Vroman’s Books in Pasadena has my new book!

VromansIf you live near Pasadena, California, one of America’s great bookstores is currently carrying my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest.  Please consider visiting this Cathedral of Books and buying the book. Future orders depend on your support.

Posted in Blog | 1 Comment

Desert Spirit Places is Now in Print!

My new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest is now in print. It can be ordered from the publisher at this link or on Amazon/Kindle in 10 days. If you read the book, please post a review.


Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

My New Book Cover

BookcoverNEWHere is the book cover for my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest, being published by Wipf and Stock in new couple of weeks.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Sacred Space: Mondays with Father Gordon SJ

HummingbirdPurple-throated, 2010, Charles J. Sharp

Purple Throated Hummingbird. Charles J. Sharp, 2010.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,
Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

Cecil Frances Alexander

March 20017

Last night a generous spring rain drenched parched south Orange County, California.  As I sit in a chair facing Father Gordon Moreland SJ, the expansive window behind him frames a desert garden. A green-blue humming bird flits from plant to plant, finally settling within a bright yellow cactus flower.  The bird emerges, moving to the window to stare at us, turning its head right and left. A sudden strong wind gust buffets the tiny bird and it disappears.

Inside this conference room at the House of Prayer Retreat Center, the temperature is warm, and I feel safe, the kind of secure feeling that allows tense muscles to relax, breath to slow and to know that I am in the Lord’s presence.  In this place, seated in this chair, facing my friend and spiritual director Father Gordon, I want to speak honestly and transparently, as if I am conversing with God.

Through the years our friendship and trust have grown, as I have journeyed through the many health crises of our son Erik and the challenges and hard work of being pastor of an inner-city parish. As my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon helps me to notice what is going on in my life when I am aware of God.  I chose his Jesuit background because I went through a year-long meditation program with The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.  Time and again, Gordon opens my heart to remembrances of gratitude to God for daily graces.

At our session last month, I gave to Gordon a copy of my new book, The Spirit in the Desert: Pilgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley.

Gordon, have you had time to read the book? What do you think about it?

“Your book was helpful to get a sense of how sacred space works. It works with an imagination that is attuned to surroundings. You remember foundational experiences of God and you relocate them out there in those desert spaces of the Eastern Sierra. Sacred space is a sacrament that renewed your experience of the Lord’s presence. Your description of these grace experiences gives a sense of fullness. It took me about one-third of the way into the book to get that.”

“I was in Death Valley myself a few weeks ago. We walked about looking for the flush of wildflowers that was promised after the drenching rains last December. We looked and looked and all we saw were rocks and sand; not one flower. Finally, when we were about to give up and leave, I saw a wildflower; suddenly, I could see all the flowers!”

I want to share an experience with you, Gordon. A couple of months ago Leah and Dwight Smith of the Orange County Catholic Worker called me.  We are good friends since they used to serve lunch to the homeless twice a week in our parish patio. Now they have two hundred mothers and children sleeping at the Isaiah House every night. During the day the older children go to a special County school for homeless families in Orange. But there is nothing for the preschool aged children during the day. The mothers and children all must leave the house during the daytime.  So, these mothers take their children to a Santa Ana park; the children run around, and the mothers can get into trouble.

They knew about our licensed early childhood center, Hands Together, that was serving low income families in the barrio. Couldn’t the church do something during the day to provide for these homeless little ones and their mothers?

Here is where I wonder at what God is up to: a few months ago, my lifelong and former Kindergarten classmate Carol (Grizzle) Nasr moved to Santa Ana from Nova Scotia. Two blocks from my parish. What are the odds? And she is an early childhood educator!

I told Carol about the challenge and opportunity.  We visited Isaiah House one afternoon when all the mothers and children were out. As we walked through the huge, rambling old Victorian home, we noticed most of the furniture was removed to make room on the floor for sleeping bags and mattresses. Outside on the concrete patio more mats would become bedding and a dozen tents were pitched on the grass. Two hundred mothers and children sleep here every night!

