“So what does it mean to be a Cherokee?” asks Cherokee author Robert J. Conley at the start of this delightful collection of his writings. Throughout his prolific career, Conley used his art to explore Cherokee identity and experience. With his passing in 2014, Native American literature—and American literature in general—lost a major voice. Fortunately, this posthumous publication, edited by the author’s wife, Evelyn L. Conley, offers readers the opportunity to appreciate anew the blend of humor, candor, and creativity that makes his work so exceptional.
Best known as a novelist, especially for his beloved Real People series, Conley was also a masterful writer of short stories, essays, plays, and speeches. The breadth of his talents is on full display in this wide-ranging collection, which begins with his very last public address, delivered in North Carolina in 2013. Following that speech, the reader is treated to what may be Conley’s most famous short story, “Plastic Indian,” the hilarious tale of three Cherokee youths who try to take down a giant plastic Indian located along Highway 51 between Tahlequah and Tulsa.
Like many of Conley’s works, “Plastic Indian” is set in contemporary times, but as we discover through the stories that follow, the author drew inspiration from traditional Cherokee folktales and oral storytelling. His delight in the spoken word is evident in the single play featured in this volume, based on the writings of ethnographer James Mooney and originally performed for radio.
Conley is also celebrated for his accurate depictions of the Old West (it is no accident that he was the first American Indian president of the distinguished Western Writers of America association), so the collection would not be complete without two of his cowboy stories, namely “The Execution” and “Nate’s Revenge.”
The volume concludes with four of the author’s speeches. Laced with the author’s typical dry humor, these personal testimonies serve as a moving coda to the author’s extensive and illustrious career.
|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Series:||American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series , #71|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Robert J. Conley (1940–2014) was the author of the Real People series, The Witch of Goingsnake and Other Stories, Mountain Windsong, and Wil Usdi. Conley was a three-time winner of the Spur Award and was named Oklahoma Writer of the Year in 1999. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Professional Writers Hall of Fame in 1996.
Geary Hobson is Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, author of the novel The Last of the Ofos, and editor of The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature.
Read an Excerpt
We had driven past it dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times, the giant plastic Indian that stood in front of the motel on Highway 51, and we had almost always cussed it as we went by. It was an insult to us all. One feather in its hair, a pair of moccasins, and a flap on its front and back were all the clothes it wore. It stood with one leg straight and the other slightly bent at the knee as it held one hand up against its head for an eye shade. Its hair was long and worn in two braids, which dangled on its chest. Perhaps worst of all, its flesh was pink. It stood there, towering over us as we drove from Tahlequah to Tulsa or to any number of smaller towns along the way.
We came to view the big pink plastic Indian as a symbol of all that was wrong and all that was evil in our midst. Before 1907, the spot on which the plastic Indian stood had been definitely and unquestionably Cherokee. It had been part of the Cherokee Nation, a portion of the land that was owned by all Cherokees. But Oklahoma statehood had changed all of that. Before 1907, the Cherokee Nation had produced more college graduates than the states of Arkansas and Texas combined. By 1970, according to the U.S. census, the average adult Cherokee had but four and one-half years of school. Even Will Rogers had said, "We had the greatest territory in the world, and they ruined it when they made a state," or words to that effect. We all agreed with him, and we all further agreed that the plastic Indian was a symbol of all of that.
We had all been out drinking one summer's evening, and we were headed back toward Tahlequah when we drove past the plastic Indian.
"Look at that ugly son of a bitch," Tom said.
"We've been looking at it for years," said Pat.
"We talk about it every time we drive past here," I said.
"We've talked long enough," said Tom. "Let's do something about it."
"Let's tear the damn thing down once and for all."
The plastic Indian was already well behind us and long out of sight, but the conversation continued. Perhaps it was all the beer we had consumed. Perhaps the timing was just right. Who knows? But the talk just kept going. It wouldn't stop.
"How are we going to do that?" I asked.
"Drive out to my house," Tom said, "and I'll show you."
By the time we got to Tom's house in the Rocky Ford community on the other side of Tahlequah, Tom had passed out. None of us had any idea what he'd had in mind, so we rolled him out into his front yard and drove off. Nothing was done about the plastic Indian.
It was several days before we all got together again. We were at my house drinking beer, and for some reason, Tom started talking about the plastic Indian again. I don't recall our ever having talked about it before except when we had just driven past it. It was still early in the evening, too. I suspected that something might develop.
