Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Literary Mystery Novelists—Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman (1925–2008), an Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident since 1963, was the author of 29 books, including the popular 17-mystery series featuring Navajo police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two non-series novels, two children’s books, and nonfiction works. Hillerman was born in 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma. Although he was raised among the Pottawatomie and Seminole Indians and studied at an Indian boarding school, Tony Hillerman was not Native American. He attended Oklahoma State University (1943), the University of Oklahoma (B.A. 1946), and the University of New Mexico (M.A. 1966). He worked as a journalist in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico (1948-63), lived in Albuquerque, and taught journalism at the University of New Mexico (1976-85).


Hillerman was a president of the Mystery Writers of America and received their Edgar and Grand Master awards. In fact, he had received every major honor for mystery fiction, including being named one of mystery fiction’s Grand Masters. His other honors include the Center for the American Indian's Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award, and France 's esteemed Grand prix de litterature policiere.

This is going to be a more personal post than my posts in the Literary Mystery Novelists or Writers of Color series usually are. 
It can actually be filed in either of those series because of the issues I want to address. Tony Hillerman was not only one of my favorite mystery novelists and a gifted writer, but he opened the door among major trade publishers for novels that dealt with Indigenous, Latino, and many other cultures. So having begun this post with a brief recap of his illustrious career and a link to buy his books, I’d like to tackle the issue of this Anglo writing about the Diné (the Navajo people) in particular and other Southwestern tribes in general.

This is a controversial issue. Many people, some of them my good friends, believe that no one outside a culture has any right to invent a story about that culture—and certainly never from the viewpoint of a member of that culture. They believe this constitutes appropriation of their culture. I can appreciate their viewpoint and affirm their right to this belief.

They have good reason to believe this. Our cultures have been misrepresented by Anglo anthropologists and folklore collectors for centuries. An awful lot of books, especially novels, written by outsiders to a culture end up written from the viewpoint of caricatures rather than real people, and the culture is presented as a collection of stereotypes of that culture (often derived from those misrepresenting researchers). These books almost always, in one way or another, diminish or denigrate those cultures. Consider the uproar within the African American community over The Help. This is appropriation—and the wrong way to write about a culture outside of one’s own.

Hillerman writes his novels the way a writer should write about another culture—with respect, extensive research, and the input of members of that culture. In fact, the Diné have officially declared Hillerman a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation for his knowledgeable and sympathetic presentation of their culture and people in his books. When the question of writing about a culture outside one’s own comes up from writing students, I always direct them to Hillerman’s books and other writings as an example of the right way to handle this issue. He spent years studying the Diné because he admired their worldview and way of life and had friends among them. He didn’t just decide to write about them because he’d read a book or seen a movie and found them exotic. He knew the Diné and had friends among them long before he decided to write about them—and then he learned more.

Some people are still unhappy about outsider writers portraying their cultures, even if these writers write with respect, extensive research, and the input of members of the culture. This is because they see such a writer getting published while writers who are actually from that culture cannot. This is also a valid concern.

Writers from cultures other than the mainstream Anglo-European culture of the United States are represented in publishing, as in so many areas, in numbers much smaller than their proportion of the population. This is a complex issue, having to do with disparate access to education and other opportunities that foster success at writing, as well as the ingrained habits of publishers to go with what is familiar. When Hillerman tried to publish his first Joe Leaphorn novel, he was initially told to take out all “that Indian stuff” if he wanted to get published.

Under such circumstances, it can be hard to see a Tony Hillerman become a bestseller while talented Indigenous writers find it difficult to publish, at all. On the other hand, however, the success of Hillerman has opened the eyes of publishers to the reading public’s interest in novels with Indigenous themes. I believe that writers who write with the same kind of ethical care and respect (though I do know they are in the minority) can do the same for whatever culture they depict.

Am I right? Are my friends who believe differently wrong? I don’t see either being the case. Many writers today who write about other cultures in their novels are appropriating those cultures and propagating stereotypes. And many of them are published instead of a writer of that culture. My friends are right, and it is imperative for all of us to fight against these situations.

When it comes to writers who genuinely make the considerable effort to do it right the way Hillerman did, I will continue to vary from my friends’ conclusions without considering theirs necessarily wrong. Hillerman remains one of my favorite writers, along with Luci Tapahonso, Sherwin Bitsui, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and many others. What do you think about this issue?



