Sitting down and setting out with Tony Hillerman
Rosemary Zibart from BookPage (1998)
In Tony Hillerman's newest mystery, The First Eagle, Joe Leaphorn has retired.
Yet he doesn't like playing golf (once you've got the ball in all 18 holes,
why do it again?), and he's lonely since the death of his wife Emma.
When the opportunity arises to work as a private detective,
the former Navajo police lieutenant accepts the job to search for
a missing woman who was last spotted near Yells Back Butte
tracking plague-carrying rodents.
Tony Hillerman nods when asked if Joe Leaphorn is a character who faces
some of the same issues as the 73-year-old author. "How can you stop writing!"
he exclaims. This is good news for his many fans. The First Eagle is the 12th book
in the series which has introduced Navajo culture and traditions
to people around the globe.
"I know what I write about seems exotic to a lot of people but not for me,"
says Hillerman. "The first time I pulled up to an old trading post
and saw a few elderly Navajos sitting on a bench in the shade, I felt right at home.
It was like a time warp taking me back to Sacred Heart."
Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, is the small Catholic community in
Pottawatomie County where Hillerman grew up. Most of his friends and classmates
were Native American. (Oklahoma was the dumping ground for numerous tribes
relocated from their hereditary lands in the South and East including Cree,
Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Commanche).
"Oh sure, there was 'us' and 'them' in Sacred Heart, but 'us' were the farm kids
in overalls and 'them' was the town kids with belt pants," says Hillerman.
His father was a struggling farmer and shopkeeper with a store that sold everything
from canned tuna to pitchforks.
"Getting off the farm" became Hillerman's major ambition when
he returned from WW II, limping from an explosion that broke
both legs and mangled one foot. Fortunately, he'd written his mother
faithfully while he was overseas, and she'd shown the letters to a reporter
when her son was decorated for valor. The reporter later told Hillerman
he should become a writer, and that's all the direction he needed.
For the next 15 years he worked on various newspapers in the Southwest.
Yet, he never forgot an experience he'd had fresh out of the army.
"I was driving a truck up to Crownpoint, New Mexico,
when I saw these Indian men on horseback in full ceremonial regalia.
I asked around a bit and found out they were participating in a Navajo
healing ceremony for men returning from the service,"
he explains. "It seemed like a great way to bring soldiers back
into the community, deal with the nightmares, and all that stuff."
Twenty years later when he was looking for
a "colorful location" to set a mystery ("I figured a 'colorful location'
might offset some of the book's weaknesses"),
it seemed natural to choose the Navajo reservation.
Hillerman was determined to accurately portray the culture as well as
show the conflict between traditional values and modern society.
In The First Eagle, the Navajo policeman Jim Chee
confronts this issue through his relationship with Janet Pete,
a part-Navajo, who's drawn to the upscale consumer values of mainstream society.
"Being Indian is not blood as much as it is culture,"comments Hillerman.
"It's hard to see Janet Pete married to a cop
and living in a trailer on the res."
Another theme in First Eagle and other Hillerman mysteries is
the distinctions between various Native American tribes.
"In Dance Hall of the Dead, I showed how Zuni and Navajo differ,"
Hillerman explains. "First Eagle involves a dispute
between Navajo and Hopi."
The historical conflict between a settled agricultural community (Hopi)
and a semi-nomadic herding people (Navajo) inhabiting the same region
has been exacerbated in recent years by federal decisions changing
reservation boundaries. Hillerman has little positive to say
about the way federal authorities, including the FBI,
handle problems. In the book, Chee clashes with FBI administrators
in a way that could imperil his career. Yet, the young man's
values may supersede his desire for promotion.
"I really feel for people who want to maintain
a traditional way of life. You can't just be a sheepherder any more."
Hillerman admires the practical ethics of the Navajo tradition.
"Some people don't even call it a religion because the concept of God
is so amorphous, but if you look at the values of Christianity or even Buddhism,
that's what some Navajos live day to day," he explains.
Hillerman renews his contact with the vast empty land in Northeast Arizona
by regular pilgrimages. His ability to bring these wide open spaces into the
crowded lives of his readers is part of his appeal, and he knows some readers
go looking for the remote locations he describes.
Recently, he and his wife Marie
set out for a deserted trading post named Gold Tooth.
"We pulled off the highway and drove for miles and miles over sagebrush
and prairie grass before seeing a broken windmill and the remains
of a stone building. That was Gold Tooth."