Monday, December 10, 2007

Tony Hillerman: The Man and His Books

Every time we travel through the Four Corners area my eyes follow those little dusty roads that disappear off over the horizon. I find myself thinking about Tony Hillerman’s characters Jim Chee, Bernie Manuelito, and Joe Leaphorn, driving alone to some far-off hogan to investigate a mysterious death. The books of Tony Hillerman are set in this part of the country, and although I started reading them long before I came to New Mexico I could already see those lonely little roads in my mind’s eye.

Hillerman writes with respect and knowledge about both the Navajos (as exemplified by Leaphorn and Chee) and the Hopis (the wonderfully named Cowboy Dashee, for example). In reading his books, you learn about this part of the country and its peoples--their beliefs, their ceremonies, their prayers, their homes, and their customs and traditions.

While I've been a fan for many years, here is what I’ve always wondered about Tony Hillerman: How accurately does he portray Native Americans and what do they think about his writing?

In searching for the answer to this question, the most helpful and complete biographical information that I have found so far online is from the Public Broadcasting System’s Mystery! web site. Here is a quote I found there: Although the tribe has named him a Special Friend of the Dineh [Navajo people] for his accurate portrayals of Navajo life, Hillerman still worries about getting it wrong. He reads copiously and runs his manuscripts by Navajo friends to check not only for accuracy, but for believability as well. He even had a Navajo English class in Shiprock consider a subplot he was planning to see if it would work. When the students said no, he junked it. "For me, studying the [Navajo] has been absolutely fascinating," Hillerman told Publishers Weekly, "and I think it's important to show [my readers that] aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane."

It's also interesting to note that Hillerman has also received the Center for the American Indian's Ambassador Award, and the Silver Spur Award for the best novel set in the West, in addition to a great many other awards.

For a chronology of Hillerman’s books and reviews of each one:

For information about the films that have been made from Hillerman’s books:

To get some insight into Hillerman’s character, his writing process, and how he
feels about the Navajo people, read the PBS Interview with Tony Hillerman:

See a video interview of Hillerman at

Tony Hillerman’s web site:

1 comment:

Towanda said...

Hi Clairz. Enjoyed your post on Tony Hillerman. He's one of my favorites. Glad to see you are promoting New Mexican writers!