Something stirred in Carol’s heart and she proposed that we offer supervised play for the children a few mornings a week at the church and work with the mothers about being a mother.

And so it began. I visited our child care room off the parish garden patio the second day. I could hear loud children’s voices shouting and shrieking. I entered the room to see six little ones climbing the slide, bouncing balls and moving toys on the carpeted floor. Frenetic energy. But Carol was the calm within the storm, speaking softly and playing with the children.

In the corner curled up with a sleeping bag was an African American mother who worked nights at Disneyland and tried to catch some sleep.

As the children’s energy began to dissipate, Carol gathered the little ones around a large half circle wooden table. A wooden squirrel figure held a small lighted candle. The children sat on tiny chairs and Carol knelt within the circle opposite them. They were now tired and calmer. I remember that Carol had a bowl holding warm face cloths scented with lavender, to calm the children. She took the hand of one little girl and gently wiped the hand; then the other hand; then the face. Slowly. When Carol was done, the facecloth was dark with dirt. But the little girl’s face was radiant. After all were cleansed, there was a snack of cheese and crackers with apple juice. This became the closing ritual to every morning session.

As I witnessed this on my own knees next to Carol, I could not help but see Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and the warmth of the Eucharistic table.

The jumbled room of children toys and balls strewn chaotically all around us had become safe, sacred space for these mothers and children.

So, we have started this new program for homeless mothers and children. Carol is calling it Morning Garden. But I am anxious for the next steps.

I have gratitude to God for reconnecting with my old friend Carol. I am amazed at the “coincidence” of her coming to Santa Ana and the emergence of this need for care for these vulnerable little ones.  Having been through the launching of our licensed child care center and all the problems and demands that have come from that, I am anxious about this new program and how to sustain it.

“The littleness of the parents and the poverty of those children! Leave it to the Lord to water and grow this. We are tempted to move on to grandiose projects. Keep it small. You are modeling serenity for the parents. The little things will make a difference in their lives. Jesus did most of his work with small groups of people. This is so precious; don’t bureaucratize it.”

A bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench. (Isaiah 42:3). Treasure what is small and fragile: these mothers and children.”

Lord Jesus, you entered our world as a vulnerable child.  Inspire us to care for and protect all your little ones; humble the hard hearted with renewed awareness of their dependency on your grace; in our own weakness may we see your face. Amen.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Preview of New Book: Desert Spirit Places


View of Monument Valley, Utah, from Mystery Valley

My new book: Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest will be published in next few months.  Here is a description of the book and some of the endorsements:

Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest, Brad Karelius.

To be published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in December 2018.

Description of book:

The iconic landscape, the American Southwest, reveals luminescent mittens, looming rock arches and vast sagebrush oceans made vivid and memorable by writer Tony Hillerman, artist Georgia O’Keefe and director John Ford.  Professor Brad Karelius, drawing on forty years of college teaching, will guide you into hidden mysteries of the sacred as revealed by the Zuni, Navajo/Diné, Hopi, Hispanos and desert mystics as you seek spiritual encounters in these desert spirit places.



Author with Don Mose at Skull Rock, Mystery Valley, Utah

Brad Karelius has mastered the art of successfully combining a personal narrative with joyful observations of the natural world. His graceful writing adds generous helpings of both humor and humility to a story of adventure and insight gained from spending quiet time beneath the towering Western sky. Well-selected quotes from scholars and mystics underline the author’s own observations about the links between the rugged beauty of the desert and the flowering of a spiritual life.  This is a book to savor and to keep at one’s bedside as an antidote to life’s anxiety. If my mother still shared our planet, it would be her birthday gift.

Anne Hillerman, Author, Cave of Bones.

For some years I have deeply valued Father Brad Karelius’ beautiful writings on the spirituality of the desert. There is a deep continuity between the sayings of the early Christian desert fathers of the fourth century and these contemporary journeys that are both physical and spiritual, though these forms of journeying cannot finally be separated.

