Robert J. Conley, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, is an acclaimed short story writer, novelist, historian and essayist who has won three Spur Awards from Western Writers of America [www.westernwriters.org]. He now serves as WWA’s vice president. Conley is the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor in Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University and founding director of the school’s Tsalagi Institute. An inductee in the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Cherokee Honor Society’s Medal of Honor, he helped start the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers [www.wordcraftcircle.org], which seeks to ensure the voices of native people are heard worldwide.
His Spur Awards came in 1988 for Yellow Bird: An Imaginary Autobiography, in 1992 for Nickajack and in 1995 for The Dark Island. His latest books are Cherokee Thoughts Honest & Uncensored (University of Oklahoma Press), A Cherokee Encyclopedia (University of New Mexico Press) and Cherokee Medicine Man: The Life and Work of a Modern-Day Healer (University of Oklahoma Press). Under an agreement with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Conley also wrote The Cherokee Nation: A History, which the University of New Mexico Press has released in paperback. Among his other novels are Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, Ned Christie’s War and No Need for a Gunfighter. Conley, who can be sarcastic and witty (sometimes in the same sentence), discussed his work in a recent interview with Wild West magazine.
What is the genesis of A Cherokee Encyclopedia?
I had an idea to write a book about all of the Cherokee chiefs for the three federally recognized tribes—the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah (Kituwa) Band. I fancied I would write a biography for each chief. I got into that a ways and realized I wasn’t going to be able to fill up a book, because there were a number of early chiefs about whom I could find no information. I had a contract with the University of New Mexico and told [UNMP Director] Luther Wilson the problem, and he agreed I could expand it into an encyclopedia. This allowed me to put in topics like clans, as well as celebrities other than chiefs.
What’s a favorite entry in your encyclopedia?
[Cherokee actor] Clu Gulager. He’s a good friend of mine now. I’ve been a big fan of Clu’s since the 1950s when The Tall Man was on television. I was watching an episode of the show, and my daddy said, “You know he is a Cherokee”—so I liked him better then.
How about Cherokee Thoughts? Are those essays you had worked on for a time?
Some of them are. They were fun to write. I would like to do more of them. I was just over at Brevard, N.C., today at the library and did a reading out of that book. I read most of the essay on Indian casinos and a short one called “Ricochet.” And I read “Grafters, Sooners and other Crooks.” When I wrote that one, my wife, Evelyn, tried to get me to leave it out of the book. She said, “We are going to have to leave the state before that book comes out.” Miraculously a job offer came about.
What type of writing do you most enjoy?
I would have said fiction, but now I like writing essays too, because you can come up with any topic and just sit down and start, well, not mouthing off…but whatever the writing equivalent of mouthing off is. It’s more like writing a novel than it is like writing history, the kind of nonfiction that requires research or getting interviews with other people, or having to wait for other people.
Why did you decide to write Cherokee Medicine Man?
I was just up there visiting with [Cherokee medicine man] John Little Bear one day, and he said, “I want you to write a book about me.” It was not anything that I would have ever come up with. When he told me that, I knew I had to do it. I didn’t want him to turn me into a field mouse or something.
What was it like writing that book?
In a way it was terribly frustrating. For almost that entire book I had to depend on other people. I had to interview other people. There was a period of time when Little Bear told me, “Somebody doesn’t want us to write this book.” The implication was that somebody was using medicine to stop it. And it did almost stop it. We would sit and talk for four hours about topics that had nothing to do with the book. And nobody else would talk to me about traditional Cherokee medicine. Finally I called the press, and told them that I would give the advance back. [That didn’t happen.]
Was there actually medicine against writing that book?
I suspect that there was. Because that thought came from him, and I think he would not have said so if it wasn’t true.
Tell us how The Cherokee Nation: A History came about.
It was written originally under a contract with the Cherokee Nation. The contract was drawn up while Wilma Mankiller was chief. About the time I finished the book, we got hot and heavy into the campaign for the election of the next principal chief. [Mankiller did not run for reelection.] And Wilma was real deep into that, because she was supporting candidate George Bearpaw. But he was determined to be ineligible, so he couldn’t run. The other candidate was Joe Byrd, and we were so close to election time, the court said we will proceed with the election but no votes for Bearpaw could count. [Byrd] was not very effective. Four years, not much happened. After a new election, Chief Chad Smith said, “We need to get that book done.” Four years went by. His second election came, and he said, “We still need to get that book done.” Each time there were comments from the chief and a large committee. We finally got it done.
Historically, was the chief always elected?
That started in the 1820s. The old Cherokee system was a bunch of autonomous towns, each town had a war chief and a peace chief, and a council. It probably had some similarities to the Iroquoian tribe. There we know that the women would select the men that would form the government. We also know that the women had recall power. So they had a lot of political power; it just wasn’t explicit. When the English first came in here, they made a lot of fun of Cherokees. The Englishmen finally discovered that after they had talked to the Cherokees, the Cherokees talked to the women. The Englishmen said the Cherokees had a petticoat government. Eventually the Englishmen said they wanted a point person to deal with, so it seems that the Cherokees appointed a trade commissioner. The Englishmen called him the emperor. He got more and more power. I think that position just kind of evolved into the principal chief. In the 1820s John Ross, a young hot shot, and some other young college-educated Cherokees, formed the Cherokee government. They established a principal chief and deputy principal chief. The matrilineal society has gone by the wayside; we might as well forget that when we consider the Cherokees.
