July 18, 1988 12:00 PM

Tony Hillerman first encountered the Navajos in 1945 when he had a temporary job driving a truckload of drilling pipe from Oklahoma City to Crown Point, N.Mex. He was going through a lonely stretch of the Navajo reservation when “a party of about 20 men and women on horseback suddenly emerged from the piñons and crossed the dirt road in front of me,” he remembers. “They were wearing ceremonial dress and silver jewelry and had painted their faces.”

Hillerman was 20 at the time and just back from World War II in Europe, where he had been wounded and decorated for bravery. He soon learned that the Navajos he had seen were engaged in a “curing ceremony” called the Enemy Way. A young Navajo who, like Hillerman, had just returned from the war, was being restored to harmony with his people, cured of the contamination of exposure to foreign cultures. Although Hillerman had grown up among Seminoles and Potawatomi in Sacred Heart, Okla., where his father was the postmaster, Tony had never seen any Indian nation like the Navajo. “My tribal neighbors back home had pretty well had their culture wiped out by the white man’s society, but the Navajo have kept their traditions, their genesis, their philosophy intact. I was fascinated,” he says—so much so that he chose to settle in New Mexico.

That fascination deepened in 1963, when he abandoned a 15-year career as a newspaper reporter and began his first novel, The Blessing Way. It was the first of his seven murder mysteries to date, all set in the stark, unforgiving expanses of the Navajo reservation, which sprawl across 25,000 square miles of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Hillerman had to wait until Skinwalkers, his sixth book, to make his commercial breakthrough. Published last year, Skinwalkers sold 40,000 copies in hardcover and 100,000 in paperback and won the Golden Spur award of the Western Writers of America as best novel of the year. His latest book, A Thief of Time, made the New York Times best-seller list last week. Hillerman believes that his books appeal to two kinds of readers: “the desert rats, who just love the land and identify with it, and just plain old mystery fans.”

Hillerman’s detective heroes are native policemen Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, and his books delve deeply into the daily life of the Navajo, which is informed by an ancient culture and complicated by the modern world. There are the intrusions—for good and for ill—of the Anglos; there is religion and witchcraft and alcoholism, and, above all, there is a carefully defined web of family relationships. In Hillerman’s novels, murder not only shatters flesh and bone; it also tears at the fabric of a unique society.

Hillerman, who lives in Albuquerque, does his research by driving 80 miles to the reservation and questioning people he meets at trading posts, rug auctions and sheep shearings. In turn, he says, the Navajo don’t hesitate to criticize what he writes about their world. One pointed out that a character in one of Hillerman’s books wore braids, while Navajo men actually wear their hair in a kind of bun. On the whole, though, the people Hillerman portrays are more than pleased with the way he does it. A plaque presented to him by the Navajo Tribal Council last September called him “a special friend” and cited him for “authentically portraying the strength and dignity of the traditional Navajo.” Obviously moved, Hillerman responded by saying he considered that his Academy Award.

An unpretentious man, Hillerman does not dote on his honors or possessions. He shares a modest four-bedroom home with Marie, his wife of 40 years, and five of their six grown children are within easy distance (one daughter lives in Maryland). He finds artistic inspiration in the space and sweep of the countryside. “Up above Santa Fe,” he says, “there is an aspen grove where falling leaves form a yellow carpet on the ground. To stand there and look up through the yellow ceiling, where the leaves haven’t yet fallen, and see that blue sky and hear those faint sounds that always seem to be present in an aspen forest…” He pauses. “I need only drive into that great emptiness to feel my spirit lift.”

—By Michael Neill, with Suzanne Adelson in Albuquerque

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