Dance Hall of the Dead is the second novel to feature the Navajo lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. The novel, which deals with a Navajo boy impossibly trying to become a Zuni, highlights the vast differences between Native American cultures. The title is an example of this: For the Zuni, the dead may dance with their ancestors, while for the Navajo, death is so malignant a force that the living must be cleansed from its touch.
The novel opens with a Zuni boy, Ernesto Cata, re-creating himself as the little Fire God, resting after exercising to prepare for participating in the ritual when the god Shalako comes from the Dance Hall of the Dead. In the guise of this god he must be ready to run, chant, and dance all night. As he ties his track shoes, he thinks about the festival and about his homework, all inextricably tied together. This easy interweaving of myth and daily life shows how myths and beliefs intersect in daily life in the Southwest world that Hillerman writes about. Ernesto’s thoughts in this opening chapter bring up all the tangled characters and threads of the novel: the archaeologists at the dig in the shadow of the mesa, where his best friend George Bowlegs had rummaged among the Doctor’s arrowheads and taken something; the dopers at the nearby hippie commune for whom George had collected cactus buttons; and George himself, who wants so much to be a Zuni but cannot because he is a Navajo. George had asked so many questions that Ernesto had probably broken a taboo against his people by answering them. Maybe that was why one of the ancestral gods, wearing a mask that is not quite right, had suddenly appeared. The reader knows the boy is about to die.
When Leaphorn is called to the Zuni reservation to assist in finding a missing Navajo boy, he learns that George Bowlegs’s best friend, a Zuni named Ernesto Cata, has also disappeared. Ernesto’s bicycle has been found, however, next to a pool of blood. His body is found a day later.
Leaphorn begins the policeman’s round of questioning, encountering discrepancies and evasions. This is a complicated world, of various Native American tribes, Catholic priests, drug-dealing hippies, conflicting law enforcement agencies, and Anglo archaeologists, all clashing and overlapping. By creating a Navajo policeman who was educated at Arizona State University and who even majored in anthropology, Hillerman creates a perfect guide for the reader into the different cultures. The reader is immediately unable to fall into any complacency that American Indian belief systems, ceremonies, or ways of dealing with their day-to-day lives are by any means generic.
Too late, Leaphorn fits it all together, that the boy has taken an arrowhead that was to be planted at the archaeology site by the archaeologist to prove his theory. In a fitting justice, Leaphorn suspects that the Zuni themselves have taken care of the great archaeologist, not for salting his own dig, which would matter only in the white world, but for the sacrilege of impersonating one of their gods by falsifying a mask and killing one of their own and the Navajo boy. If Leaphorn cannot always restore order himself, he can at least take some satisfaction that the tribe has done so.