by Rosemary ZibartSeptember, 1998
Sitting down and setting out with Tony Hillerman
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" was 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.
Rosemary Zibart is a writer in Sante Fe, New Mexico.