“He drank his Wild Turkey ‘unmolested’ (no ice or additives) and preferred his cigarettes the same way – smoking the chemical- and additive-free American Spirit brand. He always had a pack tucked into the pocket of his snap-up plaid western shirt that he wore neatly tucked into his Wrangler jeans. A pair of worn cowboy boots peeped out from the hems of those neatly pressed jeans – jeans that were kept in place by a set of ever-present suspenders. A cowboy hat was usually set upon his brow, shading his lined and bespectacled face. He was Robert J. Conley, Cherokee author.”
Those are the opening lines of a tribute to Conley by publisher Lisa Snell in Native American Times to mark the passing of the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor of Cherokee Studies at Western Carolina University. Conley, 73, died Feb. 16 after a period of declining health.
“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,” said Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94, dean of the WCU College of Arts and Sciences. “He will be greatly missed.”
Although born in Oklahoma, Conley said that accepting the position at WCU and moving to Western North Carolina in 2008 was like coming home “…because North Carolina is home to all Cherokees.” Prior to joining WCU, he was assistant programs manager for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, director of Indian studies at Bacone College and Morningside College, coordinator of Indian culture at Eastern Montana College, and instructor of English at Southwest Missouri State University and Northern Illinois University. 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.
A prolific author with more than 80 books to his credit during his career, Conley was named the 2014 recipient of the Western Writers of America’s Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature. The award, the nonprofit organization’s highest honor, is scheduled to be presented posthumously during the group’s annual convention in June in Sacramento, Calif. It represents the latest in a long list of honors for Conley, including the Wordcraft Circle “Wordcrafter of the Year” award in 1997 and “Writer of the Year”award in 1999 for fiction for his “War Women.”
His “The Cherokee Nation: A History” was selected by the American Library Association as an “outstanding academic title” for 2005. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame in 1996, and he was recipient of a lifetime achievement award in 2009 from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Shortly after his appointment to WCU’s Sequoyah Professorship, he was selected to receive the 2009 American Indian Festival of Words Author Award.
His works range from short stories and essays to the novelization of the screenplay “Geronimo: An American Legend,” and include titles such as “Ned Christie’s War,” “Mountain Windsong: A Novel of the Trail of Tears,” “The Dark Way,” “Cherokee Dragon,” “Nickajack,” “The Dark Island” and “Yellow Bird: An Imaginary Autobiography.”