Dance Hall of the Dead Themes
by Tony Hillerman

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Dance Hall of the Dead Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Joe Leaphorn's universe, there would appear to be no absolute truth. Religious beliefs that appear not only conflicting, but actually contradictory, are all considered equally valid. Father Ingles, a Catholic missionary priest of the Order of Saint Francis, can therefore speak with some authority on the subject of Zuni religious beliefs, and compare them accurately to Navajo beliefs, without appearing to condemn either system—which would appear to be in direct opposition to his own Catholic doctrine. Leaphorn, a Navajo, can learn about George Bowleg's desire to leave behind his Navajo culture for the Zuni tradition without any negative reaction—such matters are individual choices, regardless of the fact that it is Leaphorn's own chosen system that Bowlegs is rejecting. Leaphorn, in fact, treats religion almost dismissively at times, although he certainly believes some of the Navajo tradition himself. He is willing, for example, to overlook what appears to be an instance of criminal drug use at the Golden Fleece commune on the grounds that the same drug is sometimes used in Native American religious ceremonies, and is therefore not often prosecuted by Native American law enforcement officers—all this although Leaphorn knows that this particular instance of drug use is not connected in any way with Native American belief.

Nonetheless, although he certainly seems to advocate no particular tradition, Hillerman acknowledges a basic human desire to be part of some belief system. Reynolds wishes to be accepted for his beliefs by the mainstream of American anthropological academia. Isaacs also seeks to replace his "poor white trash" upbringing in Tennessee with a similar academic acceptance. Bowlegs obviously desires to make a cultural exchange of the same sort. The Golden Fleece commune members have intentionally distanced themselves from their parent culture, but in doing so, have created their own "miniculture" on Navajo land. And Hillerman emphasizes the importance of religious beliefs to the Zuni people many times throughout the novel.