Missing Robert J. Conley

The other night—when sadness had a heavy grip around my throat, I poured myself a shot of whiskey—something I seldom drink unless it’s in a pumpkin pie.  But Robert J. Conley had died a week ago.  Since I never had the privilege of drinking with him, that night I toasted him.  So many of us in Indian Country have lost a good friend, superb storyteller and beloved educator—to mention only a few of the roles he filled for everyone that knew him.

Robert J. Conley
Robert J. Conley

Robert J. Conley, a Kituwah author of over 85 books—poetry, fiction and western novels based on Cherokee history—passed on February 16, 2014.  He and his wife Evelyn have been my friends for many years.  Thanks to Evelyn’s superb marketing skills and my thorough delight with Robert’s storytelling, no other author’s books take up more space on my bookshelves than Robert’s!  And I have read them all. My favorites are his love poems to Evelyn in The Rattlesnake Band and Other Poems.  Of his novels in the Real People Series—I loved War Woman the best.  Brass—a sort of horror story whose main character is an ancient, evil Cherokee spirit gone modern—was another thriller.

I first met Evelyn in the mid 1980’s, when the Tulsa United Way sponsored a grant to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah.  Evelyn was the Cherokee lead person.  The source of the grant monies was a national program funded by the Kellogg Foundation to the national office of United Way of America.  Since I was on the national United Way staff and connected to Blueprint grantees, I got to see Evelyn at various events.  We became good friend and remained so after I left the national staff and moved to Chicago.

It was Evelyn who first introduced me to Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers after Alec died.  And things have never been the same.  It seemed like a latent artist within me emerged and I found a new path for the rest of my life.  I thank the Conley’s for this gift…especially Robert.  When I retired from the United Way movement in January of 2006, I poured myself into poetry and the lively writing community that exists in the St. Louis area, my new home.  During a visit to Robert and Evelyn shortly  thereafter, I sort of “contracted” with Robert to critique (a word he hates) or help me gauge what I had to do to improve my writing.  I waited.  And waited.  Finally, I emailed him, asking him what he thought about my manuscript, Games of Transformation. Here’s what he emailed back:

I’m probably not very good, especially if you want some kind of analysis, commentary, etc.  I have read your poems and thought they were very good.  I think you are one of the best poets at work around these days….The reason it took me so long to write is that I kept trying to think of something really bright to say, but all I can say is that they are GOOD, so move on.

What a shot of confidence his words gave to me!  I was overjoyed.  And this is the Robert J. Conley who doesn’t mince words!  The author of Cherokee Thoughts: Honest & Uncensored!  Well—yes, I am being over-dramatic.  But another well-known author had refused to blurb my manuscript, claiming it wasn’t “ready.”  Needless to say, Robert’s words were a wonderful balm to my bruised ego.  A little later, at its 2012 Returning the Gift Festival, Wordcraft Circle awarded Games of Transformation as the “Poetry Book of the Year.”

Robert, my friend—I didn’t mean to carry on like this.  These few paragraphs were supposed to be about you.  Well, I am hard put for all the accolades you deserve, and will continue to get in the next months.  Just know that I am profoundly grateful to you for your encouragement and good words.  I am awaiting The Brothers in the mail from your publisher, Goldmines. Still, I am sad that you didn’t get around to spin a continuing tale about the son of Brass, who still lurks under the sea.  And that little glass of whiskey was enjoyable the other night.  If you run into Alec—he likes whiskey, too.  Maybe you two could enjoy a few jokes about that all-too-serious woman who misses you both very much.

Genealogy’s Brick Walls

In the epilogue of my memoir, Along Came a Spider, I illustrated some of the difficulties I encountered as I attempted to identify the names of my ancestors, especially those of Métis and Mi’kmaw, or Wabanaki, background in Nova Scotia.

In June of 2005, my sister received an email in response to her request for information about our Surette ancestors.  In an answer back, she was referred to a book, Genealogy Saint Michael’s Parish-Wedgeport 1767 – 1925. On page 421 were these words:

Cyrille Surette…married Marguerite Babin, daughter of Charles Amand Babin and Anne Marguerite Belliveau on 25 October, 1815.  Marguerite, b. cir 1797 in Belleville, NS and d. in Wedgeport.  Marguerite may have been the natural daughter of Charles Amand Mius and an aboriginal mother from Penobscot, Maine.

From this passage, there seems to be the possibility that my biological third great-grandmother–Marguerite Babin Surette–was born Métis and that my fourth great-grandmother might be Penobscot.  Also, it is a well-known fact that the Mius family has deep Mi’kmaw roots in Nova Scotia, all the way back to Philippe Mius II d’Anzy (born 1660), who had two Mi’kmaw wives.  Ever since I was made aware of the possibility of my third great-grandmother being Métis, I have vigorously sought to know the name or circumstances of her Native mother.

