The Incredible Career of a Full-Time Indian

by Jeff Martin


At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, awards were given out for the seventh annual Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Awards, and cultural diversity was at the forefront. It always is. The mission of the program is to “cultivate relationships between filmmakers from traditionally underrepresented communities and film industry executives.”

Among the winners was Oklahoman and member of the Cherokee tribe, T.J. Morehouse. Morehouse co-wrote the screenplay for the film Plastic Indian, based on the short story of the same name by another Oklahoman, author Robert Conley. If this name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, don‘t feel bad. For many years we’ve had a list. It’s not necessarily written anywhere, but it exists in the hearts and minds of those interested in Oklahoma literature. The list contains a select few names of “important” or more to the point, “popular” Oklahoma authors. What this unofficial list does not contain, not by any stretch of the imagination, are the names of our best authors. Robert Conley is one of these. Attention must be paid.

Born in 1940 in Cushing, Cherokee to the bone, over the last four decades Robert Conley has produced dozens of books including novels, short stories, plays and cultural histories for which he has a particularly special talent. The Cherokee Nation: A History, may in fact be the definitive portrait of the tribe, a considerable feat considering the vast amount of text previously written on the topic. In 1998 when the film Smoke Signals shined some well-deserved Hollywood light on our modern Native American culture, there was a brief moment when it felt as if something more substantial could take hold. But the moment came and went without much of a fuss. The first-time director of the film, Chris Eyre, has continued to produce quality work, though none of his subsequent films garnered the same attention as his debut. Eyre is attached to direct the film version of Conley’s Plastic Indian. Other than the fact that his involvement will most certainly ensure a quality movie, it also bodes well for Robert Conley. As it turns out, Smoke Signals has much more in common with Plastic Indian than a director. Based on the short story, “This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie. Mr. Alexie is, without a doubt, the most famous and accomplished living Native American author. He has crossed over into the mainstream and found success in nearly every genre including the Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for which he received the National Book Award in 2007. Twelve years ago, Alexie was already well on his way to making a serious name for himself in the literary world. But it was the substantial success of Smoke Signals that cemented his status. Alexie was 31 when the film was released. Robert Conley is now in his 70th year. I can’t wait to see what these great filmmakers do with this wonderful source material. I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket and take that ride. But more than anything, I hope that Robert Conley gets the moment in the sun that he so richly deserves.