Navajos are nicer.
I find them just as compelling as the thrillers of Raymond Chandler or Michael Connelly; and authors of crime fiction often write effectively about cultures to which they are outsiders (cf. here), such as David Young on the Stasi, James Church for North Korea, Michael Dibdin for Italy—or indeed Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries for Tang China.
Moreover, for those of us unfamiliar with Native American cultures, the Leaphorn and Chee novels make an evocative complement to weighty academic ethnographies. Hillerman acknowledges his debt to the works of scholars such as Wyman and Haile. As he manages to embed little lessons in Navajo mythology, he conveys an impression of the connectedness of landscape, climate, daily life, and ceremonies among different strata of Navajo society. Indeed, such a picture is potentially just as valuable as a dry academic account.
Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both officers in the Navajo Tribal Police, and though both are ambivalent about Navajo culture, they have access to clues that white people can’t perceive.
The cast includes not only Navajo people acculturated to various degrees, but also state institutions, white agencies—and anthropologists. Hillerman notes differences between the world-view of the Navajo and those of other nearby groups like Hopi and Zuni.
The plots feature witchcraft prominently, yet it typically transpires to be a misleading element in crimes motivated by more mundane causes— involving, as Scheper observes, some intrusion from the white world. While Hillerman stresses that murder is alien to Navajo culture, recent statistics, at least, suggest a more serious problem.
The series features a variety of ceremonies, healing rituals diagnosed in order to solve various problems—motivations that prompt Leaphorn and Chee to ponder how they may bear on the crimes they’re investigating. Thus the hataali “medicine man”, deploying his jish bundle, chanting and depicting cosmic sand paintings, makes regular appearances. Jim Chee himself is studying to become a hataali.
Of course Native American culture makes easy prey for hippy romanticising, but Hillerman doesn’t subject the Navajo “going in beauty” to such a fate. The novels remind me of the routine, practical nature of ceremony for communities with diverse values through changing times, as my work on the Li family Daoists suggests.
Hillerman describes the practical tasks in preparing for a ceremony, such as choosing the site, spreading the word, finding the proper singer, arranging the food. In all, these novels are a model for viewing ritual in social context.
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Hillerman first introduced Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way (1970).
The complex plot features an Enemy Way, with Sandoval presiding—an the elderly hataali who, like Leaphorn, seeks (as Reilly puts it) “to find an identity that preserves the integrity of tradition while permitting individuals to accommodate to new conditions of their life”
From Navajo, Diné, Indians of New Mexico, Arizona (1945) (see here).
However fictional, a passage like this is full of the detail of good ethnographic observation:
Sandoval squatted beside the sand painting and told Charlie Tsosie to put his knees on the knees of the Corn Beetle. He showed him how to lean forward with one hand on each hand of the figure. When Tsosie was just right, Sandoval began singing the part about how the corn beetles called out to tell the Changing Women that her Hero Twins, the Monster Slayer and the Water Child, were coming home again safely. His voice rose in pitch to the “lo-lo-loo” cry of the beetle, and then fell as he chanted the part about the Hero Twins visiting the sun, and slaughtering the monster Ye-i. It was stifling in the hogan and Tsosie’s bare back was glistening with sweat. Even his loin cloth was discoloured with it. That was good. The enemy was coming out. And now Sandovaal was ready for the next part. He sprkinkled a pinch of corn pollen on Tsosie’s shoulders and had him stand up and step off the sand painting—carefully so that the pattern wouldn’t be disturbed.
Sandoval felt good about the painting. He hadn’t done an Enemy Way since just after the foreign war when the young men had come back from the Marines. He was afraid he might have forgotten how to do it. But it had worked out just right. The arroyo sand he had poured out on the Hogan floor for the base was a little darker than he liked but he had known it was going to work out all right when he poured out the coloured sand to make the Encircling Guardian. He had made it in a square as his father had taught him, with the east side open to keep from trapping in any of the Holy People. The Guardian’s head was at the north end, with his two arms inward, and his feet were at the south end. His body was four alternating lines of red and yellow sand, and at the opening Sandoval had drawn the elaborate figure of Thunder, wearing the three crooked arrows in his headdress and carrying the crooked arrows under his wings.
