Robert Perry

BIOGRAPHY. Before moving in 2013, Robert Perry was Vice-Chairman of the Chickasaw Council of Elders and in the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. In Alabama he chaired the City of Sheffield Port Authority at Tuscumbia Landing, a Trail of Tears site on the Tennessee River. He remains on the board. He married Annie who lives in Alabama. Bob has two daughters and three grandchildren.
Robert speaks: It’s taken three years to move from the new (OK) to the old (AL) Chickasaw Homelands. Three manuscripts were in process. Two have been published and I have six books available all on Native American culture. My first book was published in 1997, so it’s odd to now ask myself, “Why a writer?” In retrospect, it started early in an unremarkable beginning. My parents were Chickasaw Indians. Dad was trained through 8th grade in an Indian School as a newspaper linotype operator. He steered his four sons toward a good education and away from the newspaper business. Some days there was no food but Dad disallowed handouts. The only way to go was “up.”
I started grade school, small and the only Indian. The school kids didn’t miss the Saturday morning movies where the cowboys shot Indians. Each Monday at class recess, this Indian died a thousand imaginary deaths. Bang. My defense was to outsmart the kids in school subjects and otherwise, remain silent. I learned to capture errant thoughts. Words on paper were powerful and I could scalp the cowboys or soar far away. By age twelve, I spent the hot Oklahoma summers reading all day in the town’s only air-conditioned building…the public library. By summer’s end I decided to be a chemical engineer and travel far and wide. I was fortunate; pick an unknown career and no one in a small town could discourage me. Going beyond high-school was a rude awakening. There was no money for college. Dad suggested that I join the Army; they pay me. No to Army; I worked through college. If you could “think it,” than “do it.” On graduation, Dad gave me $10 because I earned it.
My chemical engineering career started with an Oklahoma Oil company. The CEO was also the Cherokee Chief, who suggested volunteering to help my tribe to get management experience. I was elected by voice vote to the Tribal Council at the Tribe’s annual meeting. This was good because my company paid elected officials. Even transferred to Houston, I attended monthly tribal meetings in Oklahoma and took along my family. The tribe had only $250 M in a sancrosanct trust account and tribal council were volunteers. We asked U. S. Congress to rename Platt National Park for the Chickasaws. It was done with my written words. As Chairman, a constitution was adopted that allowed the tribe to manage BIA money and borrow from banks and pay employees. In my lifetime, the tribe’s annual budget is up to $1.5 billion with 15,000 employees nation-wide. Indians don’t think of themselves, but of other tribal members. My parents were proud that I could help my tribe while working. I realized that 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma needed help.
I retired early as an engineer. I wanted to be a “real Indian” and tell stories to audiences. Despite a fear of speaking about me, telling other people’s stories was easy. Without books to sell, this career couldn’t be sustained in Oklahoma. My writing career was jump started by interviewing a Muskogee Creek artist. He was a former Marine and expected me to work. He agreed to tell the story once, but without recorders. Each very short story was set in family history with no dates. I devoted a year learning Creek history to fit the stories within American history. The big problem…I was given the stories because he didn’t know what to tell. Taboo. Ooh-wee! The book won a National First Book Award, but what would Indians think? At a book-signing one day, I was confronted by an Indian woman: as a child it was forbidden to tell others and here I’d written a book. The fastest form of communication ever invented is Tell-an-Indian and the word was out. Then…she bought two books for her grandchildren. Such a relief! Indian elders prize the book because no secrets are told; yet my words…not their words…teaches youngsters.
I realize that all my books required extensive research, which goes back to the early days when I wrote and kept quiet. Time long ago in the library prepared me. Not bragging. Now that I have gained skill in writing and no longer fear public speaking, perhaps future works will require less research.