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>White man speaks

>Debbie Reese revisits one of the more interesting events of my years here. In another recent entry she talks about author John Smelcer’s aspirations to Indian-ness. Our review of The Trap didn’t mention it, but the jacket flap does claim that the author is “of Ahtna Athabaskan descent,” which apparently he isn’t, although his adoptive parents are Indian.

Debbie asks if publishers or reviewers might vet an author’s claims to Indian-ness. If I were a publisher, I would want to, but I would also want to trust the writers I published. As a reviewer, I don’t think I’d know how to go about it. As Debbie acknowledges, it would be ethically dubious to do this for Indian claims but not for others, but forget the workload issue, who would you ask? What would constitute an acceptable answer? And as with all questions involving “authentic representation,” who gets to decide?

I’m pondering the parallels and differences between Smelcer’s claims (and he’s certainly not the first white guy to “play Indian”) and those of people who passed themselves off as white and/or male to get what they wanted, be it publication or remuneration or freedom. Your thoughts?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I don’t know the particulars of the book or the author, but this sounds like more than an issue of “playing Indian.” It also appears to concern a recognition of adoption. In my view, a child who was adopted can claim the heritage of both his biological and his adoptive parents.

  2. Debbie Reese says:

    >We could find all manner of parallels, but it is important to remember the nation-to-nation status of Native tribes in the U.S.

    There are laws specific to American Indians that do not exist for other populations. That’s where parallels don’t work.

    Who gets to decide? THE TRIBES. Not me, but my tribal council.

    I can say I’m Nambe Pueblo till I’m blue in the face, but if Nambe doesn’t acknowledge me as being on their roll, then my claims are meaningless.

    Our status as sovereign nations is the bottom line. There are a great many “what-if’s” that can complicate these claims, and some of them are very messy.

    On my blog, I recommend reading Eva Garroutte’s book REAL INDIANS: IDENTITY AND THE SURVIVAL OF NATIVE AMERICA. It is an excellent study of this topic.

  3. rockinlibrarian says:

    >It would depend on how Indian his adoptive parents are. If they just trace some bloodlines back, but don’t bring any of the culture into their daily lives, then maybe he doesn’t have claim to that heritage. But if he was raised in the culture, then it’s his, too.

    It just reminds me of a friend of mine who was adopted from China as a baby by an Irish-American woman who is close to her relatives in Ireland and is involved with Celtic heritage things. My friend is a champion Irish dancer, is fluent in the Celtic language, and knows more about Irish history than most full-blooded Irish. But she’s gotten nasty comments for daring to work in an Irish-culture store when she LOOKS Chinese. As far as SHE’S concerned, she’s more Irish than anybody just claiming a little blood….

  4. Roger Sutton says:

    >I see Debbie’s point, but I raise it, so to speak: while I respect her faith in her government, laws that define who is a citizen, who is a person, who belongs, have been used as much against people as for them.

  5. Debbie Reese says:

    >So… your “raise” -ing of that point leads to what, Roger?

    That you, who playfully or pointedly called your post “White man speaks” can dismiss tribal sovereignty?

    You are a very powerful individual, with great influence in the field of children’s literature.

    Do you think that by posing your question, you may be encourage a dismissive attitude towards Native peoples and our rights of self-determination and tribal sovereignty?

  6. Debbie Reese says:

    >Is it ethically dubious to try to verify someone’s claim to Native identity? Especially when you don’t do that for others?

    You can’t consider them in the same way. The sovereign nation status makes a difference.

    The workload issue would be overwhelming? Really? In a given month, Roger, how many of the books that HB reviews (Guide and Magazine) carry a claim to Native identity?


  7. Anonymous says:

    >>Do you think that by posing your question, you may be encourage a dismissive attitude towards Native peoples and our rights of self-determination and tribal sovereignty?

    I don’t read that into Roger’s question. A couple of things seem to be at issue here.

    One, the question of adoptive children’s ability to claim *any* culture, has been raised by rockinlibrarian.