“Put Thunder there when you sing for a witching,” his father had told him. His lightning kills the witches.”
Sandoval repaired the Corn Beetle deftly, sifting coloured sand through his fingers to reform the lines where Tsosie’s hands and knees had pressed. He added a tiny sprinkle of black sand to the single feather in the headdress of Black Fly.
The next passage again reminds me strongly of Li Manshan:
Sandoval stood up then and looked into the pot where he had brewed the medicine. The water was still steaming and the juniper leaves he had mixed into it had turned the solution milky. It looked about right but Sandoval thought it would have been better if he had had a waterproof basket so it could have been done the old way. The People are losing too many of the old ways, Sandoval thought, and he thought it again when he had to tell Tsosie how to sit on the feet of Big Fly, and even had to remind him to face the east. When Sandoval was a boy learning the ways from his father, his father had not had to tell people how to sit. They knew.
Sandoval sang then the chant of the Big Fly, and how he had come to The People to tell them that Black God and the warriors were returning victorious from their war against the Taos Pueblo and how the two girls had been sent by the people to carry food to the war band. This was the last chant before the vomiting and Sandoval was glad of that. It was the second day of the Enemy Way. His voice was hoarse and he was tired and there was still much to be done, much ritual to be completed before this man was free of the witch trouble.
As the ceremony progresses,
Sandoval yawned and stretched and looked out across the brush flats where the visitors were camping. Probably four or five hundred, he thought, and there would be more arriving today, mostly women bringing their girls to look for husbands at the Girl Dance tonight, and young men looking for girls, and gambling, and drinking, and trouble. Sandoval had meant to think about the ceremonial, to think just good thoughts and keep in harmony with the event. But he couldn’t help thinking how times were changing. Mostly they came in their pickups and cars now. There was dozens of them parked out there and just a few wagons. And that was part of it. The white man’s machines made it easy to travel about and people came just to visit and fool around. In the old days there wouldn’t have been any drinking and gambling at a ceremonial like this.
Leaphorn arrives, attempting to glean clues while the ceremony continues. Meanwhile anthropologist Bernard McKee, once his fellow student at Arizona State, is doing fieldwork, but soon finds himself in deep danger. With its tense cinematic dénouement, The Blessing Way makes a most compelling introduction to the series.
Listening woman (1978) again hinges on sand paintings, and the prescription of suitable ceremonies for affliction.
Listening Woman rubbed her knuckles against her eyes, and shook her head, and called for Anna. She knew what the diagnosis would have to be. Hosteen Tso would need a Mountain Way chant and a Black Rain chant. There had been a witch in the painted cave, and Tso had been there, and had been infected with some sort of ghosts sickness. That meant he should find a singer who knew how to do the Mountain Way and one to sing the Black Rain.
Later Leaphorn enquires about another sing:
“They did the Wind Way,” McGinnis said. “Had to get a singer from all the way over at Many Farms. Expensive as hell.”
“Any others?” Leaphorn asked. The Wind Way was the wrong ritual. The sand painting made for it would include the Corn Beetle, but none of the other Holy People mentioned by Hosteen Tso.
“Bad spring for sings,” McGinnis said. “Everyone’s either getting healthy, or they’re too damn poor to pay for them.”
Kinaalda ceremony. Source here.
Deftly incorporating the historical trauma of the Long Walk, as well as the 1973 Wounded Knee incident and recent terrorism, the book also features a kinaalda female puberty ceremony.
People were coming out of the medicine hogan, some of them watching his approaching vehicle, but most standing in a milling cluster around the doorway. Then, from the cluster, a girl abruptly emerged—running.
