By Valarie Tom and Ron Goulet
Tony Hillerman, the bestselling author who wrote 18 mysteries featuring Navajo police officers, died in 2008 but his legacy is still seen on the Navajo Reservation.
High school librarians on the reservation say his Navajo mysteries are still among the top-requested books by students, and Navajo police officials say his books have led to many Navajos deciding to become police officers.
Tourists who come to the reservation often say they want to visit sites mentioned in the books and one of the questions most asked is how accurate are the books in their depiction of how crimes are solved on the reservation.
All of Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, beginning with the Blessing Way (1970), center around two main characters — Lt.Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee — Navajo police officers who use their understanding of Navajo culture and tribal traditions to solve crimes, both big and small, on the sprawling reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
His depiction of tribal culture and traditions is top notch, and one of the reasons is Hillerman’s research. From the beginning he also made a decision to show his book to two or three people on the reservation with expert knowledge of culture and traditions before publication.
His depiction of crime solving within the tribal police department, however, is another matter.
Tribal police who have read a number, if not all of the series, say they wish crimes on the reservation were solved like the books depict, but they are usually solved through techniques used in police departments all over the world.
Also, in major crimes on Indian reservations such as murder and rape, the main investigators are agents from the FBI, although the agency has gone on record as saying that they work hand in hand with criminal investigators within the tribal police department.
It wasn’t until his seventh Navajo mystery, Skinwalkers, was published that Hillerman had a book that became a bestseller. Before then, his books were selling well in paperback form on and around the reservation.
While a great majority of Navajos spoke highly of him and his books, there was a small majority who criticized him for using Navajo culture to make himself rich, saying he should use some of his wealth to help the Navajo people.
But what they didn’t know is that while he did not, for example, give 10 percent of his royalties back to the tribe to use for scholarships, over the years Tony Hillerman donated money to causes on the reservation where he felt his money would do the most good.
He said that it didn’t make a lot of sense to give $100,000 to a program on the reservation because it would be hard to see how that money benefited the people. Instead, he would give smaller grants to help out a Navajo family whose home was destroyed by fire or paying for a new heating system for a convalescent home that served mostly Navajo families.
All of his books are still in print and his daughter, Anne, is now in the process of writing her whole series centered around the Navajo police department using female characters released to her father’s characters.