Many Americans didn't know much about the Southwest or Native Americans until they read the work of Tony Hillerman.
The author began his career as a journalist for The Santa Fe New Mexican and went on to author more than 30 books, most of which were mystery novels set in New Mexico—more specifically, Navajo lands. Over the course of his career, Hillerman received the Special Friends of the Diné Award from the Navajo Nation in 1987, the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1991 and an induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1997 (not to mention the Santa Fe Reporter’s Best of Santa Fe award for Best Local Author on more than one occasion). Hillerman died last October at the age of 83.
On Tuesday, Sept. 22, the second annual Kate Besser Memorial Lecture features actors Wesley Studi and Kate Burton reading selections of Hillerman’s work, including the first chapters of Skinwalkers and A Thief of Time, and a short story, “The Great Taos Bank Robbery.” Hillerman also is the focus of a forthcoming book next month by daughter Anne and her husband, photographer Don Strel, who live in Santa Fe. Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn combines Strel’s landscape photography and Anne’s memoirs about her father.
Hillerman’s detailed characters, imaginative stories and deft narration make him a favorite American author. Eighteen of his books are mystery novels that feature the characters Jim Chee, a Navajo police detective who believes strongly in the myths and traditional lifestyle of Navajo people, and Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo police lieutenant who was educated in an Anglo boarding school and thus doesn’t have Chee’s strong connection to the Navajo belief system. Together, the men tackle any variety of crimes in Indian country, including drunken-driving accidents, attempted murders and incidents of grave robbing. The books are not straight crime novels, however; the characters of Chee and Leaphorn, not to mention the perpetrators and victims of the crimes involved, are delicately drawn, and the greater themes explored are just as important as the plots. A Thief of Time, for example, tackles the issue of ongoing pillaging of Navajo sacred sites while simultaneously investigating the disappearance of a fictitious anthropologist.
Hillerman often included an author’s note at the beginning of his books with a disclaimer about the Native traditions; in Skinwalkers, for example, he notes that traditional shamans may disagree with the way in which Chee was invited to a Blessing Way ceremony (by letter, rather than face-to-face meeting). While Hillerman was an Anglo from Oklahoma, his understanding of Native traditions ran deep; he has been quoted as saying, “I want Americans to stop thinking of Navajos as primitive persons, to understand that they are sophisticated and complicated.”
This week, SFR presents the complete first chapter of Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers, as well as an interview with writer Anne Hillerman about growing up with the man who would become an American legend.
Tracing His Steps
Anne Hillerman visits her father’s stomping grounds
Anne Hillerman, a dynamic woman with a quick smile, has lived in New Mexico her whole life and is one of Tony Hillerman’s six children. Anne attended the University of New Mexico in the ’70s and, after four years of taking whatever classes she felt like taking, found that she conveniently (and not surprisingly) had enough credits for a degree in journalism. After graduation, she returned to Santa Fe, where she’d spent her childhood, and met Don Strel who, at the time, was the director of the Museum of Fine Arts. Anne and Don married and have lived in Santa Fe ever since.
In addition to working as a journalist for more than two decades for the Albuquerque Journal and The Santa Fe New Mexican, Anne has published eight books over the years, including Santa Fe Flavors: Best Restaurants and Recipes, Done in the Sun, a children’s guide to solar energy, and Gardens of Santa Fe, forthcoming in 2010. Until now, all of her books have been decidedly journalistic.
She left her comfort zone to write Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn (to be released on Oct. 27). The idea started as a photographic essay of the landscapes described in her father’s books, but evolved into Anne’s heartfelt memoir of life with her father.
Sitting in a café on a rainy fall day, Anne nods when asked if she was close with her father. “Yes,” she says, but the word is clipped by the tears that rise in her eyes. She doesn’t say anything more, but she keeps smiling.
SFR: Your father published his first novel in 1970, when you were in college. Was there one moment when it kind of hit you that he was a big deal?
