Tony Hillerman's recently published memoir takes its title from his mother's homespun beatitude: "Blessed are those who expect little, for they are seldom disappointed."
"Seldom Disappointed" speaks volumes about Hillerman's roots in dirt-poor rural Oklahoma, his world view strongly shaped by his family's--especially his mother's--values, the Catholic influence in his life, and his down-home demeanor. As he once said, "There is not a damned thing sophisticated about me."
Hillerman, 76, has been a reporter, journalism professor, and college administrator, but he's internationally known for his best-selling and award-winning series of Southwest mysteries with their Navajo tribal police protagonists, Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee.
Hillerman's mysteries have garnered a number of awards, but he insists that the one most meaningful to him is the "Special Friend to the Dineh Award" given to him in 1987 by the Navajo Nation for "authentically portraying the strength and dignity of traditional Navajo culture."In his interview with Beliefnet producer Anne Simpkinson, he talks about his Catholic faith, the rock-solid principles he learned growing up, his near-death experience during World War II, and his respect for the Dineh (Navajo) way of life.
In reading your book, your mother and Catholicism seemed to be two very important influences in your life.
Yes, they certainly were. It's hard to understand how people can get through life, which is tough, without having any religious faith.
Yeah. I never grew up afraid of anything. I grew up knowing the hard fact of our existence as humans: that we're born, we have a period on earth where we have a chance to prove ourselves, and then we die. And dying is certainly nothing to be afraid of.
If all of a sudden I'm beset with an incurable disease, I'd be distraught at first, disappointed. Then it would dawn on me, "I'm getting a chance to get my act together before I'm called before the great Judge." I'd rather be run over by a train or something like that where it's quick and painless. But nothing happens without a reason.
You were raised Catholic. Are you a practicing Catholic now?
I am, yes. I go to Mass. I'm not as devout as I ought to be. I really think of myself more as a Christian, as a follower of what the good Lord tried to teach us.
There were times when I was younger--I think most young people, no matter how they're raised, go through a period when you think: "What am I doing here? What's all this about? Is there a God?" You're driven by your intellect to try and understand things. So I did a lot of reading, read criticism of the Church, and agreed with a lot of it. Then, thank the Lord, we got Pope John XXIII. He knocked a lot of barnacles off the bottom of the ship.
So you like the changes that came after Vatican II?
Oh yes, indeed. It got back more to the way the good Lord intended it to be. The worst thing that ever happened to Christianity was when Constantine, the emperor or wanna-be emperor, decided that Christianity looked useful and had his whole confounded army converted. He didn't get baptized himself, but he made Christianity the chamber-of-commerce church. It's hard to recover from something like that. The good Lord came to preach to the poor and the humble and the downtrodden, I don't think the good Lord intended it [the Church] to part of the power structure.
There's a slogan you hear it a lot: "You don't find any atheists in foxholes." But I thought, if there is any place you could grow atheists, it would be in a foxhole because of what you're seeing all around you. How can you believe that we're created by a just, benign, and loving God when you see all that you see? It seems obscene to think about religion when you're holding a loaded weapon, sitting there with the goal of killing the next guy that sticks his head up.
I wanted to ask you about what we now call 'near-death experiences.' You had one after stepping on a land mine. Can you talk a little bit about what happened?
I remember just laying there. After any kind of a massive injury like that you have a period of shock. I was in total silence because my hearing was blanked out; I couldn't hear the machine-gun firing. I couldn't hear the explosions, the shots. Nothing, just silence. I'm laying there and thinking, "Okay I must have stepped on a personnel mine." They call them shoe mines--the Germans used a lot of them. They're designed not to kill but to maim; they usually blew the lower leg and the foot off.
It was snowing, cold, and kind of muddy. I thought, "I'll be bleeding a lot. I won't last long in this cold." Then I passed out. The next thing I know guys are putting me on a stretcher. I was conscious of that.
I was going in and out of consciousness, and I had this feeling of darkness, warmth, silence, and of moving along, sort of being in a trance, and of having I don't know what, God, somebody, something awaiting me with great warmth and love and care. I had a great sense of relief.
The next thing I remember I was being put on one of these ambulances they rig up on the side of jeeps. The company commander came up. He was all busy and in a bad mood, as I recall, because he'd lost a lot of men in that stupid raid we were on. I remember him saying something to me and I remember feeling disappointed that I wasn't out of it yet.
You were disappointed that you were alive?
Yeah, doggone it; the great journey was not over yet. The big adventure that Mom promised wasn't ready for me.
Let's talk about the mysteries that you write. You're known for mysteries in which the context is the Indian culture. At a time when Indians are critical of the appropriation of their customs and rituals, I find it intriguing that you were not only able to gain their cooperation but have received honors because of the way you portray them. How did you manage to do that?
There are Indians and then there are wanna-be Indians. There are what they call "blanket asses." There are city Indians. The Indians I've always known have nothing to do with the kind of Indians that you're describing, Ivy League Indians that have got a grandmother who was one-sixteenth Cherokee--but they're not sure, right? They tend to adopt tribes because they know how to spell them. Cherokee is a popular tribe as is the Sioux, because the Lakota Sioux got a lot of publicity.
