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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1512

A major theme in Hunting Badger is the inadequacy of modern technology and urban law enforcement in the face of Western geography and Western social realities. Tracking murderous casino robbers across Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado means covering eighty-five million acres of sparsely populated, high-elevation, dry canyon land. The FBI...

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A major theme in Hunting Badger is the inadequacy of modern technology and urban law enforcement in the face of Western geography and Western social realities. Tracking murderous casino robbers across Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado means covering eighty-five million acres of sparsely populated, high-elevation, dry canyon land. The FBI officials are nonplused at their own ineffectuality, even with a full force of agents assisted by Navajo and Apache tribal officers, the Border Patrol, four kinds of state police officers, county sheriffs, and twenty other kinds of law enforcement officers. Leaphorn, however, notes that there are enough canyons in that territory to swallow up ten thousand policemen. Tribal officers joke that FBI does not stand for "full-blooded Indian" and that FBI urbanites cannot tell the difference between a gully, an arroyo, a wash, a cut, or a creek, so tracking men who can just will not work. If the face of nature and their ignorance of it were not enough to defeat them, the machinery brought in to assist simply complicates the tracking problems. For example, images of FBI helicopters literally blowing away the tracks that could at least have provided hunters a direction to take punctuate the story. The body armor, an electronic satellite location finder, and an infrared body heat- detecting device weigh the searchers down, slowing them unnecessarily. Furthermore, FBI competitiveness with other branches of law enforcement and their penchant for secrecy, for supplying information on a need-to-know basis directly related to internal Washington politics, doom effective interaction with other agents. Even when the FBI are told where to look, they do not know how to look closely and dismiss the information as indicative of local incompetence. When Chee first calls attention to a mining shaft as the probable hiding place of the casino robbers, the FBI agents scoff at his reasoning, but when Leaphorn and Chee do indeed find the felons in that very same mining shaft, the FBI, with their official bulletproof costumes, automatic weapons, and tracking dogs, are all dressed up with nowhere to go, for the locals have already tied up the loose ends. Skeptical FBI agents are left thunderstruck that a civilian (the retired Leaphorn) has done what they could not do and found the missing money as well, and there is no way to discredit the police work of Leaphorn and Chee nor for the FBI to take credit for it. Solid police work involving close observation, informed but casual interrogation of witnesses, and intuitive leaps based on knowledge of the land, the history, the culture, and the people win out against statistical surveys, computer-generated profiles, and high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, Hillerman's argument is that tribal officers are far more competent than they receive credit for. They know their territory, its past, and its residents; they have a long tradition of scouting and tracking through hostile territory, and all the technology the FBI can bring to bear cannot compete with such knowledge combined with common sense.

Furthermore, when locals might travel over a hundred miles to try out a sandwich or meet a friend, a very different psychology is at work. With only a handful of people in a seventy-mile radius, everybody knows everybody and is curious about what is going on; they pay attention to the details of community life and know when a stranger has passed through or a pattern of doing things has been altered. Besides, Westerners are closed-mouth and tend not to volunteer information to strangers. Thus, people the FBI would never think of consulting are the heart and soul of a Southwestern investigation, though sometimes dealing with them means taking into account the eccentricities produced by the loneliness, silence, and dramatic skyscapes and terrain of the rural west. Chee observes that Leaphorn definitely knows everyone over sixty in the Four Corners area, and probably everyone else as well.

