Paula Gordon Show Interview with Tony Hillerman

Excerpt from the Audio Interview

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Native American cultures and religions are worth taking seriously. Tony Hillerman is convinced they're just too important to let fade away. He's written nearly 20 mystery novels set in the American Southwest, half a dozen non-fiction books and scores of articles to give regular people access to information once buried in monographs and museum archives. Mr. Hillerman has a genius for giving garden-variety Americans a glimpse of worlds once hidden within spectacular landscapes that embody their own mysteries. But Mr. Hillerman wants more -- he also wants young Indians to see their culture taken seriously by white people.

These cultures and religions are as different from each other as they are from mainstream America, he assures us. And Mr. Hillerman has a bounty of stories with which to make his points. Consider, he suggests, how different the concept of time is for the Navajo and the Hopi. He's never known a Navajo who could tell him a word for "late" or "early." Not so the Hopi. When the two nations schedule a meeting to negotiate an issue, the Hopi are enraged when the Navajo fail to appear at the appointed time.

But the differences between all Native Americans and the larger culture are even more pronounced. Consider farmers in the midst of a drought. When Tony was a youngster in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, farmers prayed for rain. That would never occur to the Hopi or the Navajo, Mr. Hillerman reports. Instead of intruding on cosmic plans, the Indians pray to be in tune with the drought, in harmony with the weather. They trust nature, of which they know themselves to be a part.

Using what he calls his "bag lady' approach to writing, Mr. Hillerman has incorporated a lifetime of experience to speak to broad themes -- from the Biblical to Shakespeare, from the destruction he sees consumerism heaping on Western culture to the folly of military adventures and top-heavy bureaucracies. Readers can't get enough of it, as Tony Hillerman's fame and best-seller status continue to grow.

Then there is the great SouthWest itself. The land and sky not only play a vital role in many a Hillerman plot, they also shape the culture and religion of the peoples who fascinate Mr. Hillerman. He is quick to disavow the role of authority, but twice now, Native American organizations have honored him for his significant role in getting the larger culture to pay respectful attention.

Tony Hillerman is not so different from the rest of us -- a nice Catholic boy from Oklahoma who came back from a great World War to marry a lovely straight-A student, put in his time as a reporter and teacher while making a home for a houseful of kids who needed love. But there the similarity ends. Tony Hillerman has put his unique ragbag full of life experiences to work. In so doing so, he has revealed vast spiritual, culture and physical worlds once invisible to those of us who otherwise would have been just passing through.

[This Program was recorded June 14, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]