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Mystery Man

Author Tony Hillerman's Legacy Lives On

September 16, 2009, 12:00 am

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.

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