Tony Hillerman

Presented by Anne-Marie Duma to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
April 3, 2018

I have always been a reader of mysteries, starting with Nancy Drew when I was age nine. I particularly enjoy books that are both descriptive and informative. Tony Hillerman’s novels fulfill both for me. His portrayal of the Southwest landscape definitely creates the feeling of the vastness and emptiness of the Navajo Nation. He also uses the belief systems of the protagonists to help us understand the complexities of his characters.

Working on an archaeology project in the mid 80’s near Capitan, New Mexico, I first came across his novels. There were a number of people working together, so we pooled our reading material. Someone in the group had included a couple of Hillerman books. These books were well read by the end of the summer, even the professors read them.

Anthony Grove Hillerman was born May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, he was the youngest of the three children. From 1930-1938 he attended St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding school for Native American girls in Sacred Heart. Hillerman suggests the reason for attending the Catholic school was due to the fact that the public-school teacher was a man his father thought was a right-wing Ku-Klux-Klan republican.

He completed his education at the nearby Konowa High School. Because there were very few schools, both white and Native American children attended the same school. He would later attribute these experiences to his sensitivity and respect for Native American people.

Hillerman enrolled at the Oklahoman Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1942. This didn’t last long, because as soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the army. In his memoir Seldom Disappointed he refers to his enlistment as the adventure. He recounts some of his war memories as cold, wet, uncomfortable, hungry and sometimes afraid. He took part in the D-Day landing and won both the silver and bronze stars for valour. He also received the Purple Heart after he was severely wounded by a land mine. He ended up spending five months in a military hospital in France before returning to America. He commented about how he was so decorated when he felt others had done so much or more and went unrecognized.

A chance encounter after the war led him to see part of a Navajo ceremony for two returning Navajo veterans. It was called the “enemy way” and was intended to restore harmony and to cure people of bad influences. This would later provide, he said, the best section of his first novel “The Blessing Way”.

Serendipity played a part in his career choice. Beatrice Stahl of the Daily Oklahoman had read several of the letters Hillerman had sent to his mother. Stahl suggested he might want to become a writer and should go to journalism school. With the help of the GI Bill, he attended Oklahoma University. While at university he became the assistant editor of the campus humour magazine “The Covered Wagon”. He graduated in 1948 with a degree in journalism. That same year he married Marie Unzer a Phi Beta Kappa in microbiology & languages. They had met at a dance in their senior year. They had six children, five of whom were adopted.

His first job after university was as a copywriter for the Oklahoman Ad agency. Not to his liking, he quickly found a job at the Borger New Herald in Borger, Texas. He then moved on to the Lawton Morning Press on the news desk with a raise in pay. Soon after this paper merged with the Lawton Constitution, he then moved on to Oklahoma City, where he became the UPI’s political reporter.

In 1952 the family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where Hillerman took over as executive director of the leading Santa Fe paper, The New Mexican. They moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1962 where Hillerman became assistant to the president of the University of New Mexico. After earning a Masters in English literature, he joined the faculty of journalism. He taught there until the early 1980’s.

Settled into life in Albuquerque he decided the time to write his novel was now. His literary agent decided his first book The Blessing Way was a bad book, and he should stick to non-fiction. She told him if he decided to rewrite it, he should get rid of the Indian stuff. Fortunately, he didn’t take her advice.

The second editor Joan Kahn accepted it albeit with a number of corrections. She was the editor of mysteries at Harper Row, she liked mystery novels more involved with culture and character than puzzles and plots. It should be noted that this book The Blessing Way was nominated for an Edgar Award for best new novel. He went on to write 18 novels using tribal policemen, Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee. In a section in his memoir, he had a section on frequently asked questions. The most common one was where do you get your ideas. He likens a writer to a bag lady pushing a shopping cart through life collecting throw away stuff, which — who knows — may be useful some way, someday.

