No apologies for learning about Navajos through Hillerman mysteries

Last week the Art Institute announced it was postponing an exhibit on Mimbres pottery of the ancient Southwest because it wanted more input from Native people.

As I read about that appropriate action, my thoughts soon turned from art to literature and the late author Tony Hillerman. Far from being accused of cultural appropriation as a white man writing a mystery series about Navajo tribal policemen, Hillerman was honored by the Navajo Nation as a “special friend to the Diné,” as Navajos call themselves. His books, chock-full of tribal beliefs, customs, and rituals, are used in Navajo schools to teach children about their traditions.

Hillerman came to mind because I read all 18 of his mysteries after making a trip last September to New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of American Indians after Alaska. I figured the books would be an entertaining way to learn more about Native people.

Protagonists Joe Heaphorn and Jim Chee are tribal policemen on the huge Navajo reservation that straddles Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The younger detective, Chee, is the one more interested in preserving the Navajo culture. Leaphorn, although agnostic about the religious beliefs of his people, nevertheless brings deep knowledge about them to judging whether a Navajo was likely to have committed a particular crime. For instance, a Navajo who seeks a curing ceremony may be feeling bewitched by a “skin walker,” not guilty of murder.

Throughout the series Chee labors to balance his traditional beliefs with the modern world, especially when he falls in love with women who aren’t Navajo or don’t want to remain on the reservation. Hillerman is able to educate us readers in many Navajo beliefs and customs through Chee’s struggles. Chee trains to become a healer, a hatalii who performs curing ceremonies for people who have fallen out of harmony with the universe and other living creatures. A central Navajo belief is that Earth People must do all they can to maintain harmony or balance with all of creation.

I felt like a Navajo at heart when I read about Navajo disdain for displays of wealth and acquiring more of anything than one needs. Better-off people are supposed to use their money to help needy relatives. Kinship is key in Navajo society. When Navajos introduce themselves, they state their clans. Thus, when Chee goes out to interview a witness or suspect, he begins by identifying himself as “Born to the Slow Talking People” (his mother’s clan) and “Born for the Salt People” (his father’s clan).

Hillerman developed a deep respect for Native cultures while growing up  alongside Potawatomie and Seminole Indians in Oklahoma. Later working as a newspaperman and then a journalism professor in New Mexico, he steeped himself in the Southwest’s Native cultures and became something of an expert. In 1970 he turned to novel writing, publishing his first Leaporn mystery, The Blessing Way, which was followed by 17 more books in the series.

Hillerman lived in Albuquerque, the city I visited last fall. He died in 2008 at age 83. His daughter Anne has continued the series, and although she writes adequately, she can’t construct a mystery plot as well as her father.

Those who dismiss mystery novels as fluff might want to challenge that assumption by giving Tony Hillerman a try. I suggest beginning with A Thief of Time.



“Remember back in 2016 when then-candidate Donald Trump pledged that ‘I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people?’ Who knew there would be so many! The removal of Kirstjen Nielsen as head of the Department of Homeland Security on Sunday night accounts for the 14th(!) member of Trump’s Cabinet to resign, be fired or move on to another job. . . . And it’s not just at the Cabinet level! . . . 66 percent of all senior-level staffers who came into jobs when Trump became president are now gone.”
— Chris Cillizza, CNN editor-at-large


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  • thanks so much, I really appreciate a good book recommendation,
    esp. with a little history/learning involved. A Thief of Time is on
    my list.

  • Let me know whether you like it.

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    Excellent article. This issue is part of what I'll be covering in the first full-length biography of Hillerman that I am writing for publication in 2020 or 2021.

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