Into The Badlands Chapter 3
The Uranium Was All We Had
I drove through the square and parked the car in the shade. Isleta Pueblo looked like a ghost town in the noonday sun. The kind of white painted, deserted settlement, built around a church, that Clint Eastwood walks into in every spaghetti western and all is silent, too silent, until the church bells toll and the gunfire starts. Here the shops were boarded up and nothing stirred as I walked back across the square towards the church. Suddenly some laughter came from my left, down a side alley I could see four Indian guys digging a hole. Now they were taking a little time off to stare at me. Now, while I am hardly the type who becomes a local in every bar he enters, there is at least a basic level of familiarity to be wrenched from most new places. In Isleta Pueblo, high on a hill above the Rio Grande, under the brightest of suns, there was none. No place to hide, no doubt about it, I was a stranger in town.
It was a map that had brought me to Isleta Pueblo, a map marked Indian Country that Tony Hillerman had lent me and on which he had marked a route from Pueblo to Pueblo. Tony Hillerman was the reason I'd flown into Albuquerque the night before, frightened to death as the plane bobbed and weaved over the Sandia Mountains. Hillerman has spent the last twenty years engaged on one of the most singular projects in crime fiction; a continuing series of novels that have as their central participants Navajo Tribal Policemen, and as their background, their mise en scene, the world of the Native Americans of New Mexico and Arizona - Navajos, Hopis, Pueblos...
I'd arrived at Albuquerque airport the night before, glad to be alive and immediately struck by a relaxation in the atmosphere. Suddenly, I was surrounded by laidback cowboy types in faded denins, (the one in front of me getting off the plane, however, was carrying a copy of Body Art, a British mag devoted to tattoos and body fetishism so maybe cowboys today aren't the straight arrow types of yesteryear, but what the hell). The friendliness here seemed altogether more convincing. I picked up a map and a rental car - a Chevy, my first non Japanese motor - drove north and then east on Route 66 towards the centre.
Route 66 lives up to its billing, all the way thru Albuquerque, some 20 miles or so, it is crowded with an assortment of classic 50s motels. All with lurid and dilapidated neon signs, all built around courtyards and, a sop to the 80s, all offering cable TV. I chose the Gaslite Motel out of admiration for its sign. Twelve dollars got me a room with a double bed, a bathroom and a TV with a picture so dreadful that what I was watching may or may not have been HBO. The courtyard's half full of great American motors in various stages of disrepair being attended to by Hispanic guys with unruly moustaches. Mostly the Gaslite seems to house families, Latin and Indian kids are running around, washing lines are hanging out, and the room TVs all seemed to be tuned to the cartoon stations with the volume up to the max.
After a shower I decide to head on down to Old Town Albuquerque. This nestles in the shadow of the shiny new downtown district that has sprung up in recent years. Twenty years ago all Albuquerque consisted of was a collection of motels on the junction of two major roads, now it's a centre of high tech industry, particularly military hardware. Hey! This is the one place on earth with a vested interest in the Star Wars programme. And it's average age is 28. Old Town Albuquerque looks like its been remodelled to provide a place for the nuke employees to buy Western stuff for the folks back home. It's old but it feels fake. A collection of Adobe buildings grouped in a square, almost every one selling upmarket Indian souvenirs - Navajo silverware, rugs, jewellery, dolls and pottery, mostly generic folk art, designed only to appeal to tourists with an ever weaker connection to anything resembling a tradition.
Most of the shops and restaurants are closing up and a high wind is blowing dust up in my face as I try to find somewhere to eat. Down a side street I catch sight of the High Noon Saloon, an old white adobe structure, covering my face with my jacket to keep the sand off, I make a run for it. Inside it's a severe culture shock. You pass thru a deserted lobby into a small and elegant bar, empty apart from two Indian guys sat at the bar silently drinking Bourbon, though the bar I emerge in a ritzy restaurant. Its surprisingly full but they find me a space and I eat a great salad and giant enchilada while being buffetted by the most over the top service I've ever encountered, one waiter took my order, one set the table, another assisted me in ordering a Mexican beer,a waitress brought me iced water and two of the waiters combined to bring each dish to me. Then each of them would come by in rotation to ask me how I was enjoying the food and to refill my glass after each sip, the iced water waitress seeming particularly unimpressed by rate of water consumption. All this parody of European restauranteering seems peculiarly surreal in this 18th century adobe building whose defining feature is its asceticism.