She ran, pursued by the wind and a half-dozen younger children, across an expanse of sagebrush. She set the easy pace of those who know that they have a great distance to go. She wore the long skirt, the long-sleeved blouse, and the heavy silver jewelry of a traditional Navajo woman—but she ran with the easy grace of a child who has not yet forgotten how to race her shadow.
Leaphorn stopped the carryall and watched, remembering his own initiation out of childhood, until the racers disappeared down the slope. For the Endischee girl, this would be the third race of the day, and the third day of such racing. Changin Woman taught that the longer a girl runs at the Kinaalda, the longer she lives a healthy life. By the third day, muscles would be sore and the return would be early. Leaphorn shifted back into gear. While the girl was gone, the family would re-enter the hogan to sing the Racing Songs, the same prayers the Holy People had chanted at the menstruation ceremony when White Shell Girl became Changing Woman. Then there would be a pause, while the women baked the great ceremonial cake to be eaten tonight. The pause would give Leaphorn a chance to approach and cross-examine Listening Woman.
The young Jim Chee, also a college graduate, enters the story with People of darkness (1980). Even while applying to the FBI, he is himself training to become a hataali medicine man, like his maternal uncle. The plot also features drilling for oil, witchcraft, the Native American Church, and the Peyote Way. As Chee is drawn to the white teacher Mary Landon, he observes intriguing cultural differences in their world-views. At the end, having survived successive ordeals, he realizes that he himself needs an Enemy Way ceremony.
In Ghostway (1984), as Officer Chee agonises over his future with Mary Landon, he grapples with a complex case involving the chindi ghost apparently occupying a dead man’s hogan, torn between Navajo and white cultures. He hesitates to ender the haunted hogan:
To the Jim Chee who was an alumnus of the University of New Mexico, a subscriber to Esquire and Newsweek, an officer of the Navajo Tribal Police, lover of Mary Landon, holder of a Farmington Public Library card, student of anthropology and sociology, “with distinction” graduate of the FBI Academy, holder of Social Security card 441-28-7272, it was a logical step to take.
Following a lead to the urban sprawl of LA, we see it through his eyes, alien, impersonal, and sinister. The climax comes back home with a healing ceremony for a teenage girl caught up in the violence. Consulting the senior hataali Frank Sam Nakai, Chee finds a public list of Navajo medicine men still practising, and becomes aware how tenuous the tradition has become.
So many of them listed as knowing only the Blessing Way, or the Enemy Way, or the Yeibichi, the Night Chant, or the more common and popular curing rituals. […] His uncle had told him that the Holy People had taught the Dinee at least sixty such rituals, and that many of them were lost in those grim years when the People had been herded into captivity at Fort Sumner. And he could see by this that more were being lost. He looked down the list to see how many singers knew the Stalking Way, which he had been trying to learn. He saw only the name of his uncle and one other man.
Eventually he finds where the five-day Ghostway is being held.
Hosteen Littleben would twice cover the earthen floor of the hogan with the ceremonial’s dry paintings, illustrating episodes in the mythic adventures by which the Holy People resolved the problem caused by death’s disruptive residue. Margaret Sosi would sit surrounded by this abstract imagery, and by this ragtag remnant of the Turkey Clan, and be returned to beauty and hozro, cleansed of the ghost. […]
The door of the hogan opened, and Littleben emerged, trailed by Margaret Sosi. He held a small clay pot in his right hand and a pair of prayer sticks, elebarately painted and feathered, in the other. He held the feathered pahos high, theirshafts crossed in an X. “Now our daughter will drink this brew,” he chanted.
The novel ends with Chee making a resolution:
He would get in touch with Frank Sam Nakai and ask his uncle to arrange for Hosteen Littleben to sing a Ghostway cure for him. And then, he thought, he would talk to Littleben. Feel him out about what he would charge Chee to teach him the ritual. It would be a good thing for a younger man to know it.
Leaphorn and Chee first coincide in Skinwalkers (1986). With Chee being targeted, they work separately on unraveling the mystery. Their views don’t always coincide:
“I have been telling everyone that Yellowhorse is a fake,” Chee said stiffly. “I have told people every chance I get that the doctor pretends to be a crystal gazer just to get them into his clinic.”
