- Interpreting Our World:Authority and the Written Word in Robert J. Conley’s Real People Series
The Summer 2001 issue of the Cherokee Phoenix profiles Cherokee painter Talmadge Davis, a self-taught artist who takes as his subject matter the traditions and history of his people. Cherokee journalist Will Chavez writes that Davis "wants his paintings to teach people about Cherokee history." The article describes Davis's depiction of the Revolutionary War era Cherokee patriot Dragging Canoe. Interestingly, Davis titled his work "Cherokee Dragon," a title "taken with permission from the book of the same name by Cherokee author Robert Conley." Davis's Dragging Canoe "bears a striking resemblance to Cherokee actor Wes Studi because he allowed Davis to use his image for the painting" (Chavez). In the creation and naming of Davis's painting, three Cherokee artists—a writer, a painter, and an actor—converge in the production of new art representing a cultural hero few people outside Cherokee country celebrate. This artistic discourse characterizes an evolving aesthetic that seeks to explore Cherokee history, invigorate Cherokee culture, and support Cherokee nationhood. A culturally informed process of critical interpretation modeled on Cherokee oral traditional thought and performance is emerging from these artistic conversations, and at the center of [End Page 544] these collaborations are the historical novels of Robert J. Conley's Real People series.
Conley's series, which to date is comprised of twelve novels, depicts episodes of Cherokee history that have never before been fictionalized by a Cherokee. His epic begins in pre-Columbian times in the Appalachian region and covers seminal periods of Cherokee colonial history: first contact with Europeans in 1540, the evolution of trade with the English and Spanish, the American Revolutionary War, the loss of lands through treaty, and the so called Removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory in 1838. The Real People series is both painstakingly researched and deeply creative; Conley sets the historical stage and then allows generations of related characters to develop in accord with their changing circumstances and worldviews. Central characters in the novels include both fictional characters and important Cherokee historical figures such as Dragging Canoe, the war leader of the Chickamaugas; Nancy Ward, the "Beloved Woman" of the Cherokee; and Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. As Sandra Ballard notes, Conley brings these historical figures to life and lets their voices speak from within a Cherokee worldview in which their actions are rational and justified (332).
Conley's depiction of a Cherokee-centered world may account for the ubiquity of his writings in Cherokee country. Walk into a bookstore in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and Conley's books will be there. They are sold in Cherokee, North Carolina as well, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. His new books are enthusiastically reviewed in the Cherokee Phoenix and the dust jackets of his novels have a recommendation by Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I have for years been aware of Mr. Conley's popularity among Cherokees, but as a scholar I am aware that this anecdotal evidence does not prove a writer's centrality to a community. I wanted to find out if my assessment of Robert Conley's popularity among Cherokees was indeed correct.
In the summer of 2004, in consultation with Dr. Richard Allen, the policy analyst for the Cherokee Nation, I initiated a study of Cherokee Nation readers.1 A survey was published in the September 2004 issue of the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, which with a worldwide circulation of over 106,000 and a circulation of 68,000 in Oklahoma is the natural forum for reaching a far-ranging Cherokee citizenry. While this research project is ongoing, initial findings confirm the popularity of Robert Conley's novels among Cherokees and shed light on the reasons for this popularity. While readers had read works by Native writers such as Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Marmon Silko, and showed their depth of knowledge of Native [End Page 545] writers in referencing works by William Apess, George Copway, Sarah Winnemucca, and Alexander Posey, the most widely...