After this its time to find a regular bar. I drive back down ROute 66 past the hotel tilI see a place with neon beer logos in the window, it's called the Fat Chance Bar And Grill. Walking towards it I half register the number of bicycles locked up. I enter and realise that , of course, I've walked into a student hang out. All around fresh faced types are sitting animatedly at tables around pitchers of beer, there's a small stage where a girl with long blond hair is tuning her guitar. Presently she'll sing Bad Company songs in a high clear voice. Meanwhile I sit at the bar drinking Dos Equis and talking briefly to a black guy who says he was born in London. he wants to go back one day, look up his relatives. This seems like reason enough to drink some more and by the time I leave I'm glad its a short distance and a straight empty road that takes me back to the hotel.
Next morning I take my sore head to the Gaslite's diner and read the paper while tentatively wading into coffee, eggs, hash browns and bacon. The paper reveals a level of crime more appropriate to an English local paper. The nearest thing to violent crime seems to be a man trying to rob a bank by holding his hand in his pocket so as to simulate a gun. This devilish ruse apparently failed to convince the bank staff and the man ran off emptyhanded. By now I'm starting to feel up to looking about me at my fellow diners. These are a motley crowd of working stiffs of all races, the kind of guys who would get roped in as extra villains in a western, but here, up close, this seems like a palpably easy-going society; black, white and red men all with hard work and dodgy pick-up trucks in common.
Wrenching myself from this reverie, from the feeling that maybe here is the American heartland, the place where the American Dream and The Levis ad campaign came together and found themselves melded into real life, I pay the bill and head off to see Tony Hillerman. Hillerman lives on the ouskirts of town in a family house in a quiet street with the obligatory pick-up parked outside. He's a big man, running to fat in his 60s, but this seeming to be less a symbol of complacency than simply of satisfaction, and with the tough, sharply defined, reporters face from his old book jackets softened into jolliness by the addition of a double chin, his glasses now looking amiably studious rather than interrogative. He's had to go to the hospital for some tests that morning, he's not feeling too good and besides he has an article to write for the New York Times, so he's sorry but we'll have to talk a little now and then he'll give me a map and show me where to head to see something of Indian Country, then we'll talk some more on my return that evening. So that's how I came to be in Isleta Pueblo. And why, really, I wasn't too worried as I stepped alone into the noonday sun and started to cross the square towards the church.
Half way across the square, I was not so sure; the silence was broken only by insect noises and the workers had stopped working and started staring at me. Feeling like the guy who's been sent out unawares to test a minefield I kept going to the church, found it thankfully open and entered. Inside it was spartan, white and, inevitably, empty. It was affecting, too, familiar and not, a Catholic church with a simple Christ at the altar and white-washed walls dressed with rainbows, painted in bold Indian colours, the effect cool and moving, redolent of a transplanted piety.
Somewhat renewed I head back out into the square and immediately things are changed. I wander around a little and one of the working guys comes over, turns out to be dead friendly, insists on opening up his sparsely-stocked souvenir shop for me, turns the radio on to a pop station, and I buy some chilis and some postcards, walk back to the car and head on to Acoma Pueblo, the oldest continually occupied site in the States, settled around 600 AD. The drive is remarkable, through what Hillerman calls 'empty country'. You can see for miles across scrubland and near desert, through the middle runs the Santa Fe railroad, a goods train passes through, suddenly a sign announces the the Rancho Mesa Bar, I drive down a track only to find a trailer and a man digging a hole. I ask him about the bar, of which there is no sign, he says, 'Well,... it s'pose to open yesterday but..' he shrugs and laughs and goes back to digging the hole.
