Robert J. Conley is the 2014 recipient of the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature. The award is given by Western Writers of America as its highest honor and will be presented during the organization’s annual convention in June in Sacramento, Calif.
The nonprofit Western Writers of America (www.WesternWriters.org) was founded to promote and recognize literature of the American West Past winners of the Owen Wister Award, previously called the Levi Strauss Saddleman Award, include Max Evans, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Tony Hillerman, Dorothy M. Johnson, Elmer Kelton, Louis L’Amour, Elmore Leonard, N. Scott Momaday, Mari Sandoz and Robert M. Utley.
Conley, a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, is the Sequoyah Distinguished Professor in Cherokee Studies and Founding Director of the Tsalagi Institute at Western Carolina University. He is the immediate past president of Western Writers of America, and the author of around 80 books, including the Spur Award-winning novels “The Dark Island” and “Nickajack.” He also won a Spur for his short story “Yellow Bird: An Imaginary Autobiography,” published in “The Witch of Goingsnake.” Among his other novels are “Mountain Windsong,” “War Woman,” “Cherokee Dragon,” “Sequoyah” and “Brass.”
Conley has blended a career as a novelist with historical research and publishing, including material about his tribe: “A Cherokee Encyclopedia” and “Cherokee Thoughts Honest and Uncensored.” At times he has been in the halls of higher education. In addition to his current position he has been assistant programs manager for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; Director of Indian Studies at Eastern Montana College, Bacone College in Muskogee and at Morningside College in Sioux City; an associate professor of English at Morningside College; and an instructor of English at Southwest Missouri State University and at Northern Illinois University.
Foremost, though, he is a writer. His poems and short stories have been published in numerous periodicals and anthologies over the years in Germany, France, Belgium, New Zealand and Yugoslavia. They appear in multiple languages: English, Cherokee, German, French, and Macedonian. He also wrote the novelization of a screenplay, “Geronimo: An American Legend,” published in the United States by Pocket Books and reprinted in translation in Italy.
His first novel, “Back to Malachi,” was written “out of anger,” Conley says, 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 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.’”
The Wister Award is a bronze statue of a buffalo created especially for Western Writers of America by artist Robert Duffie. It will be presented June 28, 2014. ❖