- Cherokee Thoughts, Honest and Uncensored
Sequoyah had scarcely completed his syllabary of the Cherokee language before authors began broadcasting their opinions with it. For a people renowned for their emphasis on social harmony, Cherokees have long hauled their dirty laundry right out in public, many going so far as to make a profession of airing it. Cherokee writers have elaborated traditional practices of dissent in modern contexts and made polemic a favored genre. Into this mix enters Robert Conley with his timely collection of twenty-eight essays on a wealth of topics historical and contemporary. Conley, currently professor of Cherokee studies at Western Carolina University, is by some accounts the most prolific Cherokee author in history, out-paging [End Page 74] even Will Rogers with his eighty-plus historical and western novels, a Cherokee Nation–sanctioned history, and other nonfiction. Writing to broad audiences in both Indian country and academia, he offers his views on literature, freedmen, outlaws, and more in essays by turns personal, provocative, and contentious.
Cherokee Thoughts makes a significant contribution to American Indian cultural and political discourse in its manifest dissent from the party line. As even tribally specific criticism leans toward structuralist accounts of peoples’ worldviews, Conley refreshingly upholds the ongoing tradition of diverse dissension. He splashes directly into troubled waters in an early essay reexamining the life of Stand Watie, a divisive figure in Cherokee history from his signing of the homeland- ceding Treaty of New Echota through his alliance with the Confederacy in the Civil War. Reflecting on Watie’s support of the South that resulted in the punishing terms of the Cherokee Reconstruction Treaty of 1866, Conley lays many of the consequences, such as the mandated citizenship of the freedmen, at his feet.
The Cherokee Nation’s recent move to disenfranchise the freedmen occasions several pointed critiques. In his effective characteristic style, Conley sketches the relevant historical context, highlighting affluent Cherokees’ embrace of slavery and the ensuing racialist thinking that yet endures and has engendered some opposition to the freedmen. The Cherokee Nation disputes the legality of their inclusion, asserting that it has the sovereign right to determine its own membership, a claim Conley rejects as disingenuous given the nation’s forced reliance on the corrupt Dawes Commission rolls to determine citizenship eligibility. He excoriates the rhetoric of independence: “If the Cherokee Nation is really serious about exercising its sovereignty and determining its own membership, then why the hell does it continue to use the Dawes Commission Roll, which was put together by the U.S. government and then closed by the U.S. government?” (143).
According to Conley, another of the 1866 treaty’s stipulations calculated by the United States suggested the eventual dissolution of tribal government, effected some forty years later with allotment, the land runs, and Oklahoma statehood. Notwithstanding his deep [End Page 75] Oklahoma roots, Conley spares no rancor lambasting the gunjumping “Sooners” mascot and decrying this historical moment characterized by unfettered land graft, writing, “I think there is no state in the United States that shows more pride in its crooked, self-serving, cheating, and corrupt founding fathers than Oklahoma” (68). With both condemnation and nostalgia, he points to the jurisdictional gap over Indian Territory near the turn of the twentieth century as both cause and epistemic effect of the proliferation of outlaws, a topic of fascination for him. Combining it with his Cherokee interests, he argues intriguingly that many prominent Cherokee outlaws like Ned Christie were in fact rebranded traditionalist patriots targeted by the federal government for their recalcitrance. Readers familiar with Conley’s historical fiction will find interesting discussion of source material on such characters.
Conley’s interest in history is rivaled only by that in literature. Essays on Cherokee authors pepper the collection, covering in various depths writers well known like Will Rogers, recently recovered like John Oskison, and practically unknown like DeWitt Clinton Duncan. While Conley offers neither detailed biographies nor close readings, he does make a compelling case for understanding American Indian contributions to...