Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Robert J. Conley, Zeke Proctor: Cherokee Outlaw (1994)

Robert J. Conley brings to life a gripping chapter of Cherokee history in this novel set in 1870s Indian Territory. Based on historical records, the story begins with the marriage of a ne’er-do-well white man into a Cherokee family that sets in motion a string of bloody incidents worthy of a Greek tragedy.

At the center is Zeke Proctor, the man’s brother-in-law, an industrious Cherokee farmer with a reputation as a gunman following the violent years of the Civil War. That war had set Cherokee against Cherokee, as the tribe split along lines dating back to the Trail of Tears removal from their North Carolina homeland in 1838. During the War, mostly mixed-blood, slave-owning Confederate sympathizers took up arms against the mostly full-bloods who remained loyal to the Union.

Plot. Though of mixed-blood parentage himself, Proctor was a loyalist, and old hostilities become reignited when he accidentally kills a woman whose family fought for the South. The pursuit of justice in the matter being strictly a tribal affair, there is trouble from the start as the two factions cannot agree on the selection of a judge trusted to be impartial.

Indian Territory, 1881
Matters are further complicated as the dead woman’s family involves federal authorities from nearby Arkansas. Proctor had been trying to kill his brother-in-law at the time of the shooting, which made the man an alleged victim of attempted murder. Though technically a member of the tribe and subject only to tribal law, he is also a white man, and that draws the attention of federal law enforcement.

Acting as observers of the trial, but holding a warrant for Proctor’s arrest should he be acquitted, two U.S. marshals find themselves in the middle of the dispute. A shooting breaks out at the trial, leaving many dead, including one of the marshals. That puts Proctor in far deeper trouble, and he goes into hiding, with a small volunteer army of Indians for protection.

Ulysses S. Grant
Cooler heads eventually prevail, including the one belonging to President Ulysses S. Grant, whose orders prevent a firefight between Cherokees and the U.S. Army. In time, the feud between the two tribal families resolves into a grudging truce. And Zeke Proctor, Cherokee outlaw, lives out the rest of his years unmolested.

Character. A proud but honorable man, Proctor might have stepped across the state line into Arkansas to escape prosecution for the killing. Instead, he makes himself accountable to tribal law, immediately turning himself in to the sheriff. Thoroughly trusted, he is sent home in the company of two deputies to await trial.

For all that, Conley doesn’t give us a one-dimensional portrayal of a single-minded man. On the one hand, Proctor subscribes to the native belief that actions and failures to act have a ripple effect through a person’s life. When his wife dies of a sudden illness, he assumes there is a “life for a life” connection between her death and that of the woman he has accidentally killed. Thus he is responsible for both. When his brother is killed in the shootout at the trial, he believes himself responsible for that death as well.

Yet there is also the assumption that the events of one’s life are predetermined by powers beyond one’s control. Crime and punishment are inescapable. One is at the mercy of the universe.

Cherokee drawing of Native American
In such an ethical environment, honor becomes a man’s most prized possession, and the obligation to repay any dishonor is the unwritten rule of law. Proctor’s troubles began when he tried to kill the brother-in-law who dishonored him, and when his brother is killed, he is moved again to vengeance.

It takes his sister to dissuade him by pointing to the endless series of reprisals a revenge killing would trigger. Overcoming his pride, he defies the rule of eye for an eye, and Conley provides a scene that may or may not have happened in actuality. Proctor declares an end to the feud by publicly meeting the man who shot his brother and shaking his hand.

Added value. For uninformed readers, the novel illuminates a little-known subject. It describes how political differences split tribes into factions and divided loyalties. Non-native readers will also discover how the Civil War intensified these divisions. The novel examines the impact of intermarriage on tribal social structure, as well.

While Conley does much to open up these subjects, readers are immersed in a world that is a parallel universe to mainstream American history. On Indian lands, ancient ways and beliefs mix freely with those imported from white culture. Proctor, for instance, would not care to give up modern conveniences and go back to the “good old days.”

Cherokee drawing of Native American
Still, he wears a rattlesnake skin hatband, displaying a gift of “powers” that pertain only in a culture where the rattlesnake is held sacred. Visiting a tribal shaman, he receives charms intended to protect him from his adversaries.

And there’s much else for readers to learn. Conley explains the absence of a notion of private ownership of tribal land. Proctor is granted use of it as long as he does not neglect or misuse it. The novel describes in detail a ritual funeral after the death of Proctor’s wife. We also learn that spirits of the dead return home after four days. Thus it’s important that all is in order and life continues there without sadness.

Wrapping up. Zeke Proctor’s is a story not likely to be found elsewhere in the long history of the traditional western. Conley does readers a service by bringing Cherokee history to life in a way that both informs and entertains. His novel dismisses stereotypical assumptions about Native Americans as a “race” and reminds us of the depths of meaning embedded in the words “tribe” and “nation.”

Zeke Proctor: Cherokee Outlaw is currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. A BITS review of Conley’s historical novel The Saga of Henry Starr can be found here, along with an interview with Robert J. Conley.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Revise, revise, revise: cutting


  1. Sounds like an excellent book with a different take on the western story. I'm gonna see about picking this one up.

    1. Historically based as it is, the novel told me a lot I didn't now about the Cherokee in the years after the Civil War.

  2. I am so glad you reviewed this. I always learn much from his novels. In one of them, the Cherokee hero, condemned to hang, makes it a point of honor to show up for his hanging. It is a long and hard trip, but he does it. What infuses Conley's fine novels, and separates them from Anglo gunman stories, is the ethos, the beliefs, that govern his characters.