Approaching Acoma, just off the road there's a huge rock escarpment, oblong, sheer-sided and flat -topped, rising dramatically out of the desert landscape. At Acoma I learn that this is known as the Enchanted Mesa, 'Katzimo' and legend has it that this was the ancient home of the Acoma people until one day, when all the able bodied people were down below the Mesa workinng in the fields, a great storm washed away the rock formation that had allowed access to the top of the Mesa. All those left behind on the Mesa starved to death there and those in the fields moved to the nearby mesa that they inhabit today.
At the foot of the Mesa is the Acoma Tourist Centre, where you pay your money and wait for a minibus (the Sky City Shuttle!) to take you to the top of the Mesa. There's a scale of extra charges for taking pictures. The charges are made in ascending order for camera, camera with tripod, video camera and, top of the range, sketching or painting. The Acomas have clearly woken up to the value of cutesy sketches of 'primitive' places. While I wait for the bus, I have a look round the Centre's cultural display. This is solidly informative of the Acoma Pueblos long history. Then, as you come to the end of it, you are suddenly confronted with a display of pictures of the Miss USA Pageant, which was partly filmed in Acoma in February 1987. Apart from the usual beauty contest tackiness, these pictures approach the surreal by attempting to incorporate nods towards Native AMerican culture and by the fact that February in Acoma is clearly bloody freezing. So there is a remarkable photo of several contestants lined up outside the tourist centre surrounding a specially chosen Miss Acoma. Miss Acoma is a retiring looking girl in glasses sensibly clad in several layers of traditional clothing. Misses Delaware, Oregon, Florida etc, however are all wearing swimming costumes, elegantly topped with fur coats, or in the case of Miss Florida, a tall black girl, a leather car coat with tiger stripe lapels. The effect is alarmingly like that of a sudden oubreak of big city prostitution on the reservation (the Hopi Hookers maybe?). Final icon, also available as a postcard, is a picture of All-American blonde Miss Illinois, sat on top of the Mesa in her swimsuit, her right leg extended in the direction of a piece of pottery, and grinning like all hell beneath a clear blue sky. Only trouble is the ground's covered in snow.
Up on top of the Mesa at Sky City itself, I trail round after an Acoma guide who has a disconcerting habit of bursting into fits of giggles as she explains the culture and history of the place. There's a church similar to the one at Isleta but larger and additionally decorated with peeling reproductions of Old Masterish pictures. Later on Hillerman explained to me a little of how the Catholic and the traditional religions have meshed together. "Christianity has not had the success with Navajos that it did with the Pueblos who are pretty much 100% Christian, mostly Roman Catholic. For example at Acoma, one of the big ceremonies is St Stephen's (that's open to the public they close the pueblo when they're conductiong their Cochina (?) cult dances - their trad religion involves the Cochina spirits, I don't know how you'd describe them, there's a million of the ther's two a couple of them on the shelf behind you - that's Mudhead there - they represent various kind of benign friendly spirits who bring rain and so on. Its not so difficult to mergen, they believe in one God, he's benign, he's interested. Theyuw believe in life after death, and something like the community of saints, the cochinas are like saints in a way, thewyre matrilineal, matriarchal, the idea of the Blessed Virgin was appealig to the Pueblos. They believe in good rewarded in a future life - all these were the same things the Franciscans were preachings, so they took readily to Christianity, if the Spanish military would have left them alone there would have been a very peaceful melding (Miami to Acoma, beauty of the meltijng pot) but they didn't... Still they became Christianised, and to this day the Franciscans, if youre in Santa Domingo one of the really big pueblos, when they do the Deer dance in which thet reenact the myth of the spirit which captured all the animals.. they preform this dance which reastablishes their rapport with the animals, straight after this dance, theuy dance right into the church for midnight mass."
Leaving the church, as we pass each building in the remakably authentic Desert Mediaeval village - the houses up to a 1000 years old and the older ones often three stories high - a woman would stroll out and half-hartedly market some pottery to us. Suddenly I'm struck by the notion of this being the oldest place in America and that maybe this is the source, the essence, a cluster of pottery vendors stuck on top of a mountain that was finally connected to the outside world thirty years ago, our guide tells us, by Hollywood. Acoma was scouted out as a location for a 50s western called Sundown and as part of the deal Hollywood money built a road connecting Acoma to Roure 66.