“I hope you’re not doing that on company time,” Leaphorn said. “Not while you’re on duty.”
“I probably have,” Chee said. “Why not?”
“Because it violates regulations,” Leaphorn said, his expression no longer even mildly amused.
“I think you can see how,” Leaphorn had said. “We don’t have any way to license our shamans, no more than the federal government can license preachers. If Yellowhorse says he’s a medicine man, or a hand trembler, or a road chief of the Native American Church, or the Pope, it is no business of the Navajo Tribal Police. No rule against it. No law.”
“I’m a Navajo,” Chee said. “I see somebody cynically using our religion… somebody who doesn’t believe in our religion using it in that cynical way…”
“What harm is he doing?” Leaphorn asked. “The way I understand it, he recommends they go to a yataalii if they need a ceremonial sing. And he points them at the hospital only if they have a white man’s problem. Diabetes, for example.”
Chee had made no response to that. If Leaphorn couldn’t see the problem, the sacrilege involved, then Leaphorn was blind. But that wasn’t the problem. Leaphorn was as cynical as Yellowhorse.
Meanwhile Chee keeps honing his art as a hataali.
Chee was a perfectionist. His prayer sticks were painted exactly right, waxed, polished, with exactly the right feathers attached as they should be attached. The bag that held his pollen was soft doe-skin; labeled plastic prescription bottles held the fragments of mica, abalone shell, and the other “hard jewels” his profession required. And his Four Mountains bundle—four tiny bags contained in a doe-skin sack—included exactly the proper herbs and minerals, which Chee had collected from the four sacred mountains exactly as the yei had instructed.
In an introductory note, Hillerman concedes that
My good friend Ernie Bulow correctly remind me that more traditional shamans would disapprove both of the way Jim Chee was invited to do the Blessing Way mentioned in the book (such arrangements should be made face-to-face and not by letter) and of Chee practising a sandpainting on the ground under the sky. Such sacred and powerful ritual should be done only in the hogan.
With their different styles, the two officers again work in tandem in Coyote waits (1990). Chee even gets to perform a Blessing Way for Leaphorn:
Leaphorn found himself wondering if he had been Chee’s first client. After a tough case, in the awful malaise that had followed Emma’s death, he’d hired Chee to do a Blessing Way for him. An impulsive decision—unusual for him. He’d done it partly to give the young man a chance to try his hand as a shaman and partly as a gesture toward Emma’s people. The Yazzies were Bitter Water clansmen and traditionalists. The ceremony would be sort of an unspoken apology for the hurt he must have caused them. […]
Chee had been nervous, showing Leaphorn where to sit with his back against the west wall of the hogan, spreading a small rug in front of him. Then Chee had extracted from his deerskin jish the little leather sack that was his Four Mountain bundle, two pairs of “talking prayersticks”, a snuff can containing flint arrow points, and a half dozen pouches of pollen. He had solemnly formed the shape of footprints on the earth and marked on them with the pollen the symbols of the sunrays on which Leaphorn would walk.
Despite his skepticism, Leaphorn finds that “it had not cured him, but it had started the healing”.
Again the plot involves early Navajo history and white academics, with their various motivations. Hillerman constantly explores conflicts between Navajo and white world-views—all while constructing a tense, compelling crime-thriller.
These novels cry out for film/TV versions—here’s a 2003 film of Coyote waits:
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Now, I’m aware of the irony of a white guy praising the work of another white guy writing about Native Americans, but Hillerman shows great empathy for the Navajo world-view. Indeed, ethnographers too are commonly outsiders to the culture they study.
A quick search doesn’t reveal any scathing criticisms from the Navajo—who anyway aren’t a homogeneous, isolated group. Still, David Lund Warmind raises critical points about Hillerman’s “skewed gaze”—“Navajos are nicer”?!