Last Updated on June 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563
Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn successfully bridges the gap between a number of cultures in Dance Hall of the Dead, overcoming his own personal prejudices to do so. He treats all people with respect, and has learned the Navajo Way of adapting to changing circumstances without compromising his own...
(The entire section contains 563 words.)
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Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn successfully bridges the gap between a number of cultures in Dance Hall of the Dead, overcoming his own personal prejudices to do so. He treats all people with respect, and has learned the Navajo Way of adapting to changing circumstances without compromising his own culture. Having learned Navajo tradition from his grandfather, and Anglo culture through his education in anthropology at Arizona State University, Leaphorn can bring his knowledge of diverse cultural backgrounds to bear on whatever issues come before him.
George Bowlegs, the missing boy, never fully enters the narrative of the novel. The reader's understanding of this character comes solely through the eyes of other characters, including family and acquaintances. A spiritual young man, Bowlegs hopes to abandon his Navajo culture in favor of the more obviously spiritual Zuni traditions. In reality, the Navajo system may be just as spiritual, but Bowlegs has failed to learn the "Navajo Way," as Leaphorn has, because of his drunken father and absent mother.
Dr. Chester Reynolds demonstrates a rejection of his own culture, academia, which he feels has in turn rejected him, in his disdain for its most important mores. An archaeologist, Reynolds is guilty of "seeding" a dig—a fraud for which Reynolds would have been expelled from the society of fellow archaeologists and anthropologists forever, were it discovered. As Reynolds knows this, he is willing to commit multiple murders in hopes of protecting and advancing his professional reputation.
Susanne, a member of the Golden Fleece commune, is unquestionably the most positive Anglo character presented in the novel. She seems truly to care about other people, including the missing George Bowlegs, with whom she has spent some time. Moreover, when Leaphorn is shot with an animal tranquilizer dart and requires care to avoid falling into the hands of the murderer, Susanne provides that care and protection.
Ted Isaacs, the young archaeologist working under Dr. Reynolds, lacks the ability or desire to provide such care to Susanne, however, after she is forced to leave the Golden Fleece commune by its leader. Instead, Isaacs demonstrates his own wish—not completely unlike George Bowlegs—to leave his own culture behind in favor of one he finds preferable. At the end of the novel, Isaacs is left with an important ethical decision to make, and Hillerman intentionally leaves the result of that decision up in the air.
Father Ingles presents additional third hand knowledge of George Bowlegs both to Leaphorn and to the reader, as well as providing much-needed information regarding Zuni religious tradition for Leaphorn to track Bowlegs. Moreover, Ingles represents the presence of the white man's religion— Christianity—and its general rejection by Native American people in the Southwest in favor of their own age-old belief system.
None of the other characters in the novel are developed even as much as George Bowlegs, who, it has been mentioned, does not even appear directly in the narrative. FBI Special Agent John O'Malley is a relatively unintelligent and unimportant representative of the federal government, as is Treasury agent Baker. Zuni Chief of Police Ed Pasquaanti seems relatively competent, but contributes nothing significant to Leaphorn's investigation. Halsey, the leader of the Golden Fleece commune, seems the more or less stereotypical societal drop-out, involved in illegal narcotics and distrustful of authority in general. Other characters appear only as necessary to advance the narrative.