The Late Arrival of the Native American Detective

By Davis, J. Madison | World Literature Today, May-August 2017 | Go to article overview

The Late Arrival of the Native American Detective


Davis, J. Madison, World Literature Today


The indignities and brutalities suffered by ethnic and racial groups at the hands of others are legion on the unhappiest pages of human history. Not the least of these insults is, of course, stereotyping or exaggerating ethnic traits with the intended or unintended result of reducing the complexities of a culture to an entertaining caricature. At the most basic level, we all shape reality, and storytellers adapt their experience of the people around them, kneading characteristics one way or another like a sculptor working clay. In the process, an artist's or writer's intentions are more often than not marred by poor execution, simple misunderstanding, or a malicious wrongheadedness. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers who attempted to capture authentic folkways may have with sympathy and accuracy recorded the language of slaves, immigrants, and Native Americans, yet it did not take long for those stylings to become a means to dehumanize their subjects and ultimately to justify mistreatment. Individual character traits are generalized to a race or generalizations become lazy authors' choices for character traits.

The basic pattern of the mystery story as popularized by Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle is amiably predictable- crime, investigation, revelation. So how were authors to make their stories distinctive? One of the solutions was novelty detectives. Chan is Hawaiian Chinese. Mr. Moto is Japanese. Father Brown is a priest. Sid Halley has lost his hand. Longstreet is blind. Others, like Sherlock Holmes, are larded with peculiar habits. Adrian Monk is obsessive-compulsive. Nero Wolfe never leaves his brownstone. Similar variations happened on television in the 1950s and 1960s, when westerns filled the airwaves with repetitive plots. Josh Randall carried a sawed-offrifle, Wyatt Earp his Buntline Special, Bat Masterson his derby and cane, Lucas McCain his fast-firing rifle, and Johnny Yuma wore a kepi. Ultimately, with Law of the Plainsman (1959-60), NBC gave us Native American sheriffSam Buckhart, played by Michael Ansara, an actor born in Syria. One can easily imagine the production meeting: "Have I got a wild one, guys! An Indian sheriff!"

The commonness of this sort of badfaith story cobbling is why it is surprising to me that the Native American detective seems to be a rather late invention in the mystery and really only becomes a distinctive item on bookstore shelves after Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way (1970) and Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), a multiple award winner. Exactly how unusual Native American mysteries were at that point can be gathered from what Hillerman often recounted: a publisher advised him that his mystery was good but that he needed to get rid of all that Indian stuff. Hillerman learned the craftand ethics of writing in the newspaper business, and he drew his fiction from his familiarity with Native American culture. As I reported in my 2008 article in World Literature Today, Hillerman had been a day student in a school for Native American girls in Oklahoma. For him, Native Americans were not exotic. After becoming a highly decorated combat veteran in World War II, he settled in New Mexico and became familiar with the cultures of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other southwestern tribes.

Hillerman was influenced by the novels of Arthur W. Upfield, an Australian who created a series of twenty-nine mysteries (from the late 1920s until his death in 1964) with a "half-caste" aboriginal detective, Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte. When he created Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, he wanted them to solve cases as Bony did, based on their knowledge of the people and their land. Different tribes are often as different in nature as different nationalities, and privy to the private jokes and sacred beliefs of Native peoples, Hillerman knew about these differences and wanted them to be important in his stories. Hillerman sincerely cared about accurately representing his characters. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Late Arrival of the Native American Detective
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.