Tribute: Robert J. Conley Told Towering Cherokee Tales
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.
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