Smelcer, John E. 1963-

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Smelcer, John E. 1963-


Born July 2, 1963; son of Charles and Marie Smelcer; married Pamela A. Maslyk, June 23, 1966; children: Zara Rhyana. Education: University of Alaska, B.A., 1987; Alaska Pacific University, M.L.A., 1991; Greenwich University, Hilo, HI, Ph.D., 1993.


Home—Anchorage, AK. Office—P.O. Box 213, Glenallen, AK 99588-0213. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, poet, educator, and publishing company executive. Ahtna Indian Heritage Foundation, Glenallen, AK, executive director, 1996—. Salmon Run Publishing, president and chief editor, 1991; University of Alaska, Anchorage, assistant professor,1991-94; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Anchorage, assistant professor, 1994—; Wilkes University, faculty member in creative writing program, 2005. Distinguished professor, Gorky Institute, Moscow, 1994; visiting American poet, University of Sydney, Australia, 1996.


James Jones Prize, 2004, for The Trap; Western Writers of America Award for Poetry, 2004; Milt Kessler Award, Binghamton University, 2004; Pulitzer Prize nomination for Riversongs and Songs from an Outcast.


The Raven and the Totem: Traditional Alaska Native Myths and Tales, illustrated by Larry Vienneau and Susie Blevins, Salmon Run Press (Anchorage, AK), 1992.

(Editor, with D.L. Birchfield) Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry, Salmon Run Press (Anchorage, AK), 1994.

Changing Seasons, South Head Press (Sydney, Australia), 1995.

(Editor, with Ahtna Indian Elders) In the Shadows of Mountains: Ahtna Stories from the Copper River, illustrated by Larry Vienneau, Ahtna Heritage Foundation (Glenallen, AK), 1997.

Tracks: New & Selected Poems, introduction by Carl Sagan, Story Line Press, 1997.

Songs from an Outcast (poems), edited and with a foreword by Denise Levertov, introduction by X.J. Kennedy, American Indian Studies Center, University of California Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA), 2000.

Riversongs (poems), Poetics (Nashville, TN), 2001.

Without Reservation (poems), Truman State University Press (Kirksville, MO), 2003.

Loonsong and Other Poems, Pudding House Publications (Columbus, OH), 2004.

The Trap (novel), Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2006.

Also author of American Indian Dreams, 1996, and Stealing Indians and Cain. Contributor to periodicals, including Kenyon Review, Literary Review, and Atlantic Monthly. Editor, Rosebud magazine, 1996.


John E. Smelcer is a prolific writer and poet whose many works focus primarily on subjects related to his Native American heritage. An Ahtna Athabaskan Indian, he also serves as executive director of the Ahtna tribe's Heritage Foundation. He is, noted a biographer on the Center for the Art of Translation Web site, the only surviving reader, speaker, and writer of the native Ahtna language. A member of the faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Smelcer has held visiting professorships at universities in various locations around the world. A collection of his poems, Riversongs, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In the Shadows of Mountains: Ahtna Stories from the Copper River contains a collection of twenty-four stories from the Ahtna tribe. The stories consist of material by Ahtna elders and other tales told to Smelcer by his Ahtna relatives. These largely mythical stories "explore the processes that formed this world and created people, animals, places, and the distinctive interactions" between humans and nonhumans in legendary times, noted James Ruppert in MELUS. The tales range from stories common throughout Alaska, such as "The Blind Man and the Lion," to distinctly Ahtna stories specific to individual families and clans, such as "When They Killed the Monkey People." Ruppert concluded that Smelcer's book "has some value as a broad introduction to Ahtna narrative aimed at a general reader."

The Trap, Smelcer's first novel, is an "unforgettable survival tale, with both a life and a culture in the balance," commented Vicky Smith in Horn Book Magazine. Septuagenarian Albert Least-Weasel still clings to the old ways he has known all his life. While checking his traplines one cold winter day, Albert gets caught in one of his own wolf traps. Unable to reach his store of supplies, Albert faces certain death by exposure, dehydration, or animal attack, unless he can free himself or is rescued. At home, Albert's seventeen-year-old grandson Johnny becomes increasingly worried about his grandfather's welfare. Despite his best efforts, he is unable to generate much concern for the old man from his uncles, and cultural pride and the unwillingness to disrespect his elders prevents him from setting out on a search until his grandmother asks him to find her husband. By then, however, considerable time has passed, and Albert is in deadly danger. As he waits for rescue, Albert uses his outdoorsman skills to their fullest advantage, fighting off attacking wolves with a handmade spear and fashioning a rabbit trap out of a shoelace. "How rare to find lyrical writing combined with real suspense," mused a Kirkus Reviews critic, who called the book "a small masterpiece."



Horn Book Magazine, November-December, 2006, Vicky Smith, review of The Trap, p. 727.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2006, review of The Trap, p. 852.

MELUS, summer, 2001, James Ruppert, review of In the Shadows of Mountains: Ahtna Stories from the Copper River, p. 265.

School Library Journal, October, 2006, Vicki Reutter, review of The Trap, p. 173.


Center for the Art of Translation Web site, (March 28, 2007), biography of John E. Smelcer.

Internet Public Library, (March 28, 2003), "Native American Authors Project," biography of John E. Smelcer.

Literary Review Web site, (March 28, 2007), biography of John E. Smelcer.

Wilkes Creative Writing Program Web site, (March 28, 2007), "Henry Holt to Publish New Novel by John Smelcer."