Tony Hillerman: Reading the Signs

TonyHillermanWikipediaA feeling of mystical presence is very real when one looks upon the landscape of the Southwest. A region of scarce water and endless vistas, the Southwest has been a spiritual homeland for countless people, both indigenous and transplanted to the region. And for both these groups, a return to this landscape, be it a daily awakening or a journey’s end, is a return home.

Beverly G. Six, p. 64

The deep dark Nevada night sky, jeweled with countless shimmering stars, slowly fades into desert dawn, brightening the crimson- orange eastern horizon.  From our viewpoint hidden behind craggy volcanic rocks, we see a starkly-lit military base surrounded by high razor wire-topped security fence.  Through binoculars we see an ambulance and four men in whitecoats pushing a gurney bearing an almost human form, with thin arms and a greenish head that shines in the floodlights. An alien creature? The men disappear quickly with the gurney into a grey Quonset hut.

We are watching the science fiction television series the X

files. Two FBI agents: Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate unsolved paranormal cases.  Mulder had an earlier encounter with aliens involving his sister, and he believes that aliens do exist. Scully is the skeptical medical doctor, whose assignment at first is to discredit Mulder’s theories and his pursuit of the paranormal. As they work together, the conflict changes to trust and eventually into romance, while they discover the U. S. Government’s plan to hide the reality of alien life that has been discovered on earth.

Skeptic meets believer.  Buffered Self meets Porous self.

Contrasting personalities seems to be a common motif in detective stories.

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite, in the essay “I Want to Believe,” suggests that an important influence on creation of the X-files was writer Tony Hillerman, whose mysteries were placed within the desert spirit places of the American Southwest.

Aggarwal-Schifellite writes:

“Before the X-Files began in 1993, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee solved crimes that couldn’t be explained by logic alone in a series of eighteen books by the American Author Tony Hillerman.  The two detectives work together and apart on their New Mexico reservation, often clashing with federal agents called in for homicide investigations, or local residents suspicious of police activity.”

The Oyster Review

For many years, in my long solo drives to Nevada to work on archaeological projects, Tony Hillerman has been my electronic guide and companion in my car. At first there were those audio tapes (which often jammed in the tape player), then CDs (half a dozen for each book) and finally the more accessible recordings.

In my world religions course at Saddleback College, we spend a week on the general study of Native American religion.  But it was Tony Hillerman who brought me into a deeper encounter with tribal spirituality and ceremony.

His writing revealed finely defined Southwestern landscapes, not as decorative backdrops to his intense mystery narratives, but as essential integration within what he called “Our Own Holy Land”, the Dinetah, the sacred land of the Navajo/Diné.

I felt a kinship with Hillerman in our shared experience of spiritual homecoming as we traveled through this spiritually potent landscape together.  HIllerman reflects:

“It is an arid landscape, inhospitable, almost empty, with none of the lush green that spells prosperity. It is built far out of human scale, too large for habitation, making man feel tiny, threatened, aware of his fragility and mortality. Perhaps that is why it is good for me—why I seem to need it, and return at every excuse.”

Louis L’Amour, Western Magazine, 1993, p.83.

There is a “meant-to-be-ness”, a spiritual homecoming for Hillerman, as I reflect briefly on his life. Born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, as a poor country boy he was the lone male student at a Roman Catholic school for Indian girls. This immersion in tribal culture sparked an intuitive awareness of the Other: his Indian classmates within Anglo culture and his isolation as an Anglo in Indian culture.

Returning from World War II as a decorated veteran, he witnessed a Native American cleansing ceremony for Marines coming home from the same war.  A renewed interest in Indian culture complimented his attraction to their value for care of the family and reactivity to postwar materialism in America.

Hillerman worked as a journalist in New Mexico and Texas, encountering stark violence and murder. Later, as a journalism instructor at the University of New Mexico, he began to write his mystery novels.

Writers search for a focus that connects what is combusting within themselves and what they experience in the outer world.  The key inspiration for Hillerman’s focus on murder mysteries within indigenous tribal culture was Australian author Arthur W. Upfield.  The hero of his stories, half-European and half-aborigine Bony Bonaparte, solved crimes within knowledge of and respect for tribal traditions.

Hillerman reflects:

“When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony made 50 years ago.”

deHoog, Kees, p. 29.

Officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are Heart and Mind, Yin and Yang: a complementarity that contrasts with and includes the other.