  1. I always enjoyed Tony Hillerman's books and thought he was respectful in his writing and the way he consulted with the elders and the Diné People. Like many issues in the Native community there is a split. It will be better as more indigenous people are published authors of such books, but sometimes it seems like the community is working at keeping the tradition of consensus in all things, including the writing of fiction, so I worry about the confrontation of the community with the individual. It can be harsh.

    If the individual is not to speak for the group, I think that the group should consider how they might be disrespectful in speaking for the individual, be it with words or action. As the circle holds all beings and all events that come around to meet again, for all time and through all space, it places each being in the center of the universe - wherever they might stand.

  2. Reine, thank you for your thoughtful consideration of the issues involved. This is a thorny problem for Indigenous and other communities. There's no way around that. And so far, many of the writers from outside those communities who've written of them have not done it well. This appropriation and exploitation of cultures leads to justified anger on the part of the communities so exploited. I believe, however, that we must not allow that anger to lead us to say that people can only write about the culture they were born and raised in. Instead, we must use that anger to fuel efforts to educate writers on how this can be done well and with respect.

    1. Linda, I was very pleased to read your blog about Tony Hillerman, because of the issues you raise. Over the years I have noticed that, not only was there a split on these issues within "the academy" but there was a bigger split between the local indigenous community and the indigenous "visitors" in the local universities. I tried to negotiate both roads while counseling at my local Indian center and going to grad school nearby. In the end it cost me dearly in terms of the larger community, but it brought me much closer to my local community. I understand these issues of identity exist for good reason, yet I believe it is harmful to be so divided. As you say above, "There is no way around that." I struggled in courses where professors did put forth such ideas that people "... can only write about the culture they were born and raised in." There is one in particular I will not name, because I don't want to spread poison. She indoctrinated many indigenous students of the academy to divisiveness and drove away many non-indigenous who might have been bridges to respectful understanding.

      I know that anything that touches identity is a potential grass fire, and I know there is good reason behind that. The attempt to protect identity too often leads to division, because the other is so often defining through exploitation.

  3. Reine, this is a troublesome issue in Indigenous circles but also in Latino, Asian American, African American, even Jewish circles. The biggest problem is that it's tied not only to the problem of appropriation of culture but assimilation, as well. There are always those who stand against outside society in a protective circle and then there are those who open completely to that outside society. Neither is completely wrong. Neither is completely right. It's always a balancing act trying to negotiate between a mainstream societal (usually colonial) culture and our own with the double aim of individual survival and protection of our culture.

    What I find the saddest about the extremes you describe (which I have seen myself) is that these kinds of actions can create a competition for who is the most Indian Indian, the most Latino Latino, etc., and ultimately the accusations of "You're not REALLY Indian/Latino/Asian/whatever." Truly divisive.

    I think it's important to realize that this is pretty common behavior among peoples who have been colonized and whose cultures have been seriously threatened, if not actually partially destroyed or erased. With stakes that high, people will find it hard to tolerate differing beliefs about the best way to protect and nurture their culture.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the opportunity to do the saem. I'll first acknowledge that Hillerman's books have been a valuable support during stessful periods of my life. Whether or not they are an authentic protrayal of Navajo culture, his works have opened to me the possibility to an alternative to the over-stimulation rampant in my life. At least where I live in the DC area, nearly every restaurant now has a television in the dining room. Even more frightening is that the last four doctors' offices I've been in all have TVs in the waiting room. Is there no time or place in our culture for quiet reflection, for, God forbid, silence? I love the silent periods during conversations in Hillerman's books. Perhaps it takes an author from the majority culture to recognize, appreciate and effectively communicate the practices of another culture that are most effective at mitigating the excesses of the majority culture.

  5. Jim, thanks for stopping by. I'm slow getting back to you because I've been on the road and haven't had internet access.

    I don't think there's any doubt that Hillerman's portrayal of the Navajo is authentic. He took a lot of time and effort to make it so. The concern has been whether in doing so he appropriated the Navajo culture. The majority (and I am one of them) feel he is not, but a very small minority believe otherwise--and they have genuine concerns, as we've discussed here.

    There are numerous aspects of the various Indigenous cultures of this continent that are beneficial and bring harmony. Respect for silence is certainly one of them. And as you say, it's quite likely that the majority culture isn't willing to recognize these beneficial aspects unless brought to their attention by one of their own. You may understand, though, that many Indigenous people might not feel it their duty to "mitigate the excesses of the majority culture," since they have tried for centuries now to show them the simpler, more natural way.

    I agree with everything you say about the loss of quiet reflection and silence in our modern mainstream culture.