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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Named for the ceremonial mask depicting one of the powerful Navajo yeibichai or principal gods. Talking God focuses in a number of ways on the conflict between the European-based white culture and traditional Native American tribal customs and metaphysics. The mystery is structured around two separate and yet oddly interrelated instances of a native people's attempts to repossess certain religious and ancestral artifacts housed in the vast collections of the venerable Smithsonian Institution. The novel underscores the clash of cultures by sending Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee — separately — to Washington, D.C., the former in search of clues to the identity of an anonymous murder victim, the latter in response to a friend's request for help in a case involving a museum conservator who wants to become a member of a Navajo clan.

Talking God examines an increasingly significant ethical question: At what point should the quest for knowledge and truth give way to the demands of cultural traditions and taboos? Henry Highhawk uses his position as an employee of the Smithsonian to publicize the fact that the thousands of Indian skeletons in the museum's collection are, in fact, the products of archaeological plundering of ancient burial grounds and that these skeletons are the ancestors of a living people and should be returned to the tribes for reburial. Also in question is the museum's possession of artifacts that are important to the practice of active religions.