PHOENIX — Tony Hillerman, author of the acclaimed Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels and creator of two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes -- Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee -- died Sunday of pulmonary failure. He was 83.
Lt. Joe Leaphorn, introduced in "The Blessing Way" in 1970, was an experienced police officer who understood, but did not share, his people's traditional belief in a rich spirit world. Officer Jim Chee, introduced in "People of Darkness" in 1978, was a younger officer studying to become a "hathaali" -- Navajo for "shaman."
Together, they struggled daily to bridge the cultural divide between the dominant Anglo society and the impoverished people who call themselves the Dineh.
Occasionally, he was accused of exploiting his knowledge of Navajo culture for personal gain, but in 1987, the Navajo Tribal Council honored him with its Special Friend of the Dineh award. He took greater pride in that, he often said, than in the many awards bestowed by his peers, including the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, which elected him its president.
Hollywood was less kind to Hillerman. Its adaptation of his 1981 novel, "Dark Wind," with Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward regrettably cast as Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, was a bomb.
Heh. No shit! You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to get it on VHS! I think they had to re-import it so I could have one. I still liked it. PBS did movies of some of his other books with Wes Studi and Adam Beach. I have those too.
In 1943, he interrupted his education at the University of Oklahoma to join the Army. He lugged his mortar ashore at D-Day with the 103rd Infantry Division and was severely wounded in battle at Alsace, France. He returned from Europe a genuine war hero with a Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, temporary blindness and two shattered legs that never stopped causing him pain.
Hillerman was still teaching when he wrote his first novel, "Blessing Way." A story that always made him chuckle: His first agent advised him that if he wanted to get published, he would have to "get rid of that Indian stuff."
I think that agent is now 'advising' people to "super-size it" out a drive-thru window somewhere!
Walk in beauty, Tony. That's a Navajo expression you taught me.