Tony Hillerman Biography

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Tony Hillerman Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Tony Hillerman Biography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Tony Hillerman Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Tony Hillerman, who could be called the creator of the anthropological mystery, is widely regarded as one of the best mystery writers in the world. His unique mysteries, most of which were set on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest, contain masterful interactions of setting, plot, and characterization.

On May 27, 1925, Anthony Grove Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, the son of Lucy Grove and August A. Hillerman, a storekeeper and farmer. Hillerman received his early education at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for Indian girls that accepted several non-Indian children from nearby farms. Thus, although not Indian himself, he numbered Potowatomis and Seminoles among his earliest friends. He graduated from Konawa High School in 1942 and enrolled at Oklahoma A&M College in the fall. After one semester, Hillerman returned to the farm. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. In 1945 Hillerman observed his first Navajo curing ceremony, the Enemy Way, which had a profound influence on him. Desiring to know more about the Navajos, he began to study their culture seriously.

Hillerman returned to college and graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism in 1948. Between 1948 and 1962 he worked as a police reporter, political writer, and editor for newspapers and the United Press in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In August, 1948, Hillerman married Marie Unzer; they had six children and remained married for sixty years until Hillerman’s death in 2008. Hillerman began his long association with the University of New Mexico by enrolling as a graduate student in 1963. He worked for the president of the university and joined the journalism faculty in 1966, ultimately becoming chairman of the department. He started to write fiction in the late 1960’s, and his first book, The Blessing Way, was published in 1970.

In The Blessing Way Hillerman introduced his readers...

(The entire section is 824 words.)