AH: In 2005 I went with him to the Los Angeles book fair that the LA Times put on, and they gave him a lifetime achievement award. There were about 2,000 people in the audience—and that might have been when it really dawned on me that he was a national treasure. I mean, he was still just Dad to me, but it opened my eyes a bit.
Was there a difference between Tony Hillerman the father and Tony Hillerman the author?
With Dad, it was pretty seamless. Often I had the feeling that, even while he was observing us and nurturing us and acting as a dad, part of his brain was thinking, ‘This will be something good I can put in my book.’ And you know, his books have a few children in them, but not too many. I think that, because he was teaching at UNM, he was up to here with young adults and their assorted problems, and writing was a way he could create his own world and get away from that. But in [The] Ghostway, one of the pivotal points is where a girl runs away from St. Catherine’s, and maybe he modeled her after me. She was a real independent girl.
How did you conceive of your forthcoming book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn?
I run a mystery conference that I started in 2003 in honor of my dad—the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference: Focus on Mystery—in Albuquerque every November. In 2005, our keynote speaker was Michael McGarrity. Michael was going to talk about the role of New Mexico in his books and how the landscape influenced his writing. My husband Don [who is a photographer] said, ‘Well, why don’t I get some pictures of the places where your stories are set? We can show the slides.’ Dad was there at that talk, and afterwards Dad said to Don, ‘Why don’t you do something like that for me?’
What went into putting it together?
I started with re-reading all the books because I was really looking for those beautiful poetic moments, where Jim Chee is driving in his car and he looks out and there’s the sunset behind Shiprock, or Leaphorn is at Canyon de Chelly and talking about the ravens and the water. Some of the places in Dad’s books I’d never been, so we figured we had to make some road trips. I kept trying to persuade Dad to go with us; I just think it would be so fun to have him in the car and to hear the stories—and I’m sure seeing the landscape would inspire even more stories. But at this point, his health was declining and he just wasn’t up for it. Don and I were chugging along, and meanwhile Dad’s health is declining and declining, so then in October , Dad died. To have the book come out for that anniversary is really appropriate.
What is the text of the book like?
The editor was more focused on the memoir aspect of the book. She really pushed me to be more personal, to have more anecdotes, to talk more about what the books meant to me or what they meant to Dad. It was my inclination to have a strict journalistic approach, since that was my background. I was thinking about Dad all the time anyway. It was hard, but it really made the book better.
In terms of your own writing, did you experience forming your own career in a shadow?
No. I think, if anything, it’s been an advantage because people recognize the name, and people always have nice things to say about my dad. But I think it might also be the reason that I haven’t been brave enough to publish any fiction yet. I have an idea that I’m working on now, though, that I’m really excited about.
What kind of personal connection have you developed to his work?
I think there’s a lot of my dad in the character of Joe Leaphorn. A lot of the relationship between my dad and my mom is in the relationship between Joe and Emma. And Jim Chee—maybe parts of him are my dad’s spiritual side. Throughout Dad’s life, he was always trying to balance doing work he loved and making a difference in the world.
Was your dad trying to make a difference with his writing?
Yes, I think he felt that his books did that. Particularly when he first started writing, there weren’t very many people who were using Indians other than just [as] a stereotype. And he was really proud—and justly so—of being able to take American Indian characters and turn them into real people and not have them be the bad guys—and usually have the bad guys be educated white people.
What do you think is the most important message of your father’s legacy?
Do what you’re born to do. With his books, he was able to not only write about characters and places, but also deal with themes that mattered to him—like government corruption, environmental degradation, a public health system that doesn’t work for Natives, the travesty of destruction to a lot of sacred Navajo sites—so he was able to use his talent and his passion to explore important causes. He would say, if there’s something that’s important to you, don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it.
