Conley, OU Press offer story of Wil Usdi
Cover of “Wil Usdi: Thoughts from the Asylum”
Robert J. Conley
The late Robert J. Conley tells the story of Little Will in “Wil Usdi: Thoughts from the Asylum” from the University of Oklahoma Press.
Adopted into the Cherokee tribe as a teenager, William Holland Thomas (1805–1893), known to the Cherokees as Wil Usdi, went on to have a career as lawyer, politician, and soldier. He spent the last decades of his life in a mental hospital, where the pioneering ethnographer James Mooney interviewed him extensively about Cherokee life. The true story of Wil Usdi’s life forms the basis for this historical novella.
Conley tells Wil’s story through the recollection of the old man’s memories. Wil learns the Cherokee language while working at a trading post. The chief Yonaguska adopts the fatherless Wil, seeing to it that the boy dresses like a Cherokee and, for all practical purposes, becomes one. Later, representing the Eastern Band of the Cherokees in negotiations with the federal government, Wil helps them remain in their ancestral lands in North Carolina when most other Cherokees are sent off on the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territory. Thus, Wil becomes popularly known as the white chief. He continues making money as a merchant and in 1848 is elected to the state senate. During the Civil War, he leads a Cherokee battalion in the Confederate Army and tries to persuade his cousin Jefferson Davis to expand the battalion of fierce warriors into a regiment.
The Wil Usdi of Conley’s story is in increasingly bad health, mistreated in a mental institution that to 21st-century readers is little more than a jail. He dreams of women and warfare and boyhood games of stickball. Yet even in his demented state, Wil is proud of his accomplishments and never loses his conviction that Indians are “more human than whites.” Weaving together the disconnected stories of Wil Usdi’s life, Conley’s blend of research and imaginative prose gives readers a deep sense of post-removal Cherokee history.
Conley, who died in 2014, authored more than 80 books, as well as short stories, prose and poetry, including three British editions and several books on tape. He also wrote the novelization of a screenplay, “Geronimo: An American Legend,” which was published in the United States by Pocketbooks and reprinted in translation in Italy.
He won two Western Writers Association Golden Spur Awards for his novels “Nickajack” and “The Dark Island” and another Spur for his short story “Yellow Bird: An Imaginary Autobiography” that was published in “The Witch of Goingsnake.”
His first novel, “Back to Malachi” was published in 1986 “out of anger” rooted in misrepresentations of Ned Christie, a Cherokee who was falsely accused of murder and hounded for years before federal officials killed him. At the time, publishers did not believe they could publish a Western with an Indian protagonist, but Conley’s work broke the threshold.
Candy Moulton of the WWA said Conley was the first author to bring real Native characters to mainstream publishing. “He was the first who brought a Native American lead character – who wasn’t a caricature but was a real person and with foibles and all the things that real people have – to New York. His was such a real voice and strong voice, and he had such a power with his writing that it just came through. That is what really sets him apart in Western literature. There are other people that do it now, and some of them are doing it well, but he was absolutely so far out ahead of everybody else and he was writing from a Native perspective.”
Also, OU Press will publish a book of Conley’s short stories in 2018 called “Plastic Indian: A Collection of Short Stories and Other Writings.” Other available books by Conley are “Mountain Windsong,” “Walking The Trail,” and “Cherokee Medicine Man.”
Conley’s books are available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org