"That damn thing," Tom said, "is an insult to all of us. It would be bad enough if a white man put up a tall Indian that really looked like a Cherokee to advertise his business. But that thing doesn't even look like us. If anything, it looks like Longfellow's Hiawatha, or maybe Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans."
"It is an ugly bastard," I said, not being possessed of Tom's eloquence. I sipped some more beer from the wet can.
"Those guys think they can do anything right here in our own country," said Pat. "They're surrounded by Indians all the time. Hell, some of their customers are Indians."
"Most of them," said Tom.
"There's the U-Need-Um Tires company," I said, "and the U-Totem stores."
"That damn plastic Indian covers it all," said Tom. "Let's go."
Without waiting for an answer, Tom got up and headed out the front door. Pat and I followed, giving one another puzzled looks. Tom had an old pickup parked outside in my driveway, and we piled in. Tom fired the thing up and backed out into the street.
"Where are we going?" Pat asked.
"You'll see," said Tom.
"We're going out to look at that plastic Indian?" I asked.
"Yeah," Tom said. "That's where we're going."
"What are we going to do?" asked Pat.
We were lucky the cops weren't out that night, because Tom ran four red lights and drove about ten miles over the speed limit all the way out to where the plastic Indian stood guard over the motel on Highway 51. He pulled over on the shoulder and stopped just across the road from the monstrosity. We all sat there in silence staring at it for several minutes. Then Tom got out of the pickup.
"You drive it, Pat," he said.
Pat had been sitting in the middle of the seat, so he scooted over behind the wheel. "Okay," he said, "but where are you going?"
"I'll be in the back," Tom said. "Drive on down the road a ways. Then turn around and drive back, and when you come up on that plastic Indian, don't slow down."
"What are you going to do?"
"Just drive," said Tom. He climbed into the pickup bed, and Pat gunned the engine. There were no cars coming, so he moved out onto the road in a hurry and drove on down for maybe a mile. Then he made a U-turn, and as he did, I saw Tom fall over in the back of the truck. Pat kept driving, and Tom got back up to his feet. I twisted my head to watch him, and I saw him pick up a coiled rope and pay out a loop. Tom was a frustrated cowboy. He was always talking about chasing wild horses on government land.
Up ahead, the plastic Indian came back into view. Pat roared ahead. In the back of the truck, Tom swung a wide loop over his head. He looked magnificent standing in the back of the speeding pickup spinning that loop. We came closer, and Tom threw the loop. I watched, fascinated, as it arced its way up and over the plastic head, but the fascination turned to horror as I saw the loop tighten, the rope straighten, and Tom go flying out of the back of the pickup.
"Stop!" I yelled to Pat.
Pat hit the brakes. "What's wrong?"
"We've lost Tom," I said. "Hell, we might've killed him."
The old pickup came to a stop on the shoulder. Pat shifted into low and made a U-turn. He drove back toward the plastic Indian, and we could see Tom struggling to his feet. Pat pulled up beside him.
"Get in," he said.
I opened the door and moved to the middle of the seat to make room, and Tom slid in with a moan.
"God damn," he said.
"What the hell were you trying to do?" Pat asked.
"I was going to rope that damn thing and pull it over," said Tom.
"Well, you roped it, all right," I said.
Tom moaned again, and I asked, "Are you hurt?"
He lifted up his arms, and I could see that his shirt sleeves were in shreds, and even in the dark I could see where his arms had been skinned by the pavement.
"Jesus," I said. "You're lucky you're not dead."
When we got back to my house and in the light, we could see that not only Tom's arms, but also his chest and belly were skinned pretty bad. He was bleeding some. We washed him up and found some kind of salve to rub on the affected spots. His face had a couple of places on it, too, but they weren't too bad. To tell the truth, he had been remarkably lucky. If I had tried that fool trick, and if I'd been skillful enough to catch anything with the rope, I'd have been killed for sure.
"Son of a bitch," Tom said.
"It's starting to hurt now."
It was a couple of weeks later when Pat and Tom drove up to my house in the old pickup again. They had a couple of six-packs with them. Actually, they had one six-pack and part of another. They had already broken into that one. I took one and opened it, drinking fast to catch up with them. We sat in my living room and drank and talked for a while. Then Pat said, "We got it figured out this time."
"What?" I said.
"We figured out how to pull down that plastic Indian."
"Bullshit," I said.
I looked at Tom. "He's right," he said. "We do have it figured out. You going to go out there with us?"
Well, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We had to stop for some gas, but in a short while, we were on the way again.