    The other is your assumption that the ability to confer membership of a particular culture belongs to a given institution within that culture. The cases aren’t analogous of course, but as a thought experiment I’m trying to imagine a situation in which (for one reason or other) the British government decided to strip me of my British passport. Would that make me less British? I don’t think so. My Britishness simply isn’t in the gift of Gordon Brown or anyone else: it has multiple sources, and doesn’t require that kind of validation.

    That’s not to say that mine is the only viable model of “belonging” to a given culture, but neither is it necessarily obvious why being on the roll of a given people’s tribal council is the only meaningful way to claim membership of that people. Who decides who gets enrolled? From where do the deciders derive their own authority? Are these processes truly analogous between the Nambe Pueblo and the tribe in question here? There may well be good answers to all these questions, and I’m sure you’re the person who could give them, but in their absence there seems (to an outsider, which is what I very freely admit I am in this) to be an elision that makes questions such as Roger’s inevitable.

    Charlie Butler

  8. Anonymous says:


    The way I see Roger’s question is related to, say, the fact that my sovereign nation refused to recognize blacks and a good many other people as citizens (or even human beings) for many years. Many citizens of my sovereign nation struggled to get all of our citizens recognized (we still struggle). Many feel that our laws were evil (both citizens and foreigners). Frankly, I do not mind having non-citizens raise critical questions about my governing bodies. I think it is healthy. I don’t think Roger meant to attack or to judge; merely to question whether another sovereign nation could make a similar sort of mistake. The U.S. is NOT the only government, composed of human beings, that has had trouble grappling with issues of ethics and humanity. Is it possible for a Tribal Government to make similar sorts of errors? If one saw such errors, should one report them, even if one is NOT a member of that tribe? Mind you, we accept that, say, South Africa is responsible for dealing with apartheid; Myanmar is responsible for Myanmar. The Tribal Council is the SOLE responsible decision maker. Smelcer’s claim to belong to a tribe is not analogous to slavery or apartheid, but could the decision to exclude him be flawed? You obviously do not agree (and neither do I, come to think of it), but I do not see anything wrong in asking the question. I have yet to see a perfect government, regardless of the people or tribes involved. What am I missing?

    Ed (enjoying yet another snow day)

  9. Debbie Reese says:


    I question the decisions of our tribal leaders. Sometimes they seem contrary to the best interests of the tribe (in my view), but I respect the tribes right to make those decisions. I provide my input at meetings, and I vote in our elections.

    The larger context is that there was and are efforts to eliminate the sovereignty of the tribes. In the 1950s (as you likely know, Ed), there was a “Termination” program, by which some tribes lost their status as tribes. That program didn’t succeed, and some of those tribes have been successful at being recognized again.

    I don’t have a blind faith in my tribe, or in any tribe’s decisions. I do, however, assert the tribe’s rights to make those decisions, and I respect them. Doing otherwise, in effect, undermines our future.

    That is my concern with Roger’s statements. He is a person with great influence. Perhaps he doesn’t mean to sound dismissive, but to a lot of people, that’s exactly how it can be read.

    A lot of people will come away with this:

    “oh those Indians can’t make up their mind who is and who isn’t Indian, so there is no need to take their claims of sovereignty seriously.”

    Perfect governments do not exist. We don’t like what they do, and we gripe and complain, and when we can, we throw them out of office. But we don’t dismiss and ignore their laws or their rights of self determination.

    Native tribes’ status as sovereign nations is not well known. What does it mean?

    It means that if you are speeding at Nambe, our tribal police will give you a ticket. And, you will go before our tribal judge. That’s the way it is. It means that Pojoaque Pueblo can stop traffic from crossing its reservation boundaries. They did this in the 90s when they were negotiating with the State of NM over gaming. People who lived in Santa Fe and worked in Los Alamos could not get to Los Alamos because that route crossed Pojoaque’s land.

    Obviously, some tribal laws are easy to enforce. If I’m not on the tribal roll, I can’t vote.

    Identity ones are less easy to contend with outside of the reservations or tribal offices.

    That’s because none of us (me included) were taught well—if at all—about American Indians sovereign nation status.

    Instead, we were all taught that Indians lived a long time ago, and it is implicitly suggested that we no longer exist. I was looking at the standards for social studies in the state of Michigan earlier today. Hardly a mention of Native peoples there!