Now they're planning to transfer Tony Hillerman's work to the big screen, and Acoma may find itself back in the movies "They may be filmed, all of these books have been optioned by RObert Redford'd Wildwood Films. There's a couple of women hired as producers, they're coming out here next week. The script's been written, based on A Dark Wind. He's planning three movies on the reservation using as much as he can Navajo actors, keepig the cost down. And, who knows, maybe he actually will.. They might use Acoma rather than Hopis, they're very difficuly to work with, they have a schism within the pueblo between the traditionalists and the moderns and the tribal council are mod but the trads are very influentuial so they'7re very suspicious about anything that involves the outside world and especially their religion. The Acoma, as you saw are perfectly willing to make a buck, and I don't blame them
Heading out of Acoma I pass the inevitable aircraft hangar style bingo hall and stop at the reservation supermarket with its enormous stocks of duty free cigarettes. And head on to Laguna Pueblo. At Laguan I park by the rading post and gas stqation, eat a Native American Tuna sandwich on wheayt and take a look around the store. Theres a poster on the wall explaining the principles of community to the customers - 'We cash your cheques, we help you out in your hard times, do your shopping with us'. Weirdest thing is the video section, complete with Blazing Saddles, a pile of Westerns, a porno movie called Indian Lady and a selction of teach yourself elk-hunting vids. Still number one in the rnetal charts is Die Hard with Bruce Willis, just like very other video store in America that month.
Standing outside the store eating my sandwich, I get to talking a little to the guy who runs the store. He says that itmes have been hard for his epole lately, since the Uranium Mines closed down, 'Damn well paid employment that was, seventeen, eighteen bucks an hour'. Of course he understands environmental objections, but the discovery of Uranium on the reservation had come as a gosend - reservations having been chosen for their lack of resources, and to have their one source of a decent income removed on environmental grounds by the very people who have destroyed their old, environmentally conscious way of life s galling indeed.
Hillerman's name (And Lious L'Amolur) crops up as the one ray of light on the employment front is the filming of his books, already Hollywood tyopes have been nosing about and maybe, just maybe, there'll be work as extras and servicing the film folk. Who may, ironically enough, be filming People Of Darkness which has as a central element of its plot the long term dangers of uranium mining.
Hillerman though understands the Native American ambivalence to eco-politics. As he observes, talkin about the Navajos, "The Navajos are about like the rest of us, on the one hand they hate to see thier reservation despoiled, on the other they badly need a job or the revenue from the royalties to drill wells. So, they're sort of torn. You look around, we're exploiting Alaska for oil and now you've got this horrible oil spill. On the one hand then we wanr to shut the wholw thing down in Alsaka bit we know its going to cost us a dollar a gallon if we do so we let our appetite overpower our conscience, Navajos do the same thing. So there isn't much of an ecological movement as yet, what there is tends to be stimulated from the outside from white folks mostly who believe that the Navajos ought to feel this way and prod them into it and get some followers and some Navajos, but not so many. And for one reason and that's economics. You have in the general population a substantial number of people who are affluent and, being affluent can set aside greed,having satisfied it, right, and be pure ecologists. You don't have hardly any Navajos who aren't either needy or just barely across the line. They tend to put easting first, I think that's why, I think if you had an affluent Navsjo society you'd have a higher percentage of environmentalists than you would amongst white people. Because they are more sensitive to beauty I think than we are."
One NA who has a weell-developed concern for the ecology is Greg a silversmith whose parents came from Acoma to Laguna and has a little shop behind the Laguna Store. He6S sent ff samples of local earth for examination, says he fears for his children's health, and his stor has new age music tinkling in the background and srt photos of the desert on the walls.