By Tony Hillerman
When the cat came through the little trap door at the bottom of the screen it made a clack-clack sound. Slight, but enough to awaken Jim Chee. Chee had been moving in and out of the very edge of sleep, turning uneasily on the narrow bed, pressing himself uncomfortably against the metal tubes that braced the aluminum skin of his trailer. The sound brought him enough awake to be aware that his sheet was tangled uncomfortably around his chest.
He sorted out the bedclothing, still half immersed in an uneasy dream of being tangled in a rope that he needed to keep his mother’s sheep from running over the edge of something vague and dangerous. Perhaps the uneasy dream provoked an uneasiness about the cat. What had chased it in? Something scary to a cat—or to this particular cat. Was it something threatening to Chee? But in a moment he was fully awake, and the uneasiness was replaced by happiness.
Mary Landon would be coming. Blue-eyed, slender, fascinating Mary Landon would be coming back from Wisconsin. Just a couple more weeks to wait.
Jim Chee’s conditioning—traditional Navajo—caused him to put that thought aside. All things in moderation. He would think more about that later. Now he thought about tomorrow. Today, actually, since it must be well after midnight. Today he and Jay Kennedy would go out and arrest Roosevelt Bistie so that Bistie could be charged with some degree of homicide—probably with murder. Not a complicated job, but unpleasant enough to cause Chee to change the subject of his thinking again. He thought about the cat. What had driven it in? The coyote, maybe. Or what? Obviously something the cat considered a threat.
The cat had appeared last winter, finding itself a sort of den under a juniper east of Chee’s trailer—a place where a lower limb, a boulder, and a rusted barrel formed a closed cul-de-sac. It had become a familiar, if suspicious, neighbor.
During the spring, Chee had formed a habit of leaving out table scraps to feed it after heavy snows. Then when the snow melt ended and the spring drought arrived, he began leaving out water in a coffee can. But easy water attracted other animals, and birds, and sometimes they turned it over. And so, one afternoon, when there was absolutely nothing else to do, Chee had removed the door, hacksawed out a cat-sized rectangle through its bottom frame, and then attached a plywood flap, using leather hinges and Miracle Glue. He had done it on a whim, partly to see if the ultracautious cat could be taught to use it. If the cat did, it would gain access to a colony of field mice that seemed to have moved into Chee’s trailer. And the watering problem would be solved. Chee felt slightly uneasy about the water. If he hadn’t started this meddling, nature would have taken its normal course. The cat would have moved down the slope and found itself a den closer to the San Juan—which was never dry. But Chee had interfered. And now Chee was stuck with a dependent.
Chee’s interest, originally, had been simple curiosity. Once, obviously, the cat had been owned by someone. It was skinny now, with a long scar over its ribs and a patch of fur missing from its right leg, but it still wore a collar, and, despite its condition, it had a purebred look. He’d described it to the woman in the pet store at Farmington—tan fur, heavy hind legs, round head, pointed ears; reminded you of a bobcat, and like a bobcat it had a mere stub of a tail. The woman had said it must be a Manx.
“Somebody’s pet. People are always bringing their pets along on vacations,” she’d said, disapproving, “and then they don’t take care of them and they get out of the car and that’s the end of them.” She’d asked Chee if he could catch it and bring it in, “so somebody can take care of it.”
Chee doubted if he could get his hands on the cat, and hadn’t tried. He was too much the traditional Navajo to interfere with an animal without a reason. But he was curious. Could such an animal, an animal bred and raised by the white man, call up enough of its hunting instincts to survive in the Navajo world? The curiosity gradually turned to a casual admiration. By early summer, the animal had accumulated wisdom with its scar tissue. It stopped trying to hunt prairie dogs and concentrated on small rodents and birds. It learned how to hide, how to escape. It learned how to endure.
It also learned to follow the water can into Chee’s trailer rather than make the long climb down to the river. Within a week the cat was using the flap when Chee was away. By midsummer it began coming in when he was at home. At first it had waited tensely at the step until he was away from the door, kept a nervous eye on him while it drank, and bolted through the flap at his first motion. But now, in August, the cat virtually ignored him. It had come inside at night only once before—driven in by a pack of dogs that had flushed it out of its den under the juniper.