"What's the plan?" I asked.
"It's brilliant," said Pat. "It's all Tom's idea."
"Well, what is it?"
"You'll see," said Tom.
"You're not going to sling something from the back of the truck again, are you?"
"No, nothing like that."
Tom still had scabs on parts of his body. As he drove through town, I kept wondering what grand scheme he had in mind, but he was in one of those moods. He wouldn't tell me. I would just have to wait and see, so I quit asking about it. I sat in the middle of the pickup seat drinking my beer. We passed one cop, but he was going the other way, and Tom wasn't driving too fast just at that moment. We got out to the plastic Indian unmolested, and Tom, once again, pulled over to the shoulder. I looked at him. He sat staring at the monument to the crass economics of the white conqueror.
"Okay," Tom said at last, "you two take the chain over there and get it ready. Then signal me."
"Come on," Pat said to me.
I got out of the pickup to follow him, even though I still had no idea what we were up to. Pat reached over into the bed of the truck and hauled out a length of chain, throwing it over his shoulder. He looked both ways down the highway and, seeing no traffic, ran like hell for the plastic Hiawatha. I ran after him. Upon reaching the big Indian, Pat slung a length of the chain around its ankles, then hooked the short end of the chain back into one of the links.
"Stretch the rest of that out," he said.
I laid the chain out on the ground, trailing it along parallel to the road. I was beginning to get it. I looked up and down the road for any sign of cars. Off to the west, I saw some headlights coming our way.
"Hey," I said.
Pat looked and saw them, too.
"Just be casual," he said. "They won't notice anything."
The car finally came up and whizzed right past us without slowing down a bit. It was followed by two more, and then a pickup coming from the other direction. No one seemed to notice anything amiss. Pat looked at me.
"Are we ready?" he asked.
"I guess so," I said, still not having been told what we were up to, even though I had guessed it by then.
Suddenly Pat made a noise, which I took to be his imitation of a hoot owl, but I couldn't be sure. Across the highway, Tom gunned the old pickup. He ground the gears. The truck moved forward, made a U-turn, and pulled beside us on the opposite shoulder before moving on ahead to stop close to the end of the chain. Pat ran for the chain. I followed. Pat dropped down on his knees, picked up the chain, and started to coil it around some part of the pickup underneath.
"Is it all right?" asked Tom from the cab.
"I guess so," I said. "He's hitching it up."
I looked nervously from one direction to the other. No one was coming. Finally Pat stood up. "Come on," he said. "Get in the truck."
He got in first, so he was in the middle of the seat this time. I piled in right behind him. All three of us twisted our heads around to look at the big plastic Indian standing there waiting to meet his doom. Tom gunned the engine. He moved the pickup ahead slowly. The chain tightened. The engine roared. The truck did not move.
"Damn it," said Tom.
"Back it up," said Pat. "Take a run."
Tom shifted into reverse and backed up more than a car length. Then he shifted back into low. He gunned the engine. He popped the clutch. The pickup leaped forward. The chain straightened. There was a sudden jerk that came near giving us all whiplash. There was a terrible noise. Suddenly we broke loose and sort of skidded ahead, sliding off the side of the road. The engine died and would not start again.
"Damn," said Tom.
We got out and looked back behind us to see the whole rear end of the pickup still chained to the plastic Indian. The rest of the vehicle was lying stupidly in the ditch. We had to walk back to Tahlequah. We thought about hitchhiking, but there was hardly any traffic that late at night, and the few cars that did pass us by paid us no attention. The next day, when the cops called Tom about his truck, found in two pieces out on Highway 51, one part of it chained to the plastic Indian, Tom said that he knew nothing about it. Someone had taken his truck.
Tom disappeared shortly after that, presumably off chasing wild horses on government land. Pat didn't come around much. He didn't have a car, and he lived quite a ways out. I went back to my job at the Cherokee Nation, wondering daily why it seemed so much like a job at some corporation owned and run by white people. In the evenings, I found myself thinking about the Cherokee Nation before Oklahoma statehood. Of course, I was imagining. I had never known it. I knew it only through stories told by my grandparents and through books I had read.
And I thought about what had happened to it in those years following 1907. Tahlequah had a Kentucky Fried Chicken with a great big bucket on the end of a pole. The road going from town out to the tribal headquarters was lined with fast food joints and a Walmart. The old historic railroad depot was a crumbling pile of bricks. Downtown, a business called Cherokee Abstracts sported a sign out front that bore a profile of an American Indian wearing a Plains-style headdress.
