Who is Jim Chee?

Originally published on Celebrating New Mexico Statehood, 8/19/2016
Who is Jim Chee? A cop. A Navajo. A scholar. A healer. Unlike Joe Leaphorn, the confident lieutenant who is rational, calculated, and skeptical of traditional Navajo beliefs and spiritual practices, Chee embraces the Navajo way of life and cherishes the sacred knowledge passed on to him by his ancestors. He is more intuitive than Leaphorn, and solves crimes not by relying solely on logical analysis, but on his senses and instincts. He is a tracker and a hunter, and uses his hearing, sense of smell, and ability to detect seemingly imperceptible changes in his surroundings to catch the bad guy and (for the most part) stay out of harm’s way. Both cops are representative of a changing culture, but it is Chee who embodies the identity conundrum shared by indigenous communities throughout North America.

To be a traditional healer, Chee understands, one must stay close to the ancestral homeland. The ceremonial songs that Chee is learning and the rituals he is mastering cannot be separated from the landscape, geographical features, climate, plants, and animals of the Navajo Reservation. And yet the reservation is not an easy place to live in. Like other reservations in the U.S., it still suffers the effects of the loss of land, livelihood, language, and culture that followed colonization. The vision of Manifest Destiny involved not only the appropriation of fertile lands and valuable resources, but also the eradication of cultures different from the dominant culture, which tends to be individualistic and capitalistic, and as such stands in opposition to the communal values and veneration of the land that characterize indigenous life ways.

Dispossession, the creation of reservations, boarding schools, and forced assimilation have all contributed to the rapid deterioration of Native American societies. Unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, and violence are prevalent on the reservation (and off), and Native peoples today share the wish and the efforts to break free of these afflictions. Many leave the reservation and move to cities, where the possibility of employment and education opportunities suggest a brighter future, but the choice to leave the reservation is not an easy one to make. Moving away means a different kind of loss: the loss of one’s roots, community, and sense of belonging. Natives outside the reservation must contend with a core split and live by two very different—if not opposing—value systems: the white, individualistic, capitalistic one, and the indigenous, collective, traditional one. For many, the move to the city implies betrayal, and the process of working toward a better future also becomes the process of deserting the traditional ways and assimilating to the outside world.

Jim Chee, as an example of someone who has left the reservation, spent three years at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, studying anthropology. He is an intelligent, educated, and ambitious young man, but he is also remains deeply connected to his home and his people. Becoming a Navajo Police officer is his temporary solution for the dilemma he faces regarding his future. He has a good, respectable job, and he stays close to home. But for how long? A bright, rising star in the tribal police force, Chee gets an offer to be trained as an FBI agent, which would entail moving to Washington, DC. When he falls in love with Mary Landon, a white woman, things get even more complicated. He wants a relationship with her. He is tempted by the FBI offer. And yet his identity is fully attached to the Navajo homeland, to his role as a keeper of order on the reservation, and to his future as a Navajo healer serving his community. The contradictory concerns and the opposing dynamics pulling on Chee from inside as well as outside fuel Chee’s character development in Hillerman’s mysteries. His dilemmas remain unsettled—a literary manifestation of the unresolved, ongoing struggles that challenge Native communities in the Southwest, North America, and beyond.