Tony Hillerman’s books are extraordinary not because of their entertaining stories, though they are that, nor because of his lovable, fallible characters, which they are, but because of their setting among the Navajo peoples of the American Southwest. The Navajo (Dineh, or Diné) are major players in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Today they are most populous of tribes and their reservation covers the largest territory, crossing three state borders. Their cultural origins and the timing of their arrival in their present day lands are quite different from those of the other nearby Native cultures, and as historically semi-nomadic raiders, they had a very strong impact on the sedentary farmers in the pueblos all around (and within; Hopi territory today is entirely encircled by the Navajo reservation). They are known the world over for their creative artisanship, particularly for stunning woven wool rugs and exquisite silver and turquoise jewelry. The larger world deserves accurate information about their contemporary lives (above and beyond code-talkers), and Tony Hillerman always meticulously represented them with respect and honor, and in ways that educated the non-Navajo reader gently but firmly. The Navajo returned the honor, recognizing him as a Special Friend of the Dineh.
Something one might question about Hillerman’s fiction, however, is the degree to which tribal law officers’ jobs fill their lives with rewarding mental challenges and fulfilling resolutions. Of course, there would be no story if brilliant, danger-tinged mystery-solving were not what his beloved characters, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, did for a living. But I have to admit, I got a good laugh out of my friend LK’s reaction when I asked her last summer what her husband, a tribal policeman in a large pueblo sandwiched between the main Navajo lands and a small bit of additional Navajo territory to the east (To’hajiilee) along old Route 66/Interstate 40, thought of Hillerman’s books. Her dear husband RK, a career cop on their reservation, works the graveyard shift these days, and, between hours of boredom and paperwork, deals mostly with drunk teenagers and vandalism, terrible gun and vehicle accidents, road closures in dangerous weather, and, on a good day, nothing worse than petty theft at the convenience store. It’s one of those reliable, steady livings that can be hard to come by in rural areas like theirs. LK, a modest and wise person, just groaned a little at the thought her husband’s job might be like a Tony Hillerman novel. Well, OK, so her sister, BK (whose husband is not in the police business), let out sound a little more like a snort when the subject came up.
Nonetheless, I greatly treasure Hillerman’s stories and am sad that he moved on to the afterlife last week. Here’s a wonderful (in spite of the insipid native flute soundtrack that doesn’t even match the player’s fingering, yet another of my “pet media peeves” for another blogday) LA Times video about him with a good accompanying article about his lifetime achievements.
The photo is a detail of my Navajo rug, woven by Clara Jim from Rough Rock on the Navajo reservation.