It often seems that anyone who claims Indian blood claims to have descended from Cherokees. Why so?
Because we’re the smartest.
Any other reason?
There may be truth in what they say. I wrote an essay about that in Cherokee Thoughts. When the Cherokees took off on the Trail of Tears, every night people ran away; they just faded out to who knows where. They did not all go back to be the Eastern Band. There were 13 contingents on the Trail of Tears. So if someone ran away every night, and that trip took three months, those people had to have gone somewhere, so there probably are a lot of people out there in the general population who may have Cherokee blood and do not know a thing about it.
Are there efforts today to restore cultural programs?
The Cherokee studies program with which I am working is connected to both the Eastern Band and the Cherokee Nation. The Eastern Band, Western Carolina University, the Cherokee Nation and Northeastern State University in Tahlequah have signed a memorandum of understanding to help and promote Cherokee culture and especially the Cherokee language. Both tribes have programs for that at the universities.
How many speak the language?
The Eastern Band has only about 300 speakers and 13,000 enrolled members. The Keetoowah Band may be a little bit larger than the Eastern Band, about 14,000, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma has about 300,000 enrolled members. If we put the Cherokee Nation and the Keetoowah Band together, Oklahoma has about 10,000 speakers. There was a time I would say that we had 10,000 speakers. What I was not realizing was that we did not have very many families where both the husband and wife spoke the language. Now both bands have immersion programs for the little children. And they have college classes for college students and classes out in the communities for any adults, so they are working at it throughout the whole range of ages.
How important is it that tribal histories are written?
I think it’s important. I think every tribe ought to have it done. And ideally they should have someone from within the tribe that can do the job. I don’t know if all of them have someone that can do that. The history would really have to begin with the arrival of the Europeans, because nothing was written down before that. Most tribes could begin with some oral traditions and put that down and then move into the actual history.
Some people have said you can’t include oral tradition in a history of a tribe. How do you answer that?
It’s probably not printable. If you’re talking about literature, I’m probably more at home. I would say to people in that area, all literature started that way [orally], otherwise we would not start the study of world literature with Homer or English literature with Beowulf. People are stubborn when it comes to talking about Indians. Years ago I proposed a course in American Indian Literature. [The official in charge] said I couldn’t find enough material. I could find enough material for two semesters of Cherokee Literature.
Tell us about your involvement with Wordcraft Circle.
Joe Bruchac and Geary Harpson were talking about having a big conference for Indian writers. I think Joe got after the money and came up with it. So they contacted every Indian writer they could think of and got the word out and had a huge gathering in Norman on the University of Oklahoma campus. [The late] Lee Francis was there, and Lee cornered me and said he wanted to start an Indian writing program. He was from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico; he came from a very literary family. He was the power behind it. He would tell us, “You owe this back to the people,” and shame us into helping.
How important is it for Indians to write their own stories?
I’d like to see more of it, but I’m not one of those that say if you are not Indian, you can’t write about Indians, because I don’t want people to tell me I can’t write about white people.
You were born in Oklahoma?
Yes, in Cushing, in about the middle of the state, in the Creek Nation. My father did two things with his life: He sold oil field supplies, and when he got bored with that, he joined the service. He was in and out of the service four times. We lived all over, from Norfolk, Va., to Glendale, Calif.
What’s North Carolina like?
I never had lived here before, but I had been out here a number of times and actually taught a class at Western Carolina. It is like coming home. This is the original Cherokee country. We’re maybe 30 miles from old Keetoowah, the Cherokee Mother Town. They say all Cherokees come out of Keetoowah (Kituwa). We are Anikituwagi.
What does your job entail?
I get around and speak to different groups. I spend two days a week out on the Cherokee reservation, and the people in the museum gave me office space for the days I’m out there. I thought that was just absolutely great.
Are you teaching?
I’m not teaching yet; I told them I did not want to teach this first semester. I’m going to teach a survey of Cherokee literature. It will start with stories out of the oral traditions that have of course been published and probably jump from there into the 1820s when the Cherokees started the newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix. Slip from there into the 1920s and ’30s, when you get Will Rogers, John Oskison and Lynn Riggs, and work on up to contemporary literature. I will use a couple of my own books: Captain Dutch and Mountain Wind Song.
Which story/character do you like best?
I’m very fond of Cherokee Dragon, the story of Dragging Canoe. And I like Sequoyah and Captain Dutch. But I also like the novel Brass, a kind of a horror thing. It took a character from the old mythological stories, and he was a shape-shifter and passionate gamer, and at the end of the original story he is pinned to the ocean floor and under the water. For my story I had the Army Corps of Engineers tear out the pole pinning him, and he is loosed on the world.