The only Navajo who ever criticized me was himself a pretty good writer and I don't know why he didn't write about himself. The rest of them, well, let me put it this way: The world is full of us's and thems. In my childhood, the us's were the country boys--the Potawatomie Indians, the Seminoles, the Hillermans, the Moores, the Collins'. We were all redneck farm boys. We didn't have any money, we rode the school bus and took a sack lunch to school. We wore bib overalls and had just one pair of shoes.
The "them" were the sophisticated town boys. They wore neckties sometimes, and low-cut shoes; they had money. They went to the school store and bought hamburgers for lunch. We thought that if we got in a fight we could whip 'em. We tried, and it turned out they were just as tough as we were.
That us-them situation still exists. The people that you're talking about don't see separate tribes; they homogenize Indians, call them Native Americans, which Indians don't like to be called. Indians call themselves Indians; of course, they prefer to be called by their tribe--Hopi or Zuni, Navajo or Cherokee.
The city Indians have taken over the media, and they've taken over Hollywood. So the folks I know, they just endure. But here comes a guy, who is a country boy, a redneck like they are, and they spot it right away.
It also seems that because of your upbringing, which emphasized values and principles, you respect them for theirs.
That's what attracted me so much to the Navajos. They know what's important, what comes first.
A friend of mine wanted to be a surveyor. He's a Navajo, and he wanted a job where he would make enough money to support a family. So he went to a technical vocational school, learned to be a surveyor, and got a good job with one of the big engineering companies. He was a transit man on a crew that surveyed power lines.
Then he got a call from home. His maternal aunt had had a stroke, and they were having a ceremony for her. They told him the day it would start. It was his maternal aunt, so of course he'd be there. Everybody would be there. It would last six days.
So he tells his boss, who says, "Hell, man, we're already behind schedule on the site. You don't have a vacation coming and I can't let you go. We're in bad shape." My friend says, "I have to go." So he went to the ceremony, lost his job--and had no regrets. He knew what was important.
Wasn't there somewhere in the book where you talk about how excessive money is seen as the equivalent of a sin?
Yeah, it's seen as hard-and-fast evidence that you don't have your values sorted out right. It's a given on a Navajo reservation that you've got to help relatives in need. The unemployment rate is staggering, so if you've got a lot of money, that's pretty clear evidence that you're not taking care of your family. Don't you wish our philosophy was a little more like that?
Understand that a lot of the Navajos have been assimilated. You can find Navajos that are just as greedy as the average stockbroker--this is not going to make me popular with stockbrokers, but you know what I mean. Navajos are human beings, and they see the world around them, which is the United States of America with its consumer culture, and they think, "Golly, I'd like to have that kind of truck too."
In their Origin story, their emergence into this world from the last one, the first man was also a witch. He was a dichotomy of good and evil. When he got up on this world, he realized he'd left his medicine bag behind, which was full of his witchcraft stuff. He sent a heron, one of the diving birds, down to the previous world, which was destroyed by a flood, and told him to recover his bag. The name of the bag was, 'the way to make money.' Isn't that loaded with meaning? The way to get rich, that's what he wanted to bring up to this world. He did too, didn't he?
There was a story a while ago about Indian basketball players. The thing was that although they are quite good, not one can break out into the NBA because to be that individualistic is not encouraged.
I'll give you a great story. I was talking to a fella I know before the last Navajo Tribal Fair; they have a rodeo connected with it. I said, "Hayes, is your brother going to win the belt this year?" I think he was bronco riding--and he's good at it. He'd won the top prize the last two times, I think.
My friend said, "I don't think he'll enter this year. And if he does, he won't win."
I said, "What do you mean?"
He said, "He's been winning too much."
See what I mean? It's somebody else's turn to win. Makes it hard to make them what we would call "ambitious."
I can't let you go without asking if you're working on another book with Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
I have another Chee-Leaphorn book coming out in May. The name I gave it was "The Golden Calf." In the book, the Golden Calf is a lost gold mine. In the West we've got a whole bunch of legendary lost mines. The book is about a wealthy fellow who is obsessed with the idea of finding this lost mine. He's got all the money in the world. He's been a lease broker--oil and petroleum leases. He's a bachelor who meets this young woman, falls in love with her, and they marry. Meanwhile, a swindler approaches him, asking him to sell the location of the Golden Calf. I worked up a plot that puts him in the strange position. It's ambiguous, but he doesn't really know he's making a choice between worshiping the Golden Calf and loving his wife, but he is.
Anyway, alas, alas, my publisher didn't like the name very much--although I loved it--and it turned out they already had in production a book called The Golden Something or other, so they changed the name.
What's the title?
It's called "The Wailing Wind." I thought I did a pretty good job of it. But again, I like to feel like I'm doing some moral, ethical good with some of these things.
What is the moral or ethical lesson of this book?
Reminding people that if you worship gold more than love, you're going to be disappointed, right? At least I think so.