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, 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.