Chee looked around the trailer. Far too dark to see where the cat had gone. He pushed the sheet aside, swung his feet to the floor. Through the screened window beside his bed he noticed the moon was down. Except far to the northwest where the remains of a thunderhead lingered, the sky was bright with stars. Chee yawned, stretched, went to the sink, and drank a palmful of water warm from the tap. The air smelled of dust, as it had for weeks. The thunderstorm had risen over the Chuskas in the late afternoon, but it had drifted northward over the Utah border and into Colorado and nothing around Shiprock had gotten any help. Chee ran a little more water, splashed it on his face. The cat, he guessed, would be standing behind the trash canister right beside his feet. He yawned again. What had driven it in? He’d seen the coyote’s tracks along the river a few days ago, but it would have to be terribly hungry to hunt this close to his trailer. No dogs tonight, at least he hadn’t heard any. And dogs, unlike coyotes, were easy enough to hear. But probably it was dogs, or the coyote. Probably a coyote. What else?
Chee stood beside the sink, leaning on it, yawning again. Back to bed. Tomorrow would be unpleasant. Kennedy said he would be at Chee’s trailer at 8 A.M. and the FBI agent was never late. Then the long drive into the Lukachukais to find the man named Roosevelt Bistie and ask him why he had killed an old man named Dugai Endocheeney with a butcher knife. Chee had been a Navajo Tribal Policeman for seven years now—ever since he’d graduated from the University of New Mexico—and he knew now he’d never learn to like this part of the job, this dealing with sick minds in a way that would never bring them back to harmony. The federal way of curing Bistie would be to haul him before a federal magistrate, charge him with homicide on a federal reservation, and lock him away.
Ah, well, Chee thought, most of the job he liked. Tomorrow he would endure. He thought of the happy times stationed at Crownpoint. Mary Landon teaching in the elementary school. Mary Landon always there. Mary Landon always willing to listen. Chee felt relaxed. In a moment he would go back to bed. Through the screen he could see only a dazzle of stars above a black landscape. What was out there? A coyote? Shy Girl Beno? That turned his thoughts to Shy Girl’s opposite. Welfare Woman. Welfare Woman and the Wrong Begay Incident. That memory produced a delighted, reminiscent grin. Irma Onesalt was Welfare Woman’s name, a worker in the tribal Social Services office, tough as saddle leather, mean as a snake. The look on her face when they learned they had hauled the wrong Begay out of Badwater Clinic and delivered him halfway across the reservation was an image he would treasure. She was dead now, but that had happened far south of the Shiprock district, out of Chee’s jurisdiction. And for Chee, the shooting of Irma Onesalt didn’t do as much as it might have to diminish the delight of the Wrong Begay Incident. It was said they’d never figure out who shot Welfare Woman because everybody who ever had work with her would be a logical suspect with a sound motive. Chee couldn’t remember meeting a more obnoxious woman.
He stretched. Back to bed. Abruptly he thought of an alternative to the coyote-scared-the-cat theory. The Shy Girl at Theresa Beno’s camp. She had wanted to talk to him, had hung on the fringes while he talked to Beno, and Beno’s husband, and Beno’s elder daughter. The shy one had the long-faced, small-boned beauty that seemed to go with Beno women. He had noticed her getting into a gray Chevy pickup when he was leaving the Beno camp, and when he had stopped for a Pepsi at the Roundtop Trading Post, the Chevy had driven up. Shy Girl had parked well away from the gasoline pumps. He’d noticed her watching him, and waited. But she had driven away.
Chee moved from the sink and stood by the screen door, looking out into the darkness, smelling the August drought. She knew something about the sheep, he thought, and she wanted to tell me. But she wanted to tell me where no one could see her talking to me. Her sister’s husband is stealing the sheep. She knows it. She wants him caught. She followed me. She waited. Now she will come up to the door and tell me as soon as she overcomes her shyness. She is out there, and she frightened the cat.