I have found these personal writings of Father Karelius deeply moving and inspiring at many levels. The desert is here never less than a real place, but within its harsh and beautiful landscape we find also the wisdom of deep spirituality – learnt also from St. Ignatius of Loyola and many others. And then there is, for Father Karelius, his disabled son Erik, his guide into Second Naivete. Innocence and wisdom come together in this wise for book our troubled age.”

David Jasper, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Brad Karelius has invested his well-lived life in an engagement with the Southwest desert. From that life-experience he articulates deep respect for the native Americans who live there and their traditions, deep awe at the mystery or the place that he knows be haunted in holy ways, and deep faith as he mediates between the Christian Gospel and native American religious traditions. The outcome of his writing is testimony to the “otherwise” he finds there, an alternative to the self-destructive ways of our dominant culture. Other readers will find as compelling as do I his direct first-person narrative witness. My reading of his book has led me to fresh gratitude for Brad and for his son Erik.

Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

Here find a learned and seasoned guide to the deep desert offering so much to the seeking spirit.

John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University.

 Part memoir, part travelogue, and part self-help guidebook, Desert Spirit Places relates how the soul of one inquisitive man finds solace and experiences healing in the harshest of landscapes—and shows how others can also experience that grace.

Richard Francaviglia, author, Believing in Place.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Desert Night Sky: The Alabama Hills

NightSky3“One may try to look at the sky, but in fact one looks through it…. for no matter how deeply one sees into the sky, there is always an infinite depth remaining.”

Thomas McEvilley

The green overhead street sight for Whitney Portal Road swings wildly in the November wind, as I wait at the signal on Highway 395 in Lone Pine, California.  To my right are local restaurants, Seasons, Merry Go Round and the Grill which radiate inviting hospitality, jammed with skiers heading to and returning from Mammoth Mountain, two hours to the north.  My Honda Pilot shudders in the buffeting blasts of wind.  With a green light I turn left heading toward Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada.  As I travel away from shimmering city lights, dense darkness descends.  Suddenly a tumbleweed the size of a VW crosses in front of me.

The road twists and turns, following Lone Pine Creek. Denuded cottonwood and willow trees bend in the whistling wind.  More debris flies by. Maybe I should not be on this road in such an intense desert windstorm?

I enter the narrows of the Alabama Hills, as the road climbs higher. Gnarled, weirdly shaped boulders cast haunting shadows with my car headlights.  Having driven this road many times before, I looked for familiar clues to Movie Road.  I come upon an open plateau where the wind is blocked out by the hills and rocks.  I see the sign for Movie Road, turn right and continue north on a paved section that ends in a half mile, leading to a wide dirt road.  I brake suddenly, as a mother doe and two fawn dash across the road.

I park the car here and step out into the dark night. At this point one-thousand feet higher than Lone Pine, the city lights are blocked by the Alabama Hills and I am standing on a wide desert plateau on a moonless night.

As I stand beside this desert road, the car and landscape dissolve into the darkness. I am unable to see my feet.  Facing east, I see the starry night sky on both sides of me, 180 degrees. Without reference to the ground or surrounding landscape, I seem to be surrounded by night sky, brilliant, twinkling star diamonds of light scattered about me.  It seems as if I am being lifted up into the sky, surrounded by these stars and the vast Milky Way.  The more I focus on visible stars, slowly the faint background of other stars become clearer. Millions of stars. Infinity. This is a thin place between heaven and earth, between reason and wondrous mystery.

Thomas Merton shares:

“It is a strange awakening to find the sky inside you and beneath you and above you and all around you so that your spirit is one with the sky, and all is positive night.”

When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, p. 87.

Others before me in times past have stood in this same place or in other locations on earth, surrounded by night sky, lifted up into infinity and wonder, the birthplace of gods, myths and holy signs.

One thousand miles east of Lone Pine, at Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery, Abiquiu, NM, at the end of a long, difficult desert road, Belden Lane writes:

“That first night at the monastery I went to bed while it was still light, knowing I had to be up early if I was to make it to chapel for Vigils. I lay there, listening to the wind howl as night came on. The desert was dark, cold, and moonless. Unable to sleep, I pulled the sleeping bag around me and waited out the night. When three-thirty finally arrived, I pulled on clothes in the cold morning air and walked outside with a small flashlight. It was pitch black, still completely alone, I nervously felt my way up the canyon toward the chapel.”