Adoption was not a word used in the old Acadian communities of Nova Scotia.  There are records of Marguerite’s birth at St. Anne du Ruisseau indicating that she was born a twin to Madeleine Babin, born August 20, 1796.  It seems logical to me that a new mother would be able to more easily take in a newborn than a woman whose children were past the nursing stage.

Recently, I was able to secure the names of the committee members responsible for writing Genealogy St. Michael’s Paris-Wedgeport 1767 – 1925, published in 2004.  There were fourteen men and women in that group.  The man responsible overall for the book did not recall why the note about the aboriginal mother and Charles Amand Mius was inserted except to say “…there was obviously a valid reason at the time” and “…was not inserted without just cause.”  I was also informed that the most knowledgeable person was suffering a diminishment of mental capacities and therefore not able to answer my request for sources.  Another member had also died since the 2004 publication–a man I knew with a keen historical understanding of Native/French intermarriages.  His name was never mentioned to me by the committee head.  I expressed my disappointment to the committee members, writing that I regarded their excuses for not being able to cite sources as weak and unacceptable.  Shortly thereafter, the Acadian Museum and Archives in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where one of the committee members worked, refused to have anything more to say about the matter.

I know of one other genealogist whose records link Charles Amand Mius and an aboriginal mother from Penobscot, Maine to my third great-grandmother, Marguerite Babin.  Again, he has not offered me any of his sources and simply wondered what the Wedgeport genealogical committee was hiding.  I don’t know–but I am learning to be patient.


Thriving in St. Louis

When I first moved to the St. Louis area, all I wanted at the time was to be near my family and grandchildren, whose baby and toddler years had already passed me by.  I have never regretted this move.  Being involved in the hectic schedules and lives of four grandchildren and their parents has been a highlight of my life.

Yet, I worried a bit about this city which has its share of bad jokes and negative urban distinctions.  So I was pleasantly surprised to realize that St. Louis also has a reputation for being one of the most literate cities in the country.  Poets, writers and journals (Boulevard, River Styx, Margie, Sou’wester and Natural Bridge, to mention a few) abound.  Within days of arriving here, I was in attendance at a Sunday poetry workshop sponsored by the St. Louis Poetry Center.  A ride had been arranged for me by the president of SLPC, Loy Ledbetter, who asked Rebecca Ellis (then editor of Cherry Pie Press) to pick me up at my house in Maryville.  This was my first foray into the Delmar Loop of Blueberry Hill and Chuck Berry fame.  The 2 1/2 hour workshop was held in the large, public library.  Since then, I have had my poems critiqued by such notable poets as Molly Peacock, Carl Phillips, Denis Duhamel and Richard Crewell, a Missouri poet Laureate.

Most surprising, and with the help of many old and new friends, I have managed to publish three books.  And from the two or more annual all-day seminars offered by SLPC, I have attended five–facilitated by poets such as Allison Funk, Richard Newman, Joshua Kryah and Joy Katz.  I have learned the importance of a first line, the usefulness of creating a “window” for a poem that allows expansion and layers to more easily develop, the importance of internal movement and above all, to keep going on to that next poem, not getting stuck in the present (or past).  Out of all this, I know my poetry composition has improved.

There is no doubt in my mind that the bulk of my growth as a poet is due to monthly meetings with “Six on Saturday,” a group of friends who have been together for the past six years.  If a title doesn’t help the poem, or punctuation is in error, or lines are unnecessary, or the sin of “telling, not showing” is committed–we all shoulder whatever criticism pertains to a particular poem.  I dread hearing one of my friends say, “What in the world are you writing about?”  My five friends are Gail Eisenhardt, Gaye Gambell-Peterson, Katherine Mitchell, Rebecca Ellis and Keith Byler.

On May 20, I will be among a group of prize-winning poets reading at SLPC’s annual “concert.”  My poem, “Portage,” won honorable mention, having been judged by Drucilla Wall, author of The Geese at the Gates.  My SOS friend, Gaye Gambell-Peterson, won first place for her action-packed poem about the 2011 Good Friday tornado that wrecked her condo.  Here is my poem, a bit quieter:


She drags her kayak along the portage path
away from chaos to the calm of Basin Pond
where loons dance, cry out their eerie laughs.

She lights candles from Boston to Baden-Baden,
wonders how many it takes for God to respond?
She pulls her kayak along the portage path.

She sailed the seas of Indonesia and St. Barth’s,
ferried Stockholm’s waters like a vagabond
too far from loons’ dance and their eerie laughs.

Widowhood and grief—after his selfish passing—
made plain the importance of carrying on—
pushing her kayak along the portage path.

Basin Pond is deep and calm, her craft
a heavy heave, even with the chaos gone.
Still, loons dance.  She joins their eerie laughs.

Florida is lovely in winter; so is La Paz.
But Maine is the place of which she’s most fond,
pulling her kayak along its portage path
to where loons dance, cry their welcome laughs.