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An American MYSTERY! Special
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The Navajo: Yesterday and TodayHillerman on the SouthwestAbout HillermanResources
About Tony Hillerman

 Tony Hillerman has brought the Southwest and Navajo Nation culture alive for millions of readers. How did this white man come to know so much about the Navajos?

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photograph of Tony Hillerman
Author Tony Hillerman
Anthony Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, on May 27, 1925, at the dawn of the Dust Bowl. The youngest of August and Lucy Grove Hillerman's three children, Tony and his older brother and sister helped his parents run a general store and work the family farm.

From 1930 to 1938, he became one of several farm boys to attend St. Mary's Academy, a boarding school for Native American girls. Pottawatomie Indians were his compatriots in baseball and cotton chopping -- ordinary farm kids just like him. Not until he was home on leave from World War II did he come across Native Americans who seemed at all different. Driving a truck cross country to earn money, he encountered Navajos (the Dineh), who were engaged in a ritual curing ceremony on the reservation in northwestern New Mexico. Hillerman was fascinated. The experience created a lasting impression of a generous, deeply religious, and hospitable people whose approach to life he valued.

After completing his stint as a combat soldier in the Army, during which he earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Purple Heart, Hillerman returned to his home state to attend the University of Oklahoma, receiving a Bachelor's degree in 1948. That same year he married Marie Unzner, with whom he reared five children.

His first job out of college was writing advertising copy for Cain's Age-Dated Coffee and Purina Pig Chow. A week into the job, he received a call from Tommy Steph, editor of the Borger News-Herald, and his career as a journalist was launched. From 1948 to 1962, he covered crime and politics for newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, eventually working his way up to the editorship of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Between editing a daily paper and being the father of five, however, Hillerman couldn't find time to do what he really wanted to do -- write a book.

"In Santa Fe," Hillerman writes in his memoir Seldom Disappointed, "my yen to become a novelist grew stronger. The UP bureau was just up the street from where Territorial Governor Lew Wallace had written Ben Hur. Across the parking lot in the newsroom of the New Mexican, Oliver La Farge, whose Laughing Boy had won the Pulitzer Prize, was a columnist. The book review editor's Scrimshaw had won the National Book Award for poetry. A reporter who regularly sold his short stories to The New Yorker had just left. ... All things seemed possible. I started writing short stories, collecting those painful rejection slips, and dreaming about writing the Great American Novel."

Fittingly, it was a news story about a murderer condemned to die in New Mexico's new gas chamber that jump-started his career in fiction. After talking to the death row inmate, who hoped Hillerman's story might alert his long-lost mother to his death, "a notion implanted in my brain," says Hillerman. "It was the thought that fiction can sometimes tell the truth better than facts." (The convict would later turn up in Hillerman's novel People of Darkness and in the short story "First Lead Gasser.")

Encouraged by his wife to pursue writing, Hillerman enrolled for a Master's degree in English at the University of New Mexico. There he encountered writing professor Morris Friedman, who encouraged him to write in the first person (a taboo for reporters) and introduced Hillerman to his agent, Ann Elmo. She was soon at work, selling his essays to magazines until Hillerman was ready to move from freelancing to fiction. From 1967 to 1970 he worked nights and weekends to complete his first novel, The Blessing Way, featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Upon reading the draft, Elmo famously counseled Hillerman to "get rid of the Indian stuff." But Hillerman felt the Navajo Nation and culture were the most worthwhile parts of the manuscript, so he sent the book off to Harper & Row editor Joan Kahn, who'd been quoted in Writer magazine saying that she liked mysteries more involved with character and culture. True to her word, she liked the book enough to publish it in 1971.

As his writing career was taking off, Hillerman taught at the University of Mexico and went on to chair the journalism department for more than 20 years. He retired in 1985, but the books kept coming, more than 20 at last count, including 15 in his legendary mystery series featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee. While the "rez" is only about the size of West Virginia, Hillerman's two Navajo cops have found plenty to keep them busy over the past 30 years. Laced with references to Native religion and culture, each book reveals a different aspect of life in high desert Indian Country, where Native culture and mainstream American society intersect. Throw a murder into the mix, and you've got the makings of one of the most successful mystery careers in America.

Although the tribe has named him a Special Friend of the Dineh for his accurate portrayals of Navajo life, Hillerman still worries about getting it wrong. He reads copiously and runs his manuscripts by Navajo friends to check not only for accuracy, but for believability as well. He even had a Navajo English class in Shiprock consider a subplot he was planning to see if it would work. When the students said no, he junked it.

"For me, studying the [Navajo] has been absolutely fascinating," Hillerman told Publishers Weekly, "and I think it's important to show [my readers that] aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane."

In addition to his mystery novels, Hillerman has written numerous nonfiction works that explore the geography and history of the Southwest. Most recently, his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, earned both the 2002 Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award and the Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction Book. These awards take their place on a shelf already filled with Edgar and Grand Master Awards from Mystery Writers of America, the Golden Spur from Western Writers of America, and a Public Services Award of the Department of the Interior, among others.

Hillerman's stories are both accessible and authentic. With minimal fuss, he captures the full sense of the lonely Southwestern landscape, scaling it down to a human level without diminishing its power. As anthropologist, journalist, and storyteller, Hillerman captures the endless highways, sly humor, and enduring spirit of Indian Country better than anyone else does.

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