It was all, of course, a silly idea, product of being half asleep. Chee could see nothing through the screen. Only the dark shape of the junipers, and a mile up the river the light that someone had left on at the Navajo Nation Shiprock Agency highway maintenance yards, and beyond that the faint glow that attempted to civilize the night at the town of Shiprock. He could smell dust and the peculiar aroma of wilted, dying leaves—an odor familiar to Chee and to all Navajos, and one that evoked unpleasant boyhood memories. Of thin horses, dying sheep, worried adults. Of not quite enough to eat. Of being very careful to take into the gourd dipper no more of the tepid water than you would drink. How long had it been since it had rained? A shower at Shiprock at the end of April. Nothing since then. Theresa Beno’s shy daughter wouldn’t be out there. Maybe a coyote. Whatever it was, he was going back to bed. He ran a little more water into his palm, sipped it, noticing the taste. The reservoir on his trailer would be low. He should flush it out and refill it. He thought of Kennedy again. Chee shared the prejudices of most working policemen against the FBI, but Kennedy seemed a better sort than most. And smarter. Which was good, because he would probably be stationed at Farmington a long time and Chee would be working…
Just then he became aware of the form in the darkness. Some slight motion, perhaps, had given it away. Or perhaps Chee’s eyes had finally made the total adjustment to night vision. It was not ten feet from the window under which Chee slept, an indistinct black-against-black. But the shape was upright. Human. Small? Probably the woman at Theresa Beno’s sheep camp. Why did she stand there so silently if she had come all this way to talk to him?
Light and sound struck simultaneously—a white-yellow flash which burned itself onto the retina behind the lens of Chee’s eyes and a boom which slammed into his eardrums and repeated itself. Again. And again. Without thought, Chee had dropped to the floor, aware of the cat clawing its way frantically over his back toward the door flap.
Then it was silent. Chee scrambled to a sitting position. Where was his pistol? Hanging on his belt in the trailer closet. He scrambled for it on hands and knees, still seeing only the white-yellow flash, hearing only the ringing in his ears. He pulled open the closet door, reached up blindly and fumbled until his fingers found the holster, extracted the pistol, cocked it. He sat with his back pressed against the closet wall, not daring to breathe, trying to make his eyes work again.
They did, gradually. The shape of the open door became a rectangle of black-gray in a black-black field. The light of the dark night came through the window above his bed. And below that small square, he seemed to be seeing an irregular row of roundish places—places a little lighter than the blackness.
Chee became aware of his sheet on the floor around him, of his foam-rubber mattress against his knee. He hadn’t knocked it off the bunk. The cat? It couldn’t. Through the diminishing ringing in his ears he could hear a dog barking somewhere in the distance toward Shiprock. Awakened by the gunshots, Chee guessed. And they must have been gunshots. A cannon. Three of them. Or was it four?
Whoever had fired them would be waiting out there. Waiting for Chee to come out. Or trying to decide whether four shots through the aluminum skin of the trailer into Chee’s bed had been enough. Chee looked at the row of holes again, with his vision now clearing. They looked huge—big enough to stick your foot through. A shotgun. That would explain the blast of light and sound. Chee decided going through the door would be a mistake. He sat, back to the closet wall, gripping the pistol, waiting. A second distant dog joined the barking. Finally, the barking stopped. Air moved through the trailer, bringing in the smells of burned gunpowder, wilted leaves, and the exposed mud flats along the river. The white-yellow blot on Chee’s retina faded away. Night vision returned. He could make out the shape of his mattress now, knocked off the bed by the shotgun blasts. And through the holes punched in the paper-thin aluminum walls, he could see lightning briefly illuminate the dying thunderhead on the northwest horizon.
In Navajo mythology, lightning symbolized the wrath of the yei, the Holy People venting their malice against the earth. SFR