Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664
Because the Navajo Leaphorn has studied anthropology in a "white" university setting, he bridges the gap between the traditional Native American culture in which he lives and works and the more modern—if not, perhaps, advanced, to Hillerman's way of thinking—Anglo-American culture of the twentieth century with which most readers are...
(The entire section contains 664 words.)
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Because the Navajo Leaphorn has studied anthropology in a "white" university setting, he bridges the gap between the traditional Native American culture in which he lives and works and the more modern—if not, perhaps, advanced, to Hillerman's way of thinking—Anglo-American culture of the twentieth century with which most readers are more familiar. Bridging this gap is vitally important to the story, as Leaphorn's knowledge of Navajo culture allows him to solve the mystery and save his long-time friend's life. Leaphorn constantly strives to balance his own identity as a law enforcement official—and thus part of a white established bureaucracy—with his Navajo ancestry. An accomplished tracker, Leaphorn displays an almost Holmesian power of observation particularly appropriate to both his Navajo background and his law enforcement profession.
Luis Horseman, the murder victim, illustrates the loss of Navajo cultural heritage and the potential for personal consequences of this loss. Horseman understands only some of the old ways, and turns to them for safety when it becomes clear that he is in danger. However, he has forgotten many of the old Navajo chants that would make his survival in the wilderness more likely, at least in his belief. Hillerman does not state, or even imply, that Horseman could have saved himself if he had studied the old ways more diligently; however, Horseman is clearly denied in his final days the peace that he might have found had he more confidence in the chants and rituals of protection and provision that he performed. As Joe Leaphorn himself says, Horseman was "Just another poor soul who didn't quite know how to be Navajo and couldn't learn to act like a white. No good for anything." Again, Hillerman does not seem to prefer Navajo culture to white; he seems, rather, to prefer some culture, particularly a culture with a basis in metaphysical beliefs, to no culture at all.
Like Horseman, George "Big Navajo" Jackson has lost touch with his Navajo heritage due to his relocation to California at an early age. Whereas Horseman turns to the old ways for comfort in time of stress and fear, Jackson only knows about the Navajo Way from what he has read in books, and sees this knowledge as something to be used for personal advantage. Thus, he demonstrates no interest in cultural knowledge for its own sake, but sees it as a tool for gain, and his masquerading as a hated and feared Navajo Wolf—a witch with the power to transform himself, like a werewolf—demonstrates how far from his own culture he has actually drifted.
Dr. Bergen McKee leaves the world of academia behind to investigate reports of Navajo witchcraft—his specific area of academic study. Like Jackson, he lends no credence to the concept of actual witchcraft, but views the ability to apply the term "witch" as a societal tool to allow the Navajos a vent for their frustration against someone who has violated cultural norms. Also like Jackson, McKee seeks to use the cultural belief in witchcraft for his own gain—in his case, as the basis for a published study of such incidents. The difference, of course, is that Jackson uses these beliefs against those who hold them, whereas McKee's approach is benign, or condescending at worst.
Finally, Ellen Leon appears in what many might see as an essentially passive or passive- aggressive role, at least early in the novel. Not believing there to be any rational cause for McKee's fear of Jackson, she fakes an injury to avoid the walking escape route that McKee has planned. She is, in fact, responsible for their capture by Jackson. However, she also becomes at least partially responsible for their escape, for in the epilogue we learn that Leaphorn is able to reach McKee in time to save his life because Leon has thought to start a signal fire with the camping equipment of their captors—a device that McKee probably should have thought of, but did not.