Idol Chatter

tonyhillermanpicforic.jpgTony Hillerman, the crime novelist whose books helped reignite interest in the Southwest and Native American culture, died Sunday at the age of 83, and even for many of his fans, his obituaries–of which there will be many–will present some startling facts.

One surprise is that Hillerman was not a Native American. Raised on Potawatomie land in Oklahoma, the author of “Skinwalkers” and “A Thief of Time” learned Indian ways by hanging around “rodeos, rug auctions and sheep-dippings,” he once told The New York Times. Yet Hillerman’s knowledge of Native American lore and religion was so complete he could build his crime stories and his vividly drawn Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee on the tension between modern life and traditional beliefs.
So deep was his respect for Native American spirituality that it also may come as surprise to some that Hillerman was a cradle Roman Catholic. (In an interview with Beliefnet six years ago, Hillerman talks about his mother’s faith and his support for Vatican II.)
Hillerman’s chat with Beliefnet shows that he was a conscious moralist: he saw his stories, as the academic types say a good novelist must, as ethical lessons. But the morals of his tales were often different than what his public might think. While his books were sometimes criticized for moralizing too heavily about the United States’ treatment of Indians, the true focus of his novels were not on the shame of our history, but on the universal themes of greed, love, honor and tradition and what role spirituality has in negotiating them.

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