“But as I stopped to lie down on a large rock and look up into the night sky, my uneasiness suddenly dissolved. I was home. The sky was lit with thousands of stars, stars I immediately recognized from my backyard in Saint Louis where I pray every night. Leo the Lion, Bootes the Ox-Driver, Hercules with his arms upraised—they were all there, stretched out across the heavens. A place without comfort or familiarity suddenly revealed itself as home.”

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, pp. 221-222.

I have this confession: I rarely look at the sky when I am home in Laguna Niguel, California. Our night sky is usually occluded by fog and coastal clouds, as we live near the Pacific Ocean.  For millennia, the night sky has been a celestial canvas on which people have recreated images from myths and sacred stories in their communion with the Sacred.

I encountered one night sky story in an unusual children’s book:

NightSky1Menorah in the Night Sky: A Miracle of Chanukah, by Jacques J. M. Shore.

Zev loved the Jewish feast of Chanukah, the gathering of extended family, the holiday foods, gifts and games spread out over eight days. A new candle on the Menorah would be lit over eight days and his home would radiate light and joy. But eleven-year-old Zev and his ten-year-old friend David were far from home and family, confined to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they survived by sorting through huge piles of shoes left behind by those who were killed in the gas chambers.

In the growing darkness of winter, Zev’s memories of Chanukah returned, and he remember the lighting of the Menorah each night. When David recalled his own memories of family and Chanukah, it filled him with sadness. Zev began to pray for a miracle.

One night Zev and David looked up into the night sky and saw a bright star. They sang a Chanukah song quietly in the night. Each night the boys would go outside of the bleak barracks, light a candle, say a blessing, and each night another star would appear until “a semi-circular shape of eight stars appeared, emerging one after another.”

“The Night after Chanukah was over, the boys took their spot outside the barracks as they did for eight days earlier. This night, unlike all the others, the sky was filled with millions of stars. Never before had they seen such a star-filled sky. Never before could they have imagined that so many stars could exist.”

“Zev said, ‘Those stars are free, so free in the heavens. David believe me—we too will one day be free.”

“The remnants of light and warmth of Chanukah kept Zev and David alive. Zev explained and promised David that the spirit of Yehuda the Maccabee and the miracle of Chanukah that they share would ensure their survival in the camp.”

“God, who lit the Menorah in the sky, lit their way out of Auschwitz, a few months later.”

Menorah in the Night Sky

 Where Heaven and Earth CollideAmong Native American tribes, the animate and inanimate world, the earth and the sky are one unified, interdependent entity.  The stars in the night sky are living spiritual beings. The problem for Anglo-European exploration of these traditions is that in the past these earth-sky stories were suppressed by the dominant Anglo culture.  Contemporary probing and inquisitive academic explorations have met native suspicion and resistance toward disclosing the sacred stories.  Sharing information about that which is sacred dilutes their operative power.

The close relationship between people and the stars in the night sky is illustrated by the Navajo. They see the world and universe holistically, everything is connected in a system of relationships that is in constant flux.  While western science applies rational tools to study the cosmos, Navajo astronomy is at the heart of their spirituality. All things, animate and inanimate, on earth and in the heavens are living entities. Every human action effects this organic universe.

In a unique partnership between western science and Navajo spirituality, NASA and the Navajo Nation have created an astrology curriculum used in schools on the Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and Navajo Cultural Knowledge (2006).

Here are some Navajo perspectives of their relationship to the creatures of the night sky:

Constellations Provide Guidance and Values.  Navajo relationships with the stars can be very personal. Star constellations can be utilized for healing body, mind and spirit. Many Navajo constellations are depicted in human form, providing principles and values for living.”

Stars as Related to Animals and Natural Elements.  Many Navajo constellations are directly connected to animals……. Porcupine, Gila Monster, Mountain Sheep.  Other constellations include natural elements such as Flash Lightning, the Sun, the Moon.  The stars are also closely related to seasonal vegetational growth and animal life processes as birth and mating.

