Daughter continues father’s line of Navajo books

Michaeline Chance-Reay

By A Contributor

If the name Hillerman is familiar you are probably a fan and are glad to see the saga continued.  Spider Woman’s Daughter is identified as a Leaphorn and Chee novel as these are the main characters of the series.

Begun by Tony Hillerman in 1970 with The Blessing Way, this look at law and order in the four corners area of the United States is also a lesson in Native American history and culture.

Both Chee and Leaphorn are Navajo, but because the area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico is home to Utes, Hopis, Apaches, Zunis, and others, we learn about a variety of customs and beliefs and how tribes, which are sovereign nations, interact with both local and federal law enforcement.

It is a sort of police procedural in a beautiful, unique setting. Referring to the Chaco Canyon site, Chee notes, “In a couple of weeks this place will be full of people who come for the solstice…spiritual seekers and wannabe Indians…There is no place in the world quite like this. And to think that the ones who lived here were so wise that we can still use their solar marker ten centuries later.”

My geography colleagues say geography determines history and I believe it was Wallace Stegner who proposed that the American West in a novel is a more powerful aspect than any other setting, regardless of characters, plot or theme.

Besides fairly harmless visitors there are also an anthropologist, an archaeologist, and other artifact hunters—legal and illegal, thus the plot.

Can a person get so steeped in local mythology that they imagine themselves to be a reincarnated spirit being free to punish supposed transgressors at will?  The phenomenon is termed going native, and can be either simply amusing or fatal.

Spider Woman’s Daughter contains both.

Although females are on the reservation force, previous books have not had any as main characters.  This tale is not only written by a woman about a female spirit, it has Chee’s wife, Officer Bernadette Manuelito, as the protagonist.

She witnesses the shooting of retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and, although on professional leave, works to discover the culprit. The Navajo or Dine, meaning “ the people,” as they refer to themselves, are matrilineal so women have always played an important role in their history. The women own the sheep, originally the major source of income.

Anne Hillerman, resident of Santa Fe, is Tony Hillerman’s daughter. She is an award winning reporter, and author of Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn, Gardens of Santa Fe, and Santa Fe Flavors: Best Restaurants and Recipes.

This is her first novel, inspired she reports by all those who asked her if her dad might have any additional manuscripts hidden away somewhere. She has made an admirable attempt at verisimilitude.

Having Chee call his wife, “honey” and “sweetheart” threw me a little. This is a contemporary account and they are married but one would think there is a Navajo term of endearment that would not be so jarring. It is like being carried back in time while watching the Zunis dance at their pueblo and suddenly noticing some young men are wearing eye glasses, braces, and wrist watches.

I look forward to her second novel though, as I too want Chee, Leaphorn, and Manuelito to keeping solving mysteries in Navajoland.

If you would like to sample a film version the Manhattan Public Library has A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, and Skinwalker.  Handsome Adam Beach, of Code Talkers and the cult film Smoke Signals, plays Chee while actor Wes Studi, of Last of the Mohicans and Geronimo, plays Leaphorn. Robert Redford adapted this trilogy for the screen.

Michaeline Chance-Reay, local author and historian, is an emeritus professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Women Studies at Kansas State University.

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