There was a brief period of time when my mother and I were very close. I was in college and we talked on the phone at least once a week. During this time (pre internet), we sent each other copies of Tony Hillerman books, and listened to a couple of them on tape during road trips. Even when we didn’t get along, we shared a love of pop culture. At some point, while I was in law school, out relationship became strained again. Because of my school reading load, I mostly stopped reading for fun. Twenty-something years later, I hadn’t had any urge to read the Leaphorn and Chee mysteries until I was perusing the local Half Price Books, and there they were.
Coyote Waits features Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, both of the Navajo Tribal Police. Leaphorn and Chee have worked together before, but are mostly annoyed by one another at this point in the series. This isn’t a buddy cop book, the two mostly work separately, but intersect. The story starts with Officer Chee planning to meet his friend and fellow officer, Delbert Nez, for coffee. Chee hears a broken transmission of Nez laughing and saying he might be late because he is going after a vandal he had been trying to catch for weeks. When Nez doesn’t show for coffee, Chee goes looking for him and finds him dead, shot and in a burning car. Chee injures himself dragging Nez from the burning car and then arrests an old man carrying a gun and a whiskey bottle.
The walker stopped. He looked intently at Chee, as if trying to bring him into focus. Then he sighed and sat on the pavement. He screwed the cap off the bottle, and took a long, gurgling drink. He looked at Chee again and said: “Baa yanisin, shiyaazh.”
“You are ashamed?” Chee repeated. His voice choked. “Ashamed!”
This isn’t really a who done it, or a why done it. It’s more about what confluence of greed, ambition and poverty put all the players in place. Officially, no one is investigating Officer Nez’ murder, because they have a suspect with the murder weapon and a motivation – whiskey. Chee’s friend, and romantic interest, Janet Pete, raises questions about what the old man was doing so far from his home. Leaphorn is pulled into the case, unofficially, when a relative of the old man and a professor, raise questions about what the old man was doing so far from his home. Chee and Leaphorn, each with different information and motivations, look closer at what appears to be a simple case.
In all of the Leaphorn/Chee books, there is a huge amount of traveling. The Navajo Nation is huge and covers territory in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Hillerman does a great job of conveying space and specific locations. The Navajo Nation lands, with it’s space and mythology is very much a character in Coyote Waits. The otherness of the Navajo is a strong theme in this book.
Which gets us to the conundrum of Hillerman’s Navajo series. Tony Hillerman was a white man. He made millions of dollars writing mysteries set on and around the Navajo nation, featuring Navajo people, customs, religious beliefs, history and mythology. Hillerman had a good reputation for being respectful of the culture he was writing about, but it is still an interpretation of a marginalized people, their culture and experience, viewed through the lens of a white man.
I am not the person that gets to judge exactly where Hillerman falls on the respectful/exploitative spectrum of cultural appropriation. There is a legend in my family that one of my father’s great grandmothers was a Native American woman, but I have no proof of that and it is a popular claim made by people from Oklahoma (I am not from Oklahoma, my paternal grandfather was). Even if I am descended from a Native American woman, it does not give me any claim on Native American heritage. Let’s not forget that Dave looked like a real douche when he claimed to be 1/16th Navajo.
How a member of the dominant culture goes about writing the experience of a minority culture is fraught. If Hillerman were a new author today, I’d be inclined to recommend he not go there. As a reader who is a member of the dominant culture I have to confront my own hypocrisy. I enjoyed the books and I’m going to read more of them. I have read and enjoyed books that incorporate ideas drawn from various Native American mythologies. And things get more problematic there. JK Rowling stepped in it last year when she started writing about magic in North America. She referenced skinwalkers as being animagi (magicians who can transform into animals). This kind of practice, where you take an aspect of culture out of it’s context and use it for your own purposes is the kind of exploitation that has no upside for the marginalized culture or for the reader. A professor at Brown University writes a blog on cultural appropriation of Native American cultures. She explains the problem with Rowling’s integration of skinwalkers into the Potterverse.
What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.
The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Hillerman uses a lot of Navajo, Hopi and Ute mythology and beliefs in his books, including beliefs that are not acceptable topics for conversation. So I am choosing to read these entertaining mysteries with the knowledge that they are problematic. I’ll probably go read some Sherman Alexis and Louise Erdrich later. I will take your suggestions of other Native American authors in the comments.