Chee is the younger, trained as a medicine man, a singer, Hatáli, maintaining strong connection to Navajo spirituality.

Leaphorn is the older, with an M.A. in Anthropology, tutored by the Western Rational Mind to be skeptical and try to distance himself from tribal traditions.

As they work together to solve the mystery of a crime on the reservation, frequently they must work with the FBI, whose authoritarian, superior, technical approach sees Leaphorn and Chee as alien Others, who just don’t understand the proven procedures of investigation.

But in this strange land of sacred traditions, myth and ceremony, the world is in constant flux and decomposition.  Dark spirits, witches, skin walkers seek to overpower the innocent and bring sickness and death.  Attaining balance, harmony, hózhó requires constant attention, courageous hearts and help from medicine men and shamans.  This is not a world that dances to government procedures and military protocol.  Murder, mayhem, violence, theft, assault are all signs that evil forces are pressing the cosmos off balance into Darkness.

The contrasting make up of medicine man Jim Chee and rational, anthropologist Joe Leaphorn breaks down as they run into dead ends in their investigation and the incompetent FBI gives up.

“It is Hillerman’s insistence on ‘dignity and equality’ for his Native characters that makes it possible for them to rise above victimization. Leaphorn and Chee function continually as fully-realized Native characters who subtly sabotage the dominant Anglo culture, evincing their superiority to the Anglo power structure and its representatives in both professional expertise and characters.”

Beverly Six, p. 45.

Leaphorn and Chee must revert to memory of ritual, ceremony and myth for clues to another faint, hidden trail toward solution of a crime, which would mean a restoration of hozho. They must return to their communion with the land and read the patterns in the earth and creatures that give signs and clues for the next step.

In Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn investigates the murder of a young Zuni participant in the Shalako winter solstice ceremony at the Zuni Pueblo. Through Leaphorn, Tony Hillerman contrasts and compares the Anglo secular world, Zuni-Navajo-Roman Catholic spirituality and inductive police procedures. Aggressive, intimidating FBI agents push clumsily through tribal culture and the confession of two young suspects, assuming that the murder was related to a drug ring on the Zuni reservation.

“The dynamic differences between the three confessional cultures (spiritual, syncretic, and secular) and their different uses and understands of confession point to the often but not always fraught relationships between spirituality, social justice, and secular police work that Hillerman pursues in each of his Navajo detective novel.”

Emily Cammack, Tony HIllerman Portal, University of New Mexico. June 3, 2014,



To solve the mystery of violence on the Zuni reservation, Leaphorn must search out Navajo wisdom about nature and landscape, to seek out a pattern of clues leading to resolution:

“When the dung beetle moves,” Hosteen Nashibitti had told him, “know that something has moved it. And know that its movement affects the flight of the sparrow, and that the raven deflects the eagle from the sky, and that the eagle’s stiff wing bends the will of the Wind People, and know that all of this affects you and me, and the flea on the prairie dog and the leaf on the cottonwood.” That had always been the point of the lesson. Interdependency of nature. Every cause has its effect. Every action its reaction. A reason for everything. In all things a pattern, and in this pattern, the beauty of harmony. Thus, one learned to live with evil, by understanding it, but readings its cause. And thus, one learned, gradually and methodically, if one was lucky, to always “go in beauty,’ To always look for the pattern, and to find it.”

Dance Hall of the Dead, p. 77

Once Leaphorn locked into memory of this foundational wisdom of the interconnection of all things, his senses opened to the signs and clues in nature and the landscape that would lead him to resolution.  The murders upset the balance and harmony of all things on the Zuni reservation.  Nature and landscape would reveal the answer to those who have eyes to see. Ultimately, resolution would not happen in finding and punishing the criminal, but in setting things right

Tony HIllerman: A Critical Companion, John M. Reilly. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Hosteen reminded Leaphorn of the Dine myths and parables which explain the nature of things, Native Science if you will.  Leaphorn brought this collective memory into his police training. He adapted his root spirituality to the application of rational police science.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, we follow Leaphorn’s pursuit of the crime through interviews with people close to the events of the crime.  His police training utilizes his rational mind to discover a rational, orderly explanation.

“….we see further importance in the attention Hillerman lavishes upon Leaphorn’s method in Dance Hall of the Dead.

