Tony Hillerman Biography

Tony Hillerman could stake a claim as the creator of his own genre: the Native American mystery. Throughout his prolific writing career, Hillerman penned dozens of mystery novels, many of which take place in Native American environments and feature Native American characters. He is most recognized for his series of stories featuring the characters Lt. Leaphorn and his sidekick, Chee, who embody the identity struggles faced by many Native Americans. In his work, Hillerman provided no easy solutions to the ever-present tension between scientific empiricism and Native American spirituality.

Facts and Trivia

  • Hillerman’s Leaphorn novels number nearly twenty, and his lucrative writing career made him one of the richest people in the state of New Mexico.
  • In Hillerman’s novels, characters are often referred to by their physical attributes or clothing, a practice of Native American origin.
  • For his service in World War II, Hillerman was honored many times, earning Bronze and Silver Stars, as well as the Purple Heart.
  • Hillerman taught journalism at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque for nearly twenty years.
  • Hillerman died on October 26, 2008.


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Tony Hillerman was born on a farm near Sacred Heart, a small town in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, on May 27, 1925, to August Alfred and Lucy Grove Hillerman. Situated amid worn-out farmland, the town was mostly Roman Catholic. Hillerman grew up with children of Blackfoot, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Comanche, and Pottawatomie farmers, since Oklahoma has historically been the relocation place for many displaced tribes. In an unusual move, his parents had him attend grade school at St. Mary’s Academy in Sacred Heart. Not only was the academy for girls, but it was also for American Indian girls; the Hillermans showed a value for education and also a tolerance for another people that was unusual in that time period. Growing up amid these cultural influences and his family’s lack of prejudice clearly had an impact on Hillerman’s later writing.

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At age eighteen, Hillerman had to leave his studies in chemistry at the University of Oklahoma to enter military service in Europe during World War II. His service in Germany led to his receiving the Purple Heart and Bronze and Silver Stars. In a propitious move for mystery readers everywhere, upon his return he switched his college major to journalism. He felt his eyes were no longer suited for chemistry since they had been damaged in the war and he wore a patch over one. He graduated with a journalism degree in 1948. That same year, he married Marie Unzner and started a family that soon included six children. His first reporting job was with the Borger, Texas, newspaper, where he covered crime. Moving up in the field, he eventually became editor of The New Mexican in Santa Fe.

Hillerman found success in his chosen profession, but his desire to write fiction led him to leave his newspaper job in his thirties to study literature at the University of New Mexico. His M.A. in literature, received in 1966, led to a new job teaching in the journalism department. Hillerman published his first novel, The Blessing Way, in 1970. The title indicates the direction of his influential and highly regarded mysteries: The Blessing Way is the name of a Navajo healing ceremony, and all subsequent Hillerman titles had to do with various aspects of Native American cultural traditions.

In 1971, Hillerman wrote The Fly on the Wall, a political intrigue involving a reporter and murder and did not involve Native Americans. (His only other novel that didn’t involve Native Americans, Finding Moon, a novel about Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, was published much later, in 1995.) In 1972, he wrote The Boy Who Made Dragonfly, a retelling of a Zuni myth, for children.

Dance Hall of the Dead, which was published in 1973, was the second novel to feature Navajo tribal policeman Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Although The Blessing Way had achieved critical recognition and had been nominated for awards, it was Dance Hall of the Dead that received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

After writing a third Joe Leaphorn novel, Listening Woman (1978), Hillerman began another series within the same Navajo milieu but told through the viewpoint of another Navajo policeman, Sergeant Jim Chee. People of Darkness, in 1980, was followed by two more Jim Chee novels, The Dark Wind, in 1982, and The Ghostway, in 1984. Hillerman put both characters in his novel Skinwalkers (1986). Leaphorn became Chee’s mentor, and this relationship continued in the later novels. Even after Leaphorn retired, he returned to help Chee with specific cases.

Hillerman left teaching in 1985 to spend more time writing, and the series continued with A Thief of Time (1988), Talking God (1989), Coyote Waits(1990), Sacred Clowns (1993), The Fallen Man (1996), The First Eagle (1998), Hunting Badger (1999), The Wailing Wind (2002), The Sinister Pig (2003), Skeleton Man (2004), and his last novel Shape Shifters (2006).

Nonfiction titles by Hillerman include The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Other Indian Country Affairs (1973), New Mexico (1974), Rio Grande (1975), Indian Country: America’s Sacred Land (1987), and Hillerman Country (1991).

By the twenty-first century, Hillerman was a best-selling writer and lived in Albuquerque with his wife. In 2001, he wrote a memoir, Seldom Disappointed, which won the 2001 Agatha Award for the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year. He was been president of the Mystery Writers of America and received their Grand Master Award in 1991. Hillerman received many other awards, including the Special Friend Award from the Navajo Tribe. Hillerman died of pulmonary failure on October 26, 2008 at the age of 83.


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The southwestern novels of Tony Hillerman manage both to entertain and ultimately to transcend the mystery genre by providing cultural commentary on modern Native American lives and ancient traditions. With very different approaches stemming from their own varying attitudes toward their American Indian heritage, his two Navajo policemen solve crimes against a backdrop of the mythology and the rituals of the various tribes. Because this traditional lore is skillfully and intrinsically woven into the plots, Hillerman’s readers are enlightened about ethnic worlds that might otherwise remain remote and unfathomable.


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Tony Hillerman was born Anthony Grave Hillerman on May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, where he grew up on a farm in “worn-out cotton country.” He played cowboys and Indians with the children of the neighboring farmers, many of whom were Blackfeet, Pottawatomies, and Seminoles whom the white kids had to bribe to be Indians “because they wanted to be cowboys, too.” His father, August Alfred Hillerman, and his mother, Lucy Grove Hillerman, were evidently more concerned about his education than they were about maintaining the prejudices of the day, for they decided that their son would receive his grade-school education at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for Indian girls in the tiny town of Sacred Heart. August Hillerman was sensitive about being a German during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He made it a point to tell his family that “people are basically alike. Once you know that then you start to find out the differences.” This respect for individuals and their differences infuses Hillerman’s work.

In 1943, World War II interrupted Hillerman’s studies at the University of Oklahoma. He served in Germany, receiving the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart. He came home with a patch over one eye and weak vision in the other, which caused him to drop his studies in chemistry and take up journalism, a profession less demanding on his eyes. In 1948, he took his degree in journalism, married Marie Unzner, and became a crime reporter for a newspaper in Borger, Texas. Evidently, he made the right choice of profession. Following the crime-reporter position, his career as a journalist took him through a series of jobs that led to his becoming the editor for The New Mexican in Santa Fe, New Mexico. By his mid-thirties, he was the editor of an influential newspaper located in the capital of New Mexico.

All the while Hillerman had been harboring a desire to tell stories, but it was risky business for a family man with six children to quit a good job to become a writer of fiction. Nevertheless, with the encouragement of his wife, he took a part-time job as an assistant to the president of the University of New Mexico, where he studied literature. In 1966, he earned his masters of arts in literature and joined the department of journalism, where he taught until he retired in 1985 to devote more time to writing.

The publication of his first novel, The Blessing Way, met with immediate critical success. His third novel, Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He later received the same body’s Grand Master Award, as well as the Center for American Indians Ambassador Award and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award—officially inducting him as a “friend of the Dinee”—the Navajo people. Commercial success followed critical acclaim, giving Hillerman time to devote to his family and work. Hillerman died of pulmonary failure on October 26, 2008.

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