More on John Smelcer’s The Trap

Posted: October 19, 2008 in aboriginality, alternating narratives, children's and young adult literature, John Smelcer, observing with alarm, race

When I wrote my earlier post on John Smelcer’s The Trap, I accepted the truth of the description of the author on its dust jacket as being “of Ahtna Athabaska descent.”  In doing so, I’d forgotten an earlier discussion on the child_lit listserv in which Debbie Reese raised the question of whether or not this was accurate.  Debbie described how she posted a discussion of her response to The Trap on her excellent blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature: Critical Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Books, the School Curriculum, Popular Culture, and Society-at-Large, and then “began to hear from people in Alaska about his identity, that he is not Native. I was pointed to a series of articles in the Anchorage Daily News that quote the man who adopted him. I’ve followed up, double-checking the information in the newspaper articles, and all that was said there is confirmed.”  Debbie’s orginal posting on The Trap is here, and her discussion of Smelcer’s identity is here.  It’s followed by some interesting comments offering various takes on whether or not Smelcer’s genetic makeup should be an issue for his readers.

Having been reminded of these matters, I’m finding myself wondering if I would have had a different response to The Trap had I taken them into account.  I suspect I would have–and not because I don’t trust Smelcer’s ability to communicate aboriginal values in an authentic way; as someone who has appeared to live inside the culture, he doesn’t need to have actual Native blood to understand how at least some Natives–the ones he lived with–might think or act.  Even so, his apparently false claims to a background not actually his makes me suspicious about his motives in lieing, and in fact, about the novel generally.

In my earlier discussion of The Trap, I spoke of the possession of an aborginal background as an effective knd of cultural capital.  It’s instructive that the author’s apparent counterfeiting of the capital he then wisely spent suggests that he had a clear understanding of that, and a willingness to manipulate readers into assuming he possessed it.  Also, if he is not who he claims to be, what else might be deceptive here?  It’s suddenly, for instance, not so surprising that his young protagonist finds it so easy to act in ways that might bring success in the world of white men, even though he appears never to have lived away from this native village–he seems, strangely, and despite the history the novel provides him with, already adjusted to the white culture he hasn’t actually entered yet–to be already, under what now appears to be a veneer of aboriginal understanding, white.

And yet, saying that, I immediately worry that I’m assuming that whiteness is genetic more than cultural, which I’m fairly well convinced it isn’t–I think.  Perhaps the key issue is that the Native who adopted Smelcer told Debbie Reese 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.'”

  1. […] background and by implication, insider knowledge of aboriginal culture have been challenged, as I discussed in another blog entry.  Nevertheless, these books do seem to focus on exploring the value of traditional culture and the […]

  2. […] A colleague, Perry Nodelman, author of The Pleasures of Children’s Literature (a textbook I use), has blogged about John Smelcer here. […]

  3. Larry Vienneau says:

    to learn more about this controversy visit:

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