Another theme is the conflict between the traditional native way and the mainstream ways of the assimilated Native Americans. Tribal officer Jim Chee, for example, works hard to retain a traditional perspective, despite his college education and his police officer training. In fact, he has for many years studied to be a hataalii, a Navajo healer. He has learned to sing the chants, reproduce the myths of the Holy People in sand paintings, and take the steps required to restore harmony to the sick and troubled. In contrast, Joe Leaphorn distances himself from the old ways of his people. He still treasures his heritage and takes a philosopher's interest in its mythologies, but he no longer personally believes in chindi spirits of the dead, healing ceremonies, or sand-painting rituals. Where Chee offers a pinch of pollen to the rising sun, Leaphorn does not. This theme of diverse levels of assimilation is developed in the hospital scenes with Chee's shaman teacher, Hosteen Frank Nakai. Nakai has incurable lung cancer and wishes to die at home, where he can impart to Chee his final lessons about the Night Way ceremony and where he feels the Holy Wind within him will bless the Dawn Boy, the sunrise. However, he has no understanding of the procedures he must follow to end his hospital stay. For Nakai the hospital is a place of malevolence, and he fears the evil spirits of the dead who are trapped within the hospital walls. He knows that the setting is wrong for teaching Chee, but he wants to pass on this secret part of his Navajo and shaman heritage. At first Chee tries to convince the doctors to release Nakai, but when they refuse, Chee signs Nakai out against medical advice and takes him home. Thus, Nakai dies at peace, passing on his significant lesson to Chee in a traditional place and then greeting the dawn for the final time among friends, with the Navajo rituals that smooth his passage.

Still another theme is that of the intersection of past and present events. Kirk Mitchell in Cry Dance (1999) asserts that for Native Americans present actions always have their roots in past events, and this assertion proves true in Hunting Badger. Where the FBI simply looks at a present action and its present ramifications, and therefore lacks information that would help determine motive and anticipate responses, Leaphorn, in contrast, looks back to historical conflicts between Navajos and Utes. Hosteen Nakai tells Chee the history of the nineteenth-century Ute Ironhand, a killer of Navajos who was chased into and down Gothic Creek Canyon toward San Juan under the rim of Casa Del Eco Mesa and who seemed to vanish. Ironhand was reputed to be a witch who could shift his shape into that of a hawk or eagle because there seemed to be no other explanation of his disappearance from the cliffs where he was trapped. Other stories suggested Ironhand would sometimes disappear from the foot of the cliff as well. Professor Bourebonette ties these stories to another piece of oral history about a Paiute in the 1890s who could make his men invisible in the same area, and later one of her oral history interviews connects the Paiute through marriage with the nineteenth-century Ironhand and a modern Ironhand, a Vietnam veteran noted as a sniper with fifty-three enemy kills. Chee and Leaphorn realize that the older Ironhand probably passed on his secret passage to his descendants and that the modern Ironhand is probably hidden somewhere in the coal mines where his father must have hidden. This intuitive leap between past and present allows them to discover what the FBI cannot: the secret hiding place of the perpetrators. In other words, the conflicts and battles carried out a century before are repeated in the same canyons between Utes and Navajos from the same bloodlines as the earlier opponents.

Although Chee clearly has a close relationship with an Apache tribal officer (a fellow Athabascan), Professor Bourebonette's interviews of elderly Utes anger Leaphorn, as the Utes repeatedly refer to the Navajo as the Bloody Knives and make uncomplimentary remarks in their recitation of Ute fighting skills and cleverness versus Navajo clumsiness, stupidity, and cowardice. Hillerman notes that the Hopi likewise call Navajos "head breakers" and that the modern concept of Pan-Indian universals is erroneous in the light of history. Native Americans from different tribes differ widely in their religious beliefs, social customs, history, and ways of life, and the differences are often far more significant than the fact that they are all Indians. Leaphorn, who is very much the logician normally, envisions the elderly Ute, whom Bourebonette has been interviewing, torturing tied-up Navajo prisoners surrounded by teepees, painted ponies, drum thumpers, and other signs of a Plains Indian culture (as opposed to the sheep herding Navajos). At the same time he recalls the Utes and Pueblo tribes scouting for the U.S. Army and participating in their attacks on Navajos in 1863. Such tribal memories live on in oral histories and in the memories of the elders and, argues Hillerman, are much more significant than outsiders might imagine. Leaphorn has good reasons for distrusting Utes—reasons that have been in place for hundreds of years.

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