  10. Roger Sutton says:

    >My reference to the “workload” of establishing authorial bona fides was based on the assumption that we would be checking everybody’s, not just Indians’. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. I don’t think the sovereign nation status is the most important factor here–the problems facing the dissemination and reception of Native literature are not akin to those of, say, books from Norway. What’s at issue is the exploitation of a cultural identity that has itself been marginalized (to put it mildly) by the dominant culture. Pretending to be Native is not the same as pretending to be Norwegian, it’s worse. All I’m saying is that I’m wary of the assumption that any government gets to have the unscrutinized last word on “who counts.”

  11. Anonymous says:

    >What I don’t understand in all this is why the ethnicity of the author matters. Clearly, it’s wrong to knowingly make a false claim. But why does it matter if the author is not an Indian.

    Authors write outside of their culture, race, gender, orientation, religious and moral convictions and native language all the time. What a deadly dull place fiction would be if they did not.

    Debbie, am I to understand from your statements that only Indians should be allowed to write about Indians? What would the benefit be in that? Does it follow that only African-Americans should write about African-Americans and so forth or is that different?

    Roger, when it comes to reviewing fiction, do you ever take the ethnicity of the author into account?

    Don’t despair of people understanding Native sovereignty, Debbie. It’s in the Oregon curriculum and Washington too and it’s in the newspaper all the time. I’m eager to hear what you have to say.

  12. Debbie Reese says:


    In the second sentence of his post, Roger has a link to my blog, which is where I discuss the issue.

    On my blog and in articles/chapters I’ve written, I do not state or assert that only Native people should write Native stories.

    There, I write also about why authorship matters with regard to Native sovereignty, but there’s this, too…

    Children and teens write to authors. They trust them. They do author studies of them. They look for other books by them. Is it ok for the kids to be misled? Duped?

    My blog is called American Indians in Children’s Literature. It has a broad readership. Roger Reads (it), but so do Native teachers, parents, librarians, and professors.


  13. Anonymous says:

    >While Debbie makes a number of good points, it does, nevertheless, seem that this author is not the poster boy for backing them up. Someone adopted into a family and raised within the culture is not “playing” at it, nor is he necessarily misleading or duping trusting children.
    Adoptive mom

  14. Roger Sutton says:

    >I can’t find the link to the original news story anymore, but I recall reading that while the adoptive family was Indian, it didn’t maintain any tribal ties. I sensed some estrangement, too. Debbie (if you’re there), is that right?

  15. Debbie Reese says:

    >Hi Roger,

    You had a link to the original news story? At the Anchorage paper? If you find it again, please send it to me. I got access only by purchasing access to the archives. I got the three-article option.

    To answer the question… Smelcer was not raised in a Native community, surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles, as he claims in various places. His father was in the army, and they lived all over the place.

    I don’t know if there is any estrangement. His father, Charlie, says that John is using Charlie’s identity for personal and professional gain. Does his willingness to say that suggest they are estranged? I don’t know.

    It seems to me that John could be in disagreement with his father, insisting that because his father is Native, then he (John) is also Native. The thing is, in his writing and interviews, John says he is Native by birth. That’s not true. In the Anchorage papers, he said he’s not sure who he is, but since then, he’s returned to saying he is Native by birth, and in other places, he says things in ways to suggest that he is Native.

  16. Roger Sutton says:

    >Debbie, I coulda sworn I got there from your blog but tried again today and saw that there were no links. But I know I read a story, from an Alaska paper, where Smelcer’s adoptive father said that he didn’t learn about Native culture at home and that if he’s saying he did, he’s lying. (That’s what made me think there were some family problems.)

  17. Debbie Reese says:

    >I have excerpts from the news articles on my blog. This is the part you may be remembering, Roger:

    The article said that Smelcer did not believe he had misrepresented himself. This is an excerpt from that portion of the article:

    “I was very careful with the dictionary, finding that word ‘affiliated,'” he said, “After all, I was an English major.”

    Smelcer also said he knew his letter would leave the impression that he was an Alaska Native by birth. 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.”