Our Chief was a Republican banker who had grown up in Oklahoma City, and there was one person on the tribal council who could speak Cherokee. There were still some Indian allotments left in Indian hands, but most of the land of the old Cherokee Nation was lost, owned by white people, who fenced it in and put up signs that said "No Trespassing," "No Hunting," "No Fishing," "Get the Hell Out of Here," and other such things. And way out on Highway 51, the great symbol of it all, the huge pink plastic Indian, still stood his post.
Robert Whitekiller, Reformed
It had been a while since I had seen Robert Whitekiller. Upon my return to Tahlequah after several years' absence, I was surprised, to say the least, to find him reformed. As long as I had known him, Robert had been a magnificent and incredible drunk, a veritable wild man. For instance, there was the time in South Texas when he burst through the door of a Mexican bar and asked at the top of his booming voice, "Who's the meanest son of a bitch in here?"
A terrible silence reigned. Then all eyes in the place seemed to turn toward the same man — a big, tough-looking Mexican, sitting alone, who, when he realized that he was the center of everyone's attention, calmly accepted the label put upon him and stood slowly up, and up, and up, focusing his eyes on Robert.
"Can I sit with you?" Robert asked. "I don't want to get in no trouble."
And there was that time I had just gotten home from work, and Robert stopped by my house unexpectedly. "Come on," he said. "We're going over to the house for supper."
It was always difficult for me to say no to Robert, even if I wanted to. He had been a good friend for a good long while — a great friend, I should say. I had recently confided in him some trouble I was having with someone, serious trouble, and he had asked me, "Do you want me to kill him?" I said, "Well, no, not yet, anyway," and he loaned me a .25 caliber derringer to carry in my boot. So I went with him — in his pickup truck. We had supper, Robert and I and his live-in girlfriend of the time. We also got drunk. Robert and his sweetie got into a fight.
"Robert," she said, "kiss my ass."
"I will," he said. "I have."
Then she tossed him a dime. "Call someone who gives a shit," she said.
It was getting late, but Robert went to the telephone and dialed a number. He waited for someone to answer. Then he said, "Minnie?" Minnie was his mother. "Minnie, do you give a shit?" He hung up the phone a moment later and said, "My mother gives a shit."
It wasn't long after that I was feeling pretty woozy, and I decided anyway that I'd had about enough of their bickering, so I said to Robert, "I'm drunk. Take me home."
He tossed me his keys, saying, "I'm too drunk to drive. Take my truck."
So I did, even though I knew I was in worse shape than he was. I went home, parked Robert's pickup in my front yard, and went to bed. It must have been about three o'clock in the morning when I was awakened by a loud pounding on my front door. Sleepily, I called out, "Who is it?"
"It's me," was the reply. The voice was Robert's. "Give me my truck keys, my gun, and three dollars for a six-pack."
The drunkest I have ever been in my life was one time when I made the terrible mistake of trying to keep up with Robert Whitekiller. My sweetheart, not yet my wife, told me that before it was all over, Robert and I were running through the woods together whooping. I never could remember anything about it. But I had been away for several years, and when I returned, I found Robert reformed. He was really reformed.
His latest wife had left him, taking with her their young son, and Robert wanted them both back, especially the boy. Robert, who always managed to hold down a good job in spite of his antics, was giving them money, providing them a house, picking the boy up after school, and doing all kinds of other things. He was going to church and taking a lead role in everything that went on there. He had quit drinking. It was absolutely amazing, and I kept thinking that the universe should respond in some appropriate way, as with a monumental earthquake or something of equal impact.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Plastic Indian"
Copyright © 2018 Evelyn L. Conley.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword, Geary Hobson,
Editor's Preface, Evelyn L. Conley,
Introduction: What It Means to Be Cherokee,
Robert Whitekiller, Reformed,
How Robert Whitekiller Got a New Name and Found His Own Grave,
The Funeral of Charlie Wickliffe,
Beehunter Saves the Day,
A SHORT RADIO PLAY FROM JAMES MOONEY,
THE COWBOY WESTERNS,
SPEECHES DELIVERED BY ROBERT J. CONLEY,
Commencement Speech: Nebraska Indian Community College, 1980s,
Awards Ceremony: Tahlequah Public Library, 1980s,
Acceptance Speech: Oklahoma Center for the Book, Arrell M. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award, 2009,
A Reevaluation of Sequoyah's Final Trip,