Mystery writer Hillerman, who died Sunday, shed light on Navajo culture, encouraged traditions

  • Article by: FELICIA FONSECA , Associated Press
  • Updated: October 27, 2008 - 8:38 PM

Author Tony Hillerman

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - On the Navajo Nation where tribal members sometimes hesitate to open up to outsiders, they embraced Tony Hillerman as an honest and genuine man who wanted to learn about their culture and get the details right.

Hillerman, who died Sunday of pulmonary failure at age 83, was author of the acclaimed Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels. His books in the Navajo series were characterized by vivid descriptions of Navajo rituals and of the vast reservation in the Four Corners region.

But Hillerman's relationship with the Navajo Nation stretched far beyond the pages of those books, which featured two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes — Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. He shed light on Navajo culture, his books becoming a bridge to the reservation for tribal members who moved elsewhere, and encouraged Navajo youth to ask elders about traditions and ceremonies.

"The people spilled their guts to him," said James Peshlakai, who is characterized as a Navajo shaman in one of Hillerman's books, "The Wailing Wind." "The elders, they told him stories about things their own children never asked about."

Hillerman returned the blessings he received from Navajos by donating money for a water delivery program at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau, N.M., to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gallup, N.M., and to put up lights at a football stadium in Monument Valley, Utah.

Staff at the Thoreau mission, where a murder takes place in Hillerman's "Sacred Clowns," "have already been saying Mass for him and saying prayers," executive director Chris Halter said Monday.

Hillerman's daughter, Anne Hillerman, said the Navajo values of family, community, generosity and enjoying the beauty of the world, resonated with her father's own Catholic values. He felt blessed in his life and saw the needs of the Navajo Nation and responded, she said.

"He was a storyteller at heart, and so when people started buying his books and he didn't have to struggle so hard financially, he felt it was a good way to share the blessings," she said.

Joe Silversmith regards Hillerman as an idol. An avid reader, Silversmith often takes Hillerman's books out with him while he herds sheep in Thoreau, N.M. His daughter would pick up the novels from the library and give them to her father to read.

His admiration stems from Hillerman's seemingly inside-out knowledge of Navajo life, said Silversmith's wife, Ramona.

"He seems to know what he's talking about; he's very accurate about it," she said. "He's an outsider, but really knew something about the Navajo life."

Some Navajos were offended that Hillerman would write about the culture and was seen as an expert in it, said Adam Teller, a tour guide at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle.

"They would rather see a Navajo scholar being given credit as an expert in that subject," he said.

Teller, whose grandmother, Mae Thompson, was consulted for one of Hillerman's most acclaimed books, "Talking God," said she believed the Navajo way was a beautiful teaching that needed to be shared with the world but was criticized for giving Hillerman too much sacred information.

Hillerman's books are popular buys for tourists, some of whom visit the reservation after reading his books and feel like they've already been there, said Tina Lowe, a National Park Service ranger at the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado.

His books in the Navajo series are used at schools across the Navajo Nation to teach vocabulary and cultural relevance.

"The young people that read his books would ask the elders, 'Is it true?'" Peshlakai said. "And then when they're interested, we tell these stories."

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