Robert J. Conley

GBNF_birchfield-conely_western-writerDecember 29, 1940 – February 16, 2014

A great voice in Western Literature and advocate for storytelling by American Indian writers was stilled with the death of Robert J. Conley in February. From his earliest work in what became the Native Studies program at Eastern Montana University in Billings through decades of writing novels, history and poetry, Conley, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, has not only told the stories of his tribe, but also nurtured other American Indian writers.

In February he received the 2014 Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from Western Writers of America (WWA) in a presentation at his home in Sylva, North Carolina. That award joined many others he gathered over a long career including Spur Awards from WWA for his short story, “Yellow Bird: An Imaginary Autobiography” and the novels Nickajack and The Dark Island.

Conley was a founding member of the Cherokee Honor Society and recipient of the Cherokee Medal of Honor, as well as a member of the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame.

Conley blended his talent as a novelist and writer with his unparalleled experience as a teacher and mentor.  At the time of his death he served as the Sequoyah distinguished professor in Cherokee Studies and founding director of the Tsalagi Institute at Western Carolina University. He also was chairman of the publishing committee of the Museum of the Cherokee Indians Press in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Conley was the immediate past president of WWA, and the author of 86 books. His first novel, Back to Malachi, was written “out of anger,” Conley said, rooted in misrepresentations of Ned Christie, “a Cherokee who was falsely accused of murder and hounded for 4½ 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 Conley’s work broke the threshold and he would go on to assist in the early development of Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers, which encourages American Indian writers.

Conley has written in almost every genre–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, critical essays and works for the stage. “He is master of them all,” says Luther Wilson, who published many of Conley’s books. “He has written the best narrative history ever of his people in The Cherokee Nation: A History,’’ which Wilson published as director of the University of New Mexico Press. “And he wrote the most complete and engaging story of the Cherokee people I can imagine ever being written in his incomparable multi volume ‘Real People Series.’”

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