BAck on the Interstate I head west to Grants.Grants is Albuqurque in miniature, a long strip of motels, thrift stores, western stores, liquor stores and bars. Its a hlaf-closed town, as ephemearal a place as I've ever been, aplace for Indians to come and get drunk. "Its a terrible problem among NAs off the rservation", says Tony Hillerman when I arrive back at his place in the early evening, "they have the highedt alcohol death rate in the US by far percentage wise. There are people who are believing more and more, though it used to be anathema to say it, that there might be some racial, genetic connection in addition to the economics and the problems of being caught between two cultures, because so many Navajos, I don't know any Navajos who drink socially, my Navajo friends do not drink at all, you don't find NAvajos who'll drinka beer or two beers with you, you find Navajos who'll take their monthly check and go to a bar and get absolutely drunk as quick as they possibly can. Its strange. A lot of Navajos hate the stuff. Its prohibited on the reservation, maybe all the reservations, though there's a suggestionnow that that may be a bad idea, they're losing the revenue as they drink anyway in Gallup or a border town get terribly drunk and robbed or die of exposure, and it'd be better to have it closer to home."
We talked over German beer in Hillerman's study, a room bedecked with maps of Indian COuntry, Pueblo Cachinas on the mantlepiece and a Plaque on the wall.The plaque turns out to be Hillerman's proudest possession: "That plaque...the Navajo tribes have a fair each year at WInter Rock (?) their capital, I got a call asking me to take part, I said OK and I heard they weanred me to ride in their parade. When I got thee it turned out they wanted me to ride a horse and lead their parade, I said I'd be willing if they found an old far horse, they founf a young frisky one... Then they had me come to the fair in the eveniong and they called me up to the grandstand and to my delight the tribal council chairman read this thing and gave it to me. A high point."
Hillerman's involvement with Indian culture goes back to his childhood: "I grew up in a tiny farm communituy in Oklohoma where most of our neighbours were Indians, Native Americans, Pottawottamee, Seminoles, some blackfeet, most of the children I played with were Indian kids. It was a segregated state but we were so far in the country that we segregated blacks but I went to an Indian school the forst 8 grades and learned I think early on that Indians were no different from other people, certainly no different to how I was. We shared a lot, poverty for instance. It was avery bad time and a very poor part of the country.
Hillerman's parents, too, were instrumental in develpong his loathing for discrimination, "My father was german second generation, he was also a pacifist socialist, he hated National Socialism, he took great pains as us kids were growong up to ensure that we were not infected with thast sort of thing."
Living so far out in the country also led to Hillerman having an involuntarily Catholic range of reading, "you'd order three booka at a time from the state library, you'd order Captain Blood, Death On Horseback and Tom Browns Scholdays or something, then about a month later you'd get a bo and there'd be a letter on top saying 'We are sorry the books you ordered are not on our shelves, but we have selected three others we hope will be of interest and you'd get Conquest Of ZGranada, Washingtonn Irving maybe and Lord North's translation of Plutarch's lives...a history oof the MAsinic Order in Oklahoma but if you're a reader you read anything."
Hillerman's route out of the backwoods took him first into the Army. He followed his father's principle and fought in Europe in World War two. "I was a PFC, I made that rank twice as I got busted down, then I was wounded." It was while on a convalescent furlough that Hillerman first ran acroos Navajos, the Native American tribe with the largest role in his fiction. "I'd got a job driving a truck with oilfield equipment from Oklahoma City to Crown Point, part of the reservation. It was towards the end of the war anf a lot of Navajos had been in the marine corps in the Pacific, thay were coming home and their families were having curing ceremonies for them and I blundered into one of those."
His war wounds were influential in pushing Hillerman towards writing for a living. "I had come out of the army with a bad limp and a bad eye. I didn't know what I wanted to do but I was limited.During the war a reporter had written a feature about me and she's goo some letters that I'd written home to my mother. She told my mother she wanted to talk to me when I got home, So I went to see her and she told me I ought to be a writer, so I went to journalism school. From there I became a police reporter then a political repoerter abn eventually an editor. After 17 yearws of that I decided I wanted to get serious, more serious about that so I quit a job as editor of the paper at Santa Fe and came to the University Of New Mexico as a graduate student, with a part time job, and started to try my hand at writi g non-fiction and other forms..fiction."
