Enchanting People of New Mexico - Tony Hillerman

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Episode 14 - Tony Hillerman

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Every Monday and Friday I do Historical and Cultural New Mexico Podcasts. Wednesdays, I celebrate people.

One interesting person in New Mexico did enough in his 83 years of life, including spending most of 60 years in New Mexico that I could do hours about him, but these are 15 minutes. If you are interested there are resources to study him. Well, do you know the name John Hillerman, the actor in the 1980s television series Magnum, P. I. He was Jonathan Quayle Higgens the third. No, I’m not going to talk about him, I’m going to talk about his first cousin, once removed Anthony Grove Hillerman. The first cousin once removed is his parent's first cousin. If not the Hillerman on Magnum P. I., who is it? You know him as Tony Hillerman, who wrote best seller detective style novels, some nonfiction and taught journalism at the University of New Mexico.

Though he died at age 83 in 2008, you can get a taste of his characters on the AMC Network in Dark Winds, a television series based on two characters from Tony Hillerman’s novels. The second year series of six episodes are just finishing now. There was a film in 1991, The Dark Wind, which is said to be the driving force in the series today.

Tony Hillerman is best remembered for 18 novels he wrote, part of the 30 total books he wrote. These 18 novels were centered on the Navajo Nation Police, specifically using Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee as characters which were avidly read by fans, and some were made into movies.

Trivia: he said his Navajo name was: He who is afraid of his horse. That was typical of his sense of humor. I worked at the University of New Mexico during the time from 1975 to 1983 and had a casual conversation every so often with Professor of Journalism, Tony Hillerman. He was truly a man of stories. Because I graduated in 1972 from New Mexico State University in Journalism and Mass Communications, it was apparent upon meeting him that Tony Hillerman was a master journalist. I knew him in the 70s and early 80s because I worked at the University of New Mexico’s Instructional Media Service as the Television Director. He was a well-crafted writer of news stories as were his students whom I interacted with a few times.

My father, George Swickard, served in the European Theatre during World War Two. Tony and I spoke about that part of the conflict a few times. Despite now being an observer of what was happening, he was also a man of action. Tony Hillerman served two years in the Army, the 103rd Infantry Division in Europe where he was awarded a Silver Star for heroism, a Bronze Star for heroism and a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle. He was part of a mortar crew for two years, 1943 to 1945. As a combat veteran, he was sensitive to a number of issues involving Military Veterans, especially during and after the Vietnam War.

Tony Hillerman had many years in Journalism – he came to New Mexico in 1952 after a degree from the University of Oklahoma after working four years as a journalist there. From 1952 to 1966 he was a Journalist in Santa Fe and then decided to become a Professor of Journalism at the University of New Mexico which he was until he retired in 1987. There are literally hundreds of his students who were well schooled in writing by Tony Hillerman. His powers of observation and description were built to write detective novels that look at historical and cultural aspect of New Mexico. He had a different path open for him, not by accident but by his meticulous nature when he was writing something that he was so very interested to describe.

Michael Swickard, Enchanting People of New Mexico. Each Wednesday we do a podcast on people who are special to New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get these podcasts.

I’m talking about Tony Hillerman and his best-selling novels. His interest in Navajo culture started thousands of miles away. There was a series of novels written in the 1930s by Arthur Upfield which were set in a quite remove areas of Australia. The main character was a half aboriginal Australian Detective by the name of Nepoleon Bonaparte, not the French general, but called Bony in the novels. There were lots of Aboriginal traditions shown in the novels which were true to life. Hillerman indicated his interest in the series and how people survived in harsh conditions which inspired his interest in authentic Navajo traditions and stories. Hillerman once wrote: “When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony made 50 years ago.”

The late 1960s, was a time when there was so much turmoil on the campus of the University of New Mexico including on May 8, 1970, a violent encounter between protesters holding the Student Union building and New Mexico National Guardsmen which resulting in some ten people and a television reporter from KOB-TV being bayonetted. The storm clouds over UNM had been there for years. Tony Hillerman worked on his novel for a couple years as something to focus his journalism. At first, he was writing fiction as a means of improving his journalistic ability to write and then it turned into something completely different. In the 1960s Hillerman witnessed a Navajo ceremony near Crownpoint, New Mexico which got the writing going for him. When he was finally satisfied with the first novel he had written, he sent it in 1969 to an editor at Harper and Row and it was published after he made some adjustments they required such as he expanded the Character Joe Leaphorn, the Navajo policeman to a much larger role.

And the rest was then years and years of working on the stories and traveling around that section of New Mexico with his journalist eye on the land and people. One thing a journalist is most focused on is the story, the start and the ending in what journalists call the inverted pyramid meaning getting the most important part of the story out first. In doing so Hillerman came to recognize the center of his 18 novel series was his two Navajo characters.

He said in an interview that he initially was focused on the character, Bergen McKee who in the story was a Professor Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a college friend of Joe Leaphorn. Typical of journalist Tony Hillerman was that initially the center of the story was McKee, but it left out the rich tradition of the Navajo culture. When he brought that to the forefront, his novels took off. That is what people all over the world wanted to read so it was translated into eight languages beside English.

In that first novel, Anthropology Professor Bergen McKee travels to the Navajo Reservation in an effort to research Navajo tales of witches along with being able to visit his college friend, Joe Leaphorn. Leaphorn is a Navajo Tribal Police lieutenant. It turns into a murder mystery shrouded in mystery and the Navajo culture.

Michael Swickard, Enchanting People of New Mexico. Each Wednesday we do a podcast on people who are special to New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get these podcasts.

We are talking about Tony Hillerman who wrote 30 books, 18 of them in a Navajo Detective Novel series that is being shown 15 years after Tony Hillerman passed away at age 83. These are enduring stories for the ages.

He was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma and was the youngest of three children. His father’s parents were born in Germany and came to America and his mother’s parents were born in England and likewise came to America. One thing that shaped Tony was that he lived in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma in which a number of Native American tribes lived. He attended school with children of the Potawatomi Native Americans so that he viewed Native Americans to be just like everyone else, not a us and them relationship which undoubtedly allowed his portrayal of Navajos to be so authentic.

But there is one more part of the Hillerman story to be told. After his time in World War Two, Tony Hillerman was a student at the University of Oklahoma where besides getting an great education in journalism he met Marie Unzner, a microbiology students. They wed and for sixty years they worked together on the family and life. When he died in 2008, they had ten grandchildren. But the stories about the most beloved characters continued since in 2013 Tony and Marie Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman published a novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter which featured her father Tony’s Navajo Police Characters.

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Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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