Cherokee author Robert J. Conley dies

02/19/2014 07:40 AM
SYLVA, N.C. – Cherokee Nation citizen and author Robert J. Conley died from complications of pneumonia on Feb. 16 at Harris Regional Hospital. He was 73.

Evelyn Conley, his wife of 38 years and a United Keetoowah Band citizen, sent a notice to friends and family on the day of his passing.

“It is with great, great sadness that I write today to let you know that my Robert has journeyed to another realm of eternity today,” she wrote. “He died peacefully with me by his side. He had been admitted to hospital for another case of pneumonia last Tuesday and fought a fierce battle until today.”

Robert was known for his wit and dry sense of humor. He told True West magazine after his THE CHEROKEE NATION: A History was named a top academic title in 2005, “For years I was a member of ‘Academics Anonymous,’ but they made me resign when I became the Sequoyah Professor of Cherokee Studies. I still have never written any footnotes, and I’m not planning to.”

Robert was born on Dec. 29, 1940, in Cushing, Okla. After finishing high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, he attended college there at Midwestern University where he received his bachelor’s degree in drama in 1966 and his master’s in English in 1968.

He later served as assistant programs manager for the CN in the 1970s. He also went on to serve as director of Indian Studies at Eastern Montana College in Billings, Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla., and at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.

He was also an associate professor of English at Morningside College and an instructor of English at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

He also held teaching and administrative appointments at the University of New Mexico and Lenoir-Rhyne College, and served as elder-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In July 2008, he joined Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., and served as the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor in Cherokee Studies and founding director of its Tsalagi Institute.

Shortly after his appointment at WCU, he received the 2009 American Indian Festival of Words Author Award, presented to outstanding American Indian writers who have made significant contributions to American literature. It is the only existing award given by a public library to honor an American Indian author.

“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,” Richard Starnes, dean of the WCU College of Arts and Sciences, said. “He will be greatly missed.”

His poems and short stories have been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies during the years, including some in Germany, France, Belgium, New Zealand and Yugoslavia. His poems have been published in English, Cherokee, German, French and Macedonian versions.

His most unusual publication may be the poem, “Some Lines in Commemoration of this site: Little Maquoketa River Mounds,” on May 15, 1981. The poem was commissioned by the Iowa State Department of Transportation and published on a permanent display board at the mound site near Dubuque.

He said 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 4-1/2 years before he was killed by a huge posse.” At the time, publishers did not believe they could publish a Western with an Indian protagonist, but his work broke the threshold as he went on to assist in the early development of Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers, which encourages American Indian writers.

Since that time he had more than 80 books published, a collection of short stories, several reprints, 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 was a member of the Western Writers of America and won two of its Golden Spur awards for his novels NICKAJACK and THE DARK ISLAND and another Spur award for his short story YELLOW BIRD: An Imaginary Autobiography, published in THE WITCH OF GOINGSNAKE. In 1997, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame and a recipient of a lifetime achievement award in 2009 from the Oklahoma Center for the Book.

He was recently named the 2014 recipient of the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature. The award is given by the Western Writers of America, of which he was a past president, as its highest honor. The award is scheduled to be presented posthumously during the organization’s annual convention in June in Sacramento, Calif.

The lifetime recognition award represents the latest in a long list of honors for Robert, including the Wordcraft Circle “Wordcrafter of the Year” in 1997 and “Writer of the Year” in 1999 for fiction for WAR WOMAN. His THE CHEROKEE NATION: A History was selected by the American Library Association as an “outstanding academic title” for 2005, and his CHEROKEE MEDICINE MAN was a 2007 nominee for the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma competition.

He blended a career as a novelist with historical research and publishing, including material about his tribe: A CHEROKEE ENCYLOPEDIA and CHEROKEE THOUGHTS HONEST & UNCENSORED.

In a release, CN Principal Chief Bill John Baker offered his condolences.

“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. His literary works were world renowned, and he garnered equal respect from both critics and readers. 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. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”

He was the son of the late Robert Parris and Peggy Jackson Conley. In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his brother, Thomas; and two children, Robert Parris Conley and Vanessa Edith Conley.

He is survived by his wife Evelyn; a son, Eddie of Tahlequah, Okla.; a daughter, Cheryl of Tahlequah; four grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and two sisters, Peggy Cline of Jacksboro, Texas, and Donna Hammond of Roseburg, Ore.

Gifts in memory of Robert will be accepted by the WCU Tsalagi Institute. Gifts may be made by sending a check to Western Carolina University, Office of Development, 201 H.F. Robinson Administration Building, Cullowhee, N.C. 28723, with “Tsalagi Institute” in the memo line; through the website; or by calling 828-227-7124 or toll-free at 1-800-492-8496.

Appalachian Funeral Services of Sylva was in charge of arrangements.


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