Hillerman’s emphasis on the sources of Leaphorn’s detection method in his deeply felt knowledge of Navajo philosophy indicates that the intellectual method of his detection embodies his essential identity as well as the technique of his police work. Fidelity to his method amounts to fidelity to Navajo culture.  Moreover, by making Leaphorn’s use of his detection method and his intellectual approach to the criminal puzzle the thread of the novel’s plot, Hillerman inserts the issue of intellectual integrity deep into his narrative’s structure.”

Reilly, p. 64.

At the end of the story, as in most murder mysteries, the Detective, Lt. Leaphorn, reviews all the evidence he found, the narrative of cause and effect within the clues and evidence.

“In confirmation of the strength of purposeful reason and the efficacy of Navajo-inspired methodology, Leaphorn presents the solution, though not a resolution.”

As I reflected on Leaphorn’s movement through Dine spiritual roots and rational police investigation procedures, I do not see a dualism in conflict. This is a complementarity, a working together of opposites, which do not contradict each other, but include each other.

How can we harness mind and heart to read the signs of nature and the signs in our own life?

There are books that can give us clues to find our way in the wilderness, e.g. Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.

“The roots of a tree indicate the sun’s direction; the Big Dipper tells the time; a passing butterfly hints at the weather; a sand dune reveals prevailing wind; the scent of cinnamon suggests altitude; a budding flower points south.”


There is a deeper seeing and knowing on this path. Beyond words, there is an engagement with the Book of Nature that the footsteps of the Holy One walking beside us

Henri Nouwen writes “Beyond books and people, nature also points to God and offers signs and wonders indicating God’s presence.”

Discernment, p. 53.

Joe Leaphorn harnessed mind and heart to make his way through nature’s signs, not only to solve a crime, but to restore hózhó and balance, to return to the sacred.

Walking the landscape in our journey, reconnection to our kinship with Nature is a doorway to communion with the sacred and guidance toward our heart’s desires.

“Often I look up into the clouds and daydream about a better world. But my dreams will never bear fruit unless I keep turning my eyes again and again back to the dust of this earth and listen to what God is saying to me on the road of life. For I am connected to the earth and to all who walk the earth with me. Nature is not the background of our lives; it is a living gift that teaches us about the ways and will of the Creator. My friends who are more aware of the way nature teaches have shown me how to slow down and savor the way God’s presence is woven into the natural world.”

Discernment, pp. 54-55.

Is that not our common desire as we discern the way ahead: in conflict and desire, in hope and longing, to find harmony, balance, homecoming with the Sacred?

“Instead of theological treatises, Hillerman offers his readers two Navajo Tribal policemen who, in answer to the primal need to find wholeness in a re-unification of animus and anima with essential Unity, seek meaningful relationships with the women in their lives, struggle with questions of personal integrity and identity, and emerge as agents of Original Grace. For Leaphorn and Chee, the question is never about professional advancement or money; it is not even about ‘bringing criminals to justice.’ For Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the seeking and struggle is about hózhó.”

Six, pp. 209-210.

Hózhó is the path or journey in which we strive for wellness through harmony in relationships, respect and spirituality.

Kahn-John, Koithan.

This is the gift of Tony HIllerman: to remind us, Native American and Anglo-American that hózhó is the goal for all of us.



 Slaying the Monsters: Native American Spirituality in the Works of Tony Hillerman, Beverly G. Six, A Dissertation in English, Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Accepted May, 1998.

“Our Own Holy Land”, Tony Hillerman, Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, 1993, pp. 83-89.

deHoog, Kees; Hetherington, Carol, eds. (2011). “Upfield: The Man Who Started It”. Investigating Arthur Upfield: A Centenary Collection of Critical Essays. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-1443834957.

“I Want to Believe”, Oyster Review, October 2015.

Louis L’Amour, Western Magazine, 1993, p.83.

Emily Cammack, Tony HIllerman Portal, University of New Mexico. June 3, 2014,

Tony HIllerman: A Critical Companion, John M. Reilly. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Dance Hall of the Dead, Tony Hillerman (New York: Harper Collings, 1973).

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri Nouwen (New York: Harper One, 2013)

The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, Tristan Gooley (New York: The Experiment, 2014)

TonyHillermanWikipedia“Living in Health, Harmony, and Beauty: The Diné (Navajo) Hózhó Wellness Philosophy,” Global Advances in Health and Medicine, Michelle Kahn-John (Diné) and Mary Koithan, May 2015.





About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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