His first novel was called The Blessing Way and it introduced the character of joe Leaphorn, a Navajo Tribal policeman. leaphorn is a hradbitten man, he's approaching middle age and integrationist in an undogmatic way, sceptical of his peoples traditional religion and married to a white woman. In The Blessing Way though his is a supporting role, "I'd planned to write a mystery as my first book as it seemed to me it would be short, it would have a form, it would lend itself to narrative which I had experience at, thought I was good at. I decided I'd use the Navajo country as a background cause I knew it, I though it might be an iontersting stage setting. I didn't plan to write about the Navajos. WHen I started to writh that book the only central character was going to be the anthropoloist, a white man, and I was going to set it on an Apsache reservation as I'd known an Apache Tribal policeman whio was killed who interested me. Then I found that 1] the Apaches were not as intersting, certainly not as compicated, plus I knew more about the Navajos. But in the first draft the policeman was a minor character, then Harper and Row said they were interested but could I change the final chapter so I rewrote that and I also beefed up the character of the policeman."
His next book was intended to be the big book. Its a tough political thriller called The fly On THe Wall which draws on Hillerman's newspaper experience and is his one book not to feature an Indian backdrop. " I'd wanted to use my experience as a political reporter. It takes a reader into a situation where the reporter is investigating corruption the book confeonts a a question that always occurs in a democratic society - where you draw the line in what you report. In the final analysis publishing the story he worked so hard to get did more harm than good. I wanted to do something with that sort of ambiguous situation."
Fly On The Wall did well but his next novel saw Hillerman returning to Navajo country, "Even while I was writing Fly On The Wall I was troubled by the fact that I hdn't done the Navajo book well, and I wanted to get back and doit right so as soon as I finished it I started writing a second book using the Navajo tribal policeman. Thinking that if I started out knowing I was going to write a book in which the Navajo cultire was preeminent and a Navajo was the central character as was noy the case in the first book then I could get the jod done. Well I didn't it was a pretty good book it had soime good stuff in it, but I thought well, I'd better try it again..huh, huh."
And so a series character was born. Lephorn appeared in all Hillerman's 70s novels. Then for 1980's The People Of Darkness Hillerman introduced a second navajo policeman, Jim Chee. Chee is younger than Leaphorn and far more committed to the traditions of the Navajo community. He's a product of the post civil rights resurgence of pride amongst minority populations.Hillerman's reasoms for creating Chee, however, are mixed, "There were two reasons, one was greed one was artistic. I wanted to set a story in the so called checkerboard reservation whe the Navajos are all mixed up with various kinds of white peole and white reservations. SO i started this book thinking I'd use Leaphorn, who I'd used in three books by then. But I felt like I knew Leaphorn adn it was sort of out of character for Leaphorn to be so fascinated by white people who he'd been around for years as I wanted this fellow to do, or to have the protective attitude I wanted this fella to have about the Navajo trad religions. So i thought weel I'll skip him back and make him a young Leaphorn, but it didn6t work my imagination wouldn'y allow it, I coudn't imagine him as a young man, so I thought I'd better stsrt me a new one. At the same time I'd signed a movies contract, option , a complicated documrent with a low price for TV rights and a higher one for film, the option was renewed three times which was enough to pay for the TV rights, and it included continuing rights for the characters, weelll Leaphorn was the only continuing character, so I didn't own TV rights to Leaphorn any more so I had double motivation for starting a new character. Maybe I'd have done it any way, who knows, I have no bought back Leaphorn anyway. It cost me 22000 dollars to buy back my pwn character."
I asked Hillerman how he coped with the difficulties of, in effect, writing as a Navajo. "First I don't believe racial differences exist, we're all one species. The differences are cultural and more importsant economic. Plus you tend to form inyour early years and in my early years I was very moch like your average Navajo I was rural I was poor, we pulled our watwer out of a well we didn't have indoor plumbing, we depended on the weather, being farmers and we had a feeling of being second class citizens, of being inferior, we had a feeing that when we went to town we were looked down on. I felt that way, the boys I played with who wee Indians felt that way, like we were outsiders. WHen I go on to a reservation and sit around and talk anf watch I see the same things tha I saw when Iwas a child, same attitudes. I would hav emuch more difficulty for example writing about the kinds of people John Le Carre writies about, people who went thru the English public school, the ruling class people, or the Ivy Leaguers the rich people the privileged class that most people write about. They're strangers to me, they're very exotic and interesting but I don't know them and I don't understand how their minds work. The Navajosm from the begining I Ve found a rapport with them and a sympathy for them. Its very diffecult for them to get an education and it was very difficult for me to get one."
