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Tony Hillerman's novels taught readers about American Indians

Author Tony Hillerman’s knowledge and love of Indian life in the Southwest are evident in his mystery novels.

Associated Press

Author Tony Hillerman’s knowledge and love of Indian life in the Southwest are evident in his mystery novels.

Tony Hillerman liked to tell the story of what happened when he wrote his first novel, The Blessing Way, in 1970. His first agent advised him that if he wanted to publish it, he would have to get rid of "all that Indian stuff."

I hope that agent found work in another field. Hillerman, who died last week at 83 at his home in Albuquerque, wrote 18 novels about all that Indian stuff that have sold millions of copies around the world, made him a beloved figure among American Indians and non-Indians alike, and brought countless readers to the Southwest to experience the harshly beautiful land he wrote about with such lyrical passion.

I've long been among his fans. I lived in the Southwest for 10 years, and when I'm missing it, a rereading of any of his 18 mysteries featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee is enough to take me there for a while.

While I was a book editor in Tucson, Ariz., I was lucky enough to meet Hillerman a few times, and he entirely lived up to his reputation as a gentleman, supportive of other writers, unpretentious about his own success — and expert in all things related to the Southwest's native people.

At a book signing, he caught sight of my husband's silver belt buckle from across the bookstore. "Hopi?" he asked, guessing correctly the origin of the design of trickster god Kokopelli among cornstalks. "Nice piece," he said with a nod.

Hillerman's knowledge about the native people of the Southwest was both scholarly and personal; he researched their cultures and histories, but he also knew them as individuals. He wrote about many of the tribes that live in the Four Corners area (where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet), but his focus was the Navajo, or Dineh, people.

The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian tribe in the United States, with almost 300,000 members. About 180,000 of them live in the tribal homeland, which covers about 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

Hillerman set the Leaphorn and Chee novels there, where among the mesas and canyons you can see the ancient bones of the Earth — and where, in the McDonald's in the town of Window Rock, Ariz., you can get free WiFi. His characters' lives reflect the constant interplay between traditional Navajo ways — the ideal of harmony, or "walking in beauty" with everything around you — and the intrusion of the modern world.

Although he was not an Indian, Hillerman came by his knowledge and understanding of the Indian people through long experience. He was born in the Indian Territory, in Sacred Heart, Okla., founded as a mission on the Potawatomi reservation, and attended Indian schools.

Hillerman quit college to fight in World War II, returning with a Purple Heart and severe injuries. After finishing college, he worked for more than 30 years as a journalist and as a journalism professor and department chairman at the University of New Mexico, retiring in 1987.

He was in his 40s when he wrote his first novel, and, fortunately for readers, he ignored that agent's advice. His first four novels centered on Lt. Joe Leaphorn, a no-nonsense rationalist with a master's degree in anthropology and a cynical view of what he considers Navajo superstitions.

From the first, in The Blessing Way, Hillerman skillfully interwove fascinating Navajo folklore with classic crime stories and created lively, complex characters.

In his fifth novel, People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman introduced a counterpoint to Leaphorn. Sgt. Jim Chee is younger, much more traditional and something of a mystic — he is undergoing the long study required to become a hataalii, or singer-shaman.

Hillerman featured Leaphorn and Chee separately in some novels and in others brought them together on cases. Readers love them so much, and feel them to be so real, that they have been known to show up at tribal police offices asking for them.

The author tried several times to end the series, but readers wouldn't have it. His last published novel, The Shape Shifter in 2006, featured both Leaphorn and Chee in a mystery that links a missing Navajo rug and the aftershocks of the Vietnam War.

Hillerman received many honors over the course of his career, including being named a grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America in 1991. But he said that his favorite award was being named a Special Friend of the Dineh by the Navajo Nation in 1987. For him, bringing the culture and history of that people — and the reality of their contemporary lives — to the wider world was a life's mission.

Live in the Southwest for a while and you're likely to hear the story about tourists driving up in a grocery store parking lot in Window Rock or Chinle, Ariz., to a Navajo family clad in Wranglers and Nikes and Old Navy T-shirts, and asking "Where are all the Indians on this reservation?"

For Hillerman the Navajo were neither tourist attractions nor anthropological subjects, but people. When Leaphorn struggles with the heartbreaking loss of his beloved wife, first to early onset Alzheimer's and then to death; when Chee tries to reconcile his heartfelt religious beliefs with a world that has less and less room for them — those are human experiences, not "that Indian stuff."

If you're already a Hillerman fan, pay his pages a return visit. If you're not yet, start with The Blessing Way.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

Tony Hillerman's novels taught readers about American Indians 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 6:39pm]
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