallen coke bottle that makes formerly supportive and co-existing people suddenly grow cunning and aiming fangs toward one another, jealousy rising fomenting attacks, then various factions defending whichever attackers– and being attacked then themselves until everyone hates everyone practically… And the tribe splinters into two or more groups. Watched exactly that happen at an academic institution of narrow academics. Now there are three institutes and they all hate one another.

        I want to read what youve written more times, I so think you are onto something important, and more so have the talent to say things so ‘backward people’ like me can understand the premises….

        but also, I want to encourage you Felix to write all you wrote here into an article and ask PG to publish it. It deserves far wider readership as a calm, reasoned, and truth-telling article than being buried in comments. It gives a unique perspective in the traits you bring to it that are not often heard when people discuss such matters. Too often devolving into mockery and who can try to be most scathing.

        Regarding getting off the planet, your idea will come to pass one day, I have no doubt. In the meantime, we can perhaps all put on emery jackets and file down the rough edges of each other.

        Thanks Felix

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