Robert J. Conley was a giant of the Native literary world whose 80-plus books gave us an authentic, lively rendering of Cherokee experience. Conley’s realm was one of irreverence and wit, and he will rightly take his place among the Cherokee literary elite.
When Conley left this world on February 16, he had just been awarded the 2014 Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature. The award, the highest honor bestowed by Western Writers of America, was to be presented during the organization’s annual convention in Sacramento in June. But Western Writers of America Executive Director Candy Moulton managed to give the prize to Conley personally.
“I went to North Carolina and presented it to him in a small ceremony that included the Dean of Western Carolina University, the head of the Cherokee Studies Department, and his wife Evelyn,” Moulton noted on the group’s website. “He was pleased and appreciative.”
Conley’s passing was mourned from the leadership offices of the Cherokee Nation, to the halls of Western Carolina University, where he last taught.
“Today, we mourn the passing of one of the great stewards of our Cherokee history and culture, Robert J. Conley. Robert was the author of more than 80 books, short stories and poems, vividly telling the tales of our most famous, and infamous, figures in Cherokee history,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker on February 17.
“His literary works were world renowned, and he garnered equal respect from both critics and readers,” Baker said. “While Robert will be dearly missed, we should be comforted in the fact that his legacy will live on in the wide body of work he left behind for all Cherokees to enjoy for generations to come.”
For centuries Cherokees were subject to the writings of people like Hernando DeSoto and Henry Timberlake, who were more interested in portraying Cherokees as exotic savages in a travelogue than as humans in their own right. Others, such as James Mooney, wrote about Cherokees as ethnographic curiosities. But that would change.
When Sequoyah developed the Cherokee syllabary and the Cherokee Nation established a printing press, Cherokee literary ambitions would be forever cemented in history. Many Cherokees took up the written word as an intellectual weapon. Elias Boudinot used the editorial page of the Cherokee Phoenix to fight for the rights being trampled upon by land-hungry settlers. John Rollin Ridge wrote of the Cherokee experience through fiction and poetry and would popularize an indigenous folk hero in The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta. William Eubanks reflected on diverse topics such as ancient languages and Theosophy, and DeWitt Clinton Duncan recorded the devastation of the Cherokee Nation at the hands of allotment.
Rachel Caroline Eaton, the first Cherokee woman to earn a Ph.D, wrote on topics such as Cherokee literacy, assimilation and the extraordinary life of Chief John Ross. Chief Wilma Mankiller wrote of her experiences as a leader and strong Cherokee woman. Each was a Cherokee intellectual and trailblazer in different ways, yet all wrote about the Cherokee experience.
Conley is part of that same intellectual trail, and much like the rugged determination oft demonstrated by the Cherokee protagonists in his stories, he blazed it in his own distinct way. It is fitting that one of his most popular set of books was called the Real People series. Drawing upon the rich oral tradition and heritage of Cherokees, Conley populated his tales with real Cherokee people who led real lives of trauma, happiness and everything in between. His work showed DeSoto and his ilk to be the real savages. Conley’s powerful imagination brought Cherokee history to life and told the Cherokee story in ways no one had done before.
Conley was born in Cushing, Oklahoma, in 1940. He completed high school in Wichita Falls, TX and attended Midwestern University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in drama in 1966 and later a master’s degree in English in 1968. While rightly known as a writer, Conley was also a world-class educator. He will be remembered by students as a no-nonsense instructor and a great mentor.
He held several posts in academia, including director of Indian studies at several institutions, among them Montana State University Billings (formerly known as Eastern Montana College) and Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He had served as an associate professor of English at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and taught English at Southwest Missouri State University and Northern Illinois University. At Western Carolina University, Conley’s most recent post, he was the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies.
“Robert was an important friend and mentor to many faculty, staff and students at Western Carolina University, as well as a vocal advocate for the preservation and promotion of Cherokee culture both in Oklahoma and on the Qualla Boundary,” said Richard Starnes, dean of the Western Carolina University College of Arts and Sciences, in a statement from the school. “He will be greatly missed.”
Conley’s accolades as a writer are many. The following is just only a partial list from his decades-long career. In 1996 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame. He was Wordcraft Circle’s Writer of the Year in 1999. His book Cherokee Nation: A History was named by the American Library Association as an outstanding academic title for 2005. In 2014 he was the recipient of the Western Writers of America’s Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature, which will be awarded posthumously. He walked on from this life on February 16, 2014 in Sylva, North Carolina.
The worth of a person’s life can be measured by a list of awards and accolades, but that doesn’t mean it should be the only measure. Conley may have been an award-winning author and a respected academic—once quipping that he had never written any footnotes—but he’ll always be remembered among his fellow Cherokees for the passion he had for his culture and people. He was an easily approachable figure despite his enormous literary stature, and he would offer words of encouragement to anyone who would listen. The respect he had for Cherokees is reflected in the number of people who counted him as a friend. His sharp wit won him many admirers. When once asked why it seems that a lot of people claim Cherokee ancestry, he replied, “Because we are the smartest.”