To write the books Hillerman uses a mixture of academic research and more informal research bult up over his years of living adjacent to Indian Country. "WHen I started writin Blessing Way I found I didn6t know nearly as much as I thought I did, and there were things I knew but didn't understand. SO We have at UNM a remarkably good librasry collection of Westen Americana of Native American stuff, otal history tapes, a Senator who spen his life collecting this stuff gave it to the Univ, so I have easy access to the finest coll of research about the Navajo culture, and I live close enough to Navajo country I have a lot of friends and so forth. Icombine what I know about modern NAvajos with what the anthroplgists tell me about metaphysivs and so forth. I don't know the big shots in the Navajo tribe, the Navajos I know are the plain old people the guy who has a hogan over at Caroline Arizona, a kid over near White Horse Lake who's trying to get thru school, a sheep herder who lives over near Chin Lee (?), just average people."
And its these casual, friendly relationshps that give Hillerman his easy personal perspective on Navajo culture. "Say I've got aa scene in a book that taked place at a trading post and ZI want to hang out at a trading post for a while just to see if there's anything about it that I'm overlooking. So I go to Two Grey Hills which is a fairly isolated trading post, and I go in and I buy a cold drink and start talking to the guy behind the cash register and someone comes in and we include him in the conversation and before long you find out that he knows someone you know in Utah, its a small world out here and fore long you're friendly, he looks you over, you're a white man but you're..nothing muchparticularly. And before long you kind of know him. ANd you see him again sometime, ssee I'm 63 years old I've been out here a long time, you see him and you remember him and you're talking about a ceremonial and you say I'd sure like to get invited to one of those and he sayd 'Well, I've got an aunt whio's got a sick kid and she's going to have a 'Wind Way (?) or something, I'll see if it'll be OK I bring you.'"
I wondered what the reaction of Natice American readers to Hillerman's fiction has been. "First of all I got that plaque. I also get letters form high school kids asking me to be their commencenent speaker, I get letters from Navajo kids, they use me in the schools a lot so they have to read me. They very polite people so they may hate my stuff but they never tell me that, generally speaking I get a lot of good feedback I've had people tell me that they couldnZ't get thier kids intersted in the Navajo way, they thought that's old stuff, I want to get off the reservation and get me as hot car, then they start reading me at school and here they're seeing their culture dealt with in a real book, not as characters in a text book, but with Navajos as central chars and their religion trated with respect, and theuy go back to thier parents and ask questrions, I6ve had dozens of parents tell me that. I had a Navajo woman who is a librarian on the Pima res in Arizona, we were talking about native AMerican writers, about James Welch Scott Marmaday (?) Leslie Silko (?) and others, I was asking how Indians react to them, sge sais we read Welch and SIlko and all and we say 'That's us, they really understand us, that's us and its beautiful but its so terribly sad, then we read you and we say yeah that's us too, and we win, and of course kids like to win."
By now it's getting late, one of TAOny's kids has dropped round with his wife. We chat alittle about Albuqurque and where to get a good steak and its time to go. AS I leave Iask Hilerman whether he thinks his book have succeeded in changing the way the masjority community reagards Native American culture; "That's one of the disappointments, each time I have the ambiyious notion that I'm going to teach quite a bit in htis book, and then you have to consider the fact that the reader - if he wanted to know he'd go to the library and get a book - yuou can6t really force the guy to learn about Navajos, he bought the book to be told a strory so you restrain yourself, and after you've written it you cut out a lot of stuff so you don't do much but at least ewach time it think it gives people, white people, the idea that Indians are human beings, you know."