As he grew up in rural Oklahoma with Native Americans who were as poor as his own family, he tended to see them as people just like himself. To learn about the ceremonies, customs, beliefs etc. he did a lot of reading about Navajo culture, using Ph.D. dissertations, the proceeding of scholarly societies and the collected papers of the Peabody Museum. He also spent time with the Navajos asking lots of questions.

He credits Navajos like Alex Etcitty, Austin Sam, James Peshlakai and others who helped him with cultural events. When he wanted Jim Chee to attend a traditional wedding, he was sent a videotape of one. Some other ceremonies described in his work came about because he was invited to attend them. He even presented a sub-plot to an English teacher and his students at a Shiprock School. He wanted to see if the plot would work; it didn’t so he scrapped it. My interest in the Hillerman novels pertains mostly to those written about the Southwest and the Navajo. The setting for these books is the Navajo Nation, an area of almost 75000 square kilometers occupying the Colorado Plateau, portions of NE Arizona, SE Utah and NW New Mexico. It also has a population of over 250,000 people. Contained within this area is the enclave of the Hopi Reservation.

Hillerman’s two main protagonists are Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee. Leaphorn is older, wiser and has a degree in anthropology. He has spent time in the white mans’ world and is not surprised at what they do. He respects traditional beliefs and those who follow them but does not necessarily adhere to them himself.

Jim Chee, on the other hand, is younger and less assimilated into white culture. He is also studying to become a hataali (a singer or shaman who performs ceremonies of blessing and purification).

The introduction of Jim Chee was a necessity as Hillerman had lost the rights to Leaphorn’s character. He had signed a contract for the TV right. Eventually, he bought back the rights and was able to use Leaphorn again. He went on to use them both in a number of novels.

Hillerman is noted for his descriptions of the landscape and his ability to create insights into Native American people and the cultures of the Southwest. As the landscape in this region is so diverse, he says he never misses an opportunity to visit an area he has not seen before.

Although he has a number of awards for his books including Mystery Writers of American Grand Master in 1989, he says his greatest honour was being named a Special Friend of the Dineh in 1987. Dineh is the word the Navajo call themselves. Some say the strength of his books lies with the sympathy of the culture they detail.

For a number of years, he was considered a cult favourite until his novels Skinwalkers (1986) and A Thief of Time (1988) put him on the best seller list. His novels have been translated into 13 languages including Japanese.

The LA Times calls his work an atmospheric blend of contemporary crime and traditional tribal beliefs and customs.

The Guardian state his stories often feature conflicts between the American legal system and traditional Navajo definitions of crime or criminals. Often the concepts of tribal harmony transcend the law.

Mike Ripley says of Hillerman that he was able to describe in sympathetic detail not just the stunning geography of Arizona and New Mexico, but also the religious culture and value systems of the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni peoples.

Otto Penzler founder of Mysterious Press said that before Hillerman, nobody had written about American Indians in any meaningful way, approaching them not only as sympathetic but as intelligent, cultured, wise and decent human beings.

Newsweek magazine referred to his brilliant evocation of nature and place as well as examining the pain of cultural clashes.

The website says that Hillerman’s Indians are wonderfully human and individual and his knowledge of current Indian issues is impressive. His books help the reader to understand not only something about the culture of Southwest Indians but also the political and social issues of the region. In 2005, Hillerman received the LA Times Book Prize’s Robert Kirsh Award for lifetime achievement for having reinvented the mystery novel as a venue for exploration and celebration of Native American history, culture and identity.

An extra tribute for Hillerman is that his novels are part of the school curriculum on the Navajo Nation.

While Hillerman may not have written the Great American Novel, he did create unselfconscious American literature. His books are more than just mysteries; they contain a lot of ethnographic material as well as some discerning anthropological insights. Tony Hillerman said he wanted to write entertaining books about people he admired. People who have known him for years say he has remained modest and self-effacing “just a good old Okie boy”.