    Smelcer said that nobody at UAA ever asked him “point blank” if he was “a blood Indian.” The article concludes with this:

    But Smelcer said he did not know whether he would be able to pursue his academic career now. The recent interest in his birth and background had left him feeling confused, he said. “Suddenly, I don’t know who I am anymore.”

  18. Roger Sutton says:

    >Then an excellent editing job, Debbie! Yes, that is what I’m remembering.

    The adoption angle is interesting, and Smelcer Sr.’s remarks are complicated, too, implying that a middle-class military life-style “with cars and television and everything like that” is somehow not Indian, while I imagine many Indians live just that way.

  19. Larry Vienneau says:

    Sorry, John never played at being Native. He was adopted by an Alaskan Native. An adopted child can claim the adopted parents bloodline. Legally ,no adopted child has to divulge to anyone that he or she is adopted. I knew Herb, John’s Uncle and Charlie’s (john’s father) brother. I asked his why Charlie was so cruel to John, “John is more native than his father” he said with a smile.
    John is one of a handful Ahtna speakers and the only one who can write the language. After the UAF resignation the Ahtna Native Cooperation hired John to be thier cultural Director. If they had no problem with his ethnicity why should anyone else????

  20. Larry Vienneau says:

    Wonderful regurgitation, but the article doesn’t ever ask the question. “Why would a father say such thing about his son?” Honestly, he was cruel and abusive. John’s brother committed suicide and blame his father. John attempted it in 2008, due in part to divorce but also to his fathers abandonment and the relentless and spiteful campaign lead by folk like you who know nothing about the facts.
    You should be ashamed of yourself

  21. Larry Vienneau says:

    If you are interested in the truth please visit:

    In 1994 John Smelcer was recruited by the University of Alaska Anchorage as an Alaskan Native, the university made the assumption he was blood native. Once it was discovered that he was the adopted son on an Alaskan Native he was force to resign. If Mr. Smelcer had proper legal advice he may have sued and won the case. According to Alaskan State Adoption laws (Alaska Stat. 25.23.130) – “A final decree of adoption creates the relationship of parent and child between petitioner and the adopted person, as if the adopted person were a legitimate blood descendant of the petitioner, for all purposes including inheritance.”
    US Federal Adoption/ Inheritance laws states: “The adopted child is treated by law as the natural child of the adopting parents”

    There are several bloggers who have proclaimed “John Smelcer is NOT Native”. They are entitled to make that proclamation but statement is incorrect. According to Federal Laws and Alaskan laws John Smelcer is Native. If he had been adopted by a Chinese family he could legally claim he is Chinese, or if he had been adopted by an African American family he could have claimed he is African American.

    An Adopted Child has these rights:
    An adopted child has no legal obligation to disclose to anyone one that he or she is adopted.
    An adopted child can claim the blood lineage of the adopted parent.
    An adopted child can legally inherit from an adopted parent.
    There is no legal obligation to disclose that they were an adopted child to an employer.

    The only people who need to know are the adopted person’s doctor, spouse or partner and any offspring. These should be notified for medical reasons.

    In short, it is no one’s business!! One Native blogger has written in several blog entries and has made public statements about this adoption case. She believes she needs to address Native fakes in literature. That is her right and obviously there is a need for that vigilance. She should be aware that, like it of not, John Smelcer is an Alaskan Native. She also needs to acknowledge his right NOT to disclose that he may have been adopted.
    That is his right.

  23. Dear Ms. Reese
    What if instead of thinking of John Smelcer as your enemy and someone to discredit, you became a supporter of his writing. I know the man. He’s a very kind, compassionate, loyal, and generous friend. The books you’ve slammed like The Great Death was the product of years of his full-blood grandmother and her older sister telling him the story of their lives around 1920 or so. I’ve met both these grand old ladies. John and I once went to Morrie Secondchief’s cabin to get her caribou permit so that we could shoot a caribou for her. John told the story with heartfelt love and respect. He speaks the language fluently, that’s where the Native words came from. In fact, his grandmothers were among the dozens of elders who taught him to speak Ahtna. The myths in the book were told to him by elders over decades.
    Why not do something rare in humanity–admit that you may have been wrong about him and tell the world that his novels are worth reading? Do you have the courage to do that?

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