CULLOWHEE, N.C. - July 1 was back-to-school day for noted scholar Robert J. Conley, a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians with 80 books to his credit from a career spanning 40 years. As the new Sequoyah Distinguished Professor in Cherokee studies at Western Carolina University, he expects to be doing plenty of learning from tribal members in and around his new home base - as soon as he gets his boxes unpacked, that is. In this interview with Indian Country Today, Conley shared some thoughts on his past, present and future.
Indian Country Today: What will you be doing at Western Carolina University?
Robert Conley: I;ll be doing a little teaching in Cherokee studies to some graduate and undergraduate students and a lot of PR work between the university and the Eastern Band of Cherokees. I want to get acquainted and find out what people want from the university that the university has not been providing.
ICT: Have you done tribal outreach in your past academic endeavors?
Conley: Yes, I worked at Bacone College for a while in Muscogee, Okla. I also worked at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and I worked at Eastern Montana College. I think universities largely don't grasp what the tribes want, and they certainly need to be doing more outreach. Very often what a university does is come up with what it thinks Indians need. Then, it kind of tries to force that on them. It should be doing more listening, which is what I expect to be doing a lot.
ICT: Are there many Indian students at Western Carolina University?
Conley: Not too many; we need to get more. That's another area I'll be working on here - recruitment.
ICT: How do you think the education system is working for Indian students?
Conley: I think the system has never worked very well for Indian students. I think the tribal schools are a great improvement and some of the public schools are instituting special Indian programs, and that helps.
Generally speaking, the system was just not set up for Indian students, and it has not improved a great deal. There needs to be more of a focus on culture. In general, it helps improve understanding from both directions.
ICT: Have you previously had the experience of teaching non-Indians about Native history?
Conley: Yes, one of the things I find is that it turns some idealistic non-Indian students into real skeptics, and I don't do that intentionally. But it has that possibility. They sometimes discover that they've been told some lies. Then, all of a sudden, they start thinking that everything that comes from the government or the standard education system is a lie.
ICT: Do you think it's important for colleges to be hiring more Native scholars?
Conley: It's absolutely crucial. That's a way to bridge the gap - to get somebody in the university in a position that can make a difference, serving as a liaison between the university and the Indian community.
ICT: Are there not enough Native scholars out there for universities to be hiring?
Conley: Well, university administrators have to be committed to looking for Native scholars to hire. There probably aren't enough to go around right now, but we're getting more and more all the time. If a university is really committed to hiring a Native scholar, I think they can find one. Very often, they don't look hard enough. I think they need to be searching more diligently.
ICT: How did Western Carolina University find you?
Conley: Well, I'm not sure - it went back several years. I had taught a class for them previously, and I had some friends in the program here who told me a year or two ago that this position was going to be opening up. When it did open, I applied.
ICT: You've written nearly 80 books. What areas do you most like to focus on?
Conley: A good many of them are Cherokee historical fiction; I think someone could probably read that series of books and get a good idea of Cherokee history. Even though it's fiction, as much as possible it sticks to the facts as we know them about Cherokees.
ICT: Why do you choose to write from a fiction angle?
Conley: Well, when I started writing them, it was fairly easy to sell historical fiction. But mostly because I thought that more people might be likely to pick up a novel than they would a history book. I hoped I would get a broader readership that way.
ICT: Do you hear from Indian people about your novels?
Conley: Yes, from quite a few, actually. A lot of Cherokees back home read them and have commented to me about them. I hear from people in far-flung places, too - positive responses, so far - I've been very lucky.
ICT: What's your favorite book you've written?
Conley: That's a tough one to answer, but I think, maybe, one called ''Cherokee Dragon.'' It's based on the life of a Cherokee whose name was Dragging Canoe. And the colonists made that play on words, and called him the Cherokee Dragon. It's basically the story of the Cherokees through the American Revolution. That's an important story for people to know and understand. A significant number of the Cherokees fought on the side of the British, and their reasons were very good. The British wanted to contain the colonies on the East. So, the Cherokees and some other Indians joined the British in an attempt to keep the colonies where they were.
ICT: Are you working on a new book now?
Conley: I'm sort of working on one, but I haven't been working really hard on it. I've got to get more serious about it. It's a story about a Chickasaw guy from Indian Territory, which became Oklahoma. This guy was a college-educated Chickasaw, and he got bored, went west, and ended up riding with Billy the Kid. It'll be written as fiction, but as close to the history as I can keep it.
ICT: Do you want more Native young people to be entering the writing field?
Conley: I certainly hope that there will be more. I think every tribe should have at least one good storyteller.
ICT: You had to uproot yourself from Oklahoma to take this position. Do you feel disconnected from home?
Conley: No, I think it's great. This is the original Cherokee country. So, in a way, it's like coming home.