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.
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 & Uncensored.” 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 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.