Next morning there's a couple of hours to kill before catching my plane. I head back to Old TYown looking for for some souvenirs. In the tourist shop the guy behind the counter is bemoaning his lack of stock. 'It's the japanese' he says, 'they6re crazy for Western gear, they come over and buy everything'. In next door's shop its the same story, apocryphal stories of Japanese extravagance are being cobbled together, 'Why of course its a reasonable price, ma'am, do you know what the japanese pay for this kind of quality', that kind of stuff. Depreseed by the over manicured merchandise on offer head back into downtown Albuqurque thinking about Hillerman6s dismissive thoughts on the contemorary vogue amongst New Age types for 'Navajo culture' - a selective pot pourri of half-grasped mysticism and pretty artefacts, "There's been a lot of romanticism about Native AMerican culture", says Hillerman, "you can go back to Tennyson, and then it came up again inthe 60s with that awful German writer, Herman Hesse, now nobody in his right mind would read Herman Hesse, but the interest has revived again, those things are cyclical. The inteest in esoteric religions, magic, mysticism, shamanism rises and falls. But there's alot more to Navajo culture than Shamanism and mysticism, there's some deep rooted philosophies that the culture's built on
I turn into a parking lot along for the seediest parade of shops this somewhat shining new city has to offer. Thee's a snooker hall and a sex shop, the kind of ameniies that normallyt accompany a Greyhound station. Also there's a second hand bookshop and a row of three excellent establishments. First an old-style hat shop - the kind of place Doc Hooliday would have been proud to patronise filled with voluminous stetsons and rakish straw hats. Making a mental note to return here if I ever decide to embark on a career as an itinerant poker player, I grsavitate next door. This advetises Western Utility wear and sells clothes for real cowboys, unshrunk Levis in giant sizes, khaki shirts and tasteless T-shirts. Also on offer, Albuqurque police department uniforms. Useful for undercover work no doubt but aesthetically less than tempting. A couple of doors futher down is the Sandia Pawn & Gun Shop. Entering ahead of me is an Indian guy, he's got some jewellery to pawn, the charming old gent behind the counter appraises it, quotes him a figure and the guy wanders towards the glass case of guns, starts debating their merits with another assistant.
The jewellery here is altogether more authentic. Old Navajo silver and turquoise; bracelets, bolos, broaches. The bolos ar eparticularly striking, men's jewellery, stark orrnamentation mounted on a leather bootlace, a tough guy's affectation. And here in the Sandia Pawn& Gun Shop is something of the old west - a man invest his savings in gold and silver, wears his money, and when it comes the times when he's gotta do what he's gotta do, then he can sell the gold asnd silver, buy a gun and make some more money. A simple life. The Indian guy is picking up a servicable looking pistol for 200 dollars, he asks the guy if they sell ammo, 'no, K Mart just down the block'. I take a look at the gun case. Cheapest item is a lady's gun a handbag-sized Derringer, just 72 bucks plus tax. A Smith & Wesson, an ugly snub-nosed thing nothing like the toy models I played with as a kid, just a tool for killing with, pure and simple, is $300. A pretty Smith & Wesson, like they use in the movies, is $495. For a hundred bnucks less you could buy something a little more modern, a semi-automastic machine pistol, a weapon whise only apparent domestic use is for going berserk and killing indiscriminately at your local Macdonalds or primary school.
I end up just buying a bolo and leave wondering about the guy who bought the gun, pushing middle age, and his luck not looking to be of the best, a prototype Hillerman villain. Or victim, Hilerman is reluctant to see even his most vicious characters as evil; "I have never eally known any really bad peole. As a police reporter...For example the murderer in People Of Darkness was modelled after the last man executed im New Mexico - we've repealed the death penalty - I was a reporter and I spent a lot of time talking to him. he was being evxecuted for killng about five people, the last two he was hitchiking and some newlyweds picked him up. He decided he wanted their car so he killed them both and stuffed then in a culvert with not a bit, as far as I could find out, of repentance. Nobody knows how many people he killed. Anyway when you got acquainted with him you could understand why, and you understand why when you read People Of Darkness - the guy's perpetual search for his mother - that was this guy's problem, he'd come home from school when he was eleven and the trailer was gone there was just the blocks left - his mother and the guy she was living with had upped and gone without so much as a note. ANd that started him on this lifelong quest for his mother, killing people along the way. No matter how villainous what people do might appear they tend to have rationalised it they can justify it some way or another." And sucking on that it's time to head for the airport