While much of the traditional knowledge of Navajo astronomy has been forgotten, this curriculum is an attempt to knit together dispersed stories and information into a collective whole, reaffirmed at a meeting between NASA and the Navajo Nation at Window Rock, AZ in 2005.

The Navajo Elder’s NASA joke

When NASA was preparing for the Apollo Project, it took the astronauts to a Navajo reservation in Arizona for training.

One day, a Navajo elder and his son came across the space crew walking among the rocks. The elder, who spoke only Navajo, asked a question. His son translated for the NASA people: “What are these guys in the big suits doing?

One of the astronauts said that they were practicing for a trip to the moon. When his son relayed this comment the Navajo elder got all excited and asked if it would be possible to give to the astronauts a message to deliver to the moon.

Recognizing a promotional opportunity when he saw one, a NASA official accompanying the astronauts said, “Why certainly!” and told an underling to get a tape recorder. The Navajo elder’s comments into the microphone were brief.

The NASA official asked the son if he would translate what his father had said. The son listened to the recording and laughed uproariously. But he refused to translate. So the NASA people took the tape to a nearby Navajo village and played it for other members of the tribe. They too laughed long and loudly but also refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.

Finally, an official government translator was summoned. After he finally stopped laughing the translator relayed the message: “Watch out for these asxxxxx – they have come to steal your land.”

In Believing in Place, Richard Francaviglia contemplates the night sky after midnight in a visit to western Utah. “I’d looked up into the night sky and beheld a Milky Way that looked like crushed glittering glass—or pulverized diamonds—spread from horizon to horizon.”

The vast dark sky studded with luminescent lights becomes a canvas for the imagination to “connect the dots” between stars and recreate images and creatures of nature. Francaviglia echoes the imaginative minds of the Navajo, as he writes about the Milky Way and star figures:

“One of nature’s most awesome sights, this clustering of millions of stars has deep cultural significance in the Great Basin. The Paiute call it Kus’ipo’ (Dusty Trail) or, more to the point, Numu-po (People’s Trail) and they believe it to be the path traveled by the souls of the dead as they seek another, more abundant world to the south where there will be good hunting and time for gambling and dancing.  The Big Dipper shimmering overhead is Ta’noa’di, a heavenly net into which men chase rabbits. To some Native peoples hereabouts, Orion’s belt consists of three stars that are either mountain sheep or mountain sheep husbands, while the brightest star in this constellation (Sirius) is a woman called Tinagidi (The Chaser). Significantly, the heavens themselves are not the product of remote physical forces, but of Wolf (creator of both Heaven and Earth) and his trickster brother Coyote, who caused his family to flee to the sky.”

Believing in Place

It is time for me to return to the warmth of my car and the lights of Lone Pine. I am remembering the thoughts of the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who, as he also gazed into the dark night sky exclaimed, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”  I leave with a different feeling.  I could hear other sounds of nature out there in the darkness that could have triggered anxiety and fear within me.  But as the wonder that came from focusing my eyes on the stars, and as each minute went by, the dimensions of the sky and number of stars grew into immensity, I too felt a sense of homecoming, that I was being embraced in love by the Holy Creator.

 I lose myself in darkness among mythic star creatures. Until now I have lived a life attentive only to daylight, unaware of the wonders and mystery of this other half of creation: the pulsing, vibrant, numinous night sky.


 Menorah in the Night Sky: A Miracle of Chanukah, Jacques J. M. Shore. (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing, 2003).

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Belden C. Lane (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)


Navajo reservation: Navajo Moon: Educational Activities Bringing Together NASA Science and Navajo Cultural Knowledge (2006).


Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, Richard V. Francaviglia, (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003), p. 22-23.

Bishop Visitor’s Center: The Night Sky in the Eastern Sierra.NightSky3https://www.bishopvisitor.com/the-night-sky-in-the-eastern-sierra/


Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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 Audible.com 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.





Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment