Hillerman, creator of Leaphorn-Chee mysteries, dies

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

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(Courtesy photo)

Tony Hillerman

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 30, 2008

Navajo Police Capt. Steve Nelson was a fan of Tony Hillerman, the author who chronicled the adventures of a fictional pair of Navajo cops in best-selling detective novels for over 25 years.

But Nelson isn't the only one who devoured the books of the New Mexico author, who died Sunday from pulmonary failure at the age of 83.

Ernie Bulow, who was a friend and business associate of Hillerman's and who operated a bookstore in Gallup for many years, said Navajos from all over the reservation would come into the store wanting to buy Hillerman paperbacks.

"They would read them and pass them around until they were falling apart," Bulow said, recalling the day a Navajo came in holding a Hillerman paperback that had disintegrated into sections.

He said he had to buy a new copy because parts were missing from the one in his hand.

At a time when Navajos were almost invisible in popular fiction, Hillerman created two memorable characters, detective Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, that held huge appeal for Navajo readers.

The Hillerman books and the movies that were made from them were also very popular among non-Navajos, who would devour them as soon as they came out and then travel to the reservation to see the areas described in the books.

Hillerman, in an interview for the Navajo Times in the mid-1980s, said he had no idea when he wrote the first of his Navajo detective books, "The Blessingway," that they would become so popular.

"They're just basically mysteries with a little Navajo culture and history thrown in," he said.

But it was the Navajo angle that made the books so popular, Bulow observed, though in reality the cultural elements were not as great as people may remember.

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"Basically, he took the walk in beauty theme and repeated it throughout the series," Bulow said.

Samson Cowboy, director of the Navajo Nation's Division of Public Safety, said he has read one Hillerman book. What he liked about it was that Hillerman cast the villain as a non-Navajo.

"He respected Navajo culture," Cowboy said.

While Bulow said he never met anyone who disliked Hillerman or was critical of the books, the author did attract some heated backlash during the late '80s and early '90s.

Journalist Ray Ring, in a scathing column that ran in several southwestern papers, accused Hillerman of pandering to popular belief that the Navajos' worst threat was from outsiders.

"It's the alcohol, stupid," Ring wrote.

Referring to a then-recent case in which two Navajo officers were trapped inside their police unit and set afire by a group of drunken youths, he wrote, "They are the real Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee."

Some Navajos also faulted Hillerman for making a fortune off Navajos and Navajo culture, and not giving anything back.

"I felt this way for a time," said Tom Arviso Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times, who was vocal in his criticism of Hillerman during that period. "But I came to realize that he was giving it back in his own way and privately."

Over the years, Hillerman donated a portion of his earnings to projects on the reservation but stipulated that it would not be publicized. For example, he provided the funds for a water delivery system at St. Bonaventure Mission in Thoreau, N.M., and for lights in the football stadium in Monument Valley, Utah.

He was also a frequent contributor to Catholic causes in the Gallup area and especially to the Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates a retirement home in the community. Chris Halter, the executive director of the Thoreau Mission, which was the centerpiece of one of Hillerman's novels, "Sacred Clowns," said folks at the mission have already held a Mass in his honor.

Another fan of Hillerman's was former Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., who met with him several times and urged Navajos, especially school children, to read his books to learn about Navajo culture. At MacDonald's prompting, the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution naming Hillerman a "Friend of the Navajo Nation," the first and only non-Navajo to be given that honor.

Over the years, Navajo Police officials have said, with laughter in their voice, that it was not uncommon for non-Natives to come to the reservation and go to a police station asking to meet Leaphorn and Chee, not realizing that they were fictional characters.

Hillerman would have the detectives in his novels travel all over the Navajo Nation investigating and solving murders, something that does not occur in real life, Bulow noted.

Under the system in place, the FBI investigates murders and major felonies, and tribal courts have jurisdiction only over misdemeanors. While FBI officials have said they rely heavily on Navajo investigators for help in solving crimes, the Navajos play a secondary role and are not the lead investigators as portrayed in the Hillerman novels.

Bulow said Hillerman had been ill for a long time and was not working on a new book when he died, although his publishers have been saying that they were hoping for one final book to wrap up the series.

A funeral mass for Tony Hillerman will be held Friday, Oct. 31, at 10:30 a.m. at Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Albuquerque. Private burial will follow at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.

A vigil will be held today at 7 p.m. at the church.

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