BOSTON — Tony Hillerman remembers playing cowboys and Indians on the family farm in Sacred Heart, Okla. His buddies were Potawatomi and Seminoles from the nearby reservation. He played the Indian.
"They were smart enough to know who won," he says.
The memory comes during an interview as he mulls over when he first started to think across cultural lines, one of the traits this Edgar Award-winning mystery writer is best known for.
"The only difference between me and them was minimal and all cultural." Race wasn't a factor, he says. "We had to switch off on who was going to be the cowboy and who was going to be the Indian."
A more lasting impression came, he says, when he saw his first Navajo curing ceremony, Enemy Way. It was August 1945. As a young infantryman, he had just returned from combat in Europe. He found work driving oil-field equipment north of Crown Point, N.M., "the Checkerboard Reservation."
Young Navajos his age who fought as US marines were "welcomed back into their clans and ritually cleansed" of any hate they may have experienced while away. "I envied them," he says.
Though it happened more than 50 years ago, the experience struck a deep chord, influencing Mr. Hillerman's writing ever since.
"There's a lot of effect from Navajo healing which is easy to believe ... because we know the human body is a lot more complicated than the American Medical Association understands. We heal ourselves in many ways," he says. "When you are out of sync, the idea of having your friends and family come in from all over and you are the center of all this - good wishes, love - and you have a ceremony you believe is going to help you, it does help them [the Navajo]."
Hillerman is best known for writing about Navajo culture. He uses the arid Arizona and New Mexico landscape as a backdrop. He looks at Indian and Anglo mores in conflict and presents his stories through tribal detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, who patrol the vast Navajo reservation.
He is troubled by the phenomenon of the hyphenated American - leaders in minority communities "whose economic well being" is tied to differences, rather than common values, he says. He touches on this in his books when he compares on- and off- reservation Indians.
Hillerman doesn't work from outlines. Rather, he starts with a general notion of inharmony, which plays itself out chapter by chapter, he says. He diffuses conflict by letting his characters speak "naturally," the way the Navajo might.
At what point does he know he has a novel? "When [I] think of the title, about a third of the way into the book," then "I know I have a book and it pretty much finishes itself," he says.
His next book out this fall presents two pairs of individuals in opposition to each other. Only "God knows how it will come out," he says, eyes laughing. He doesn't have a title yet.
It has two distinct plots. One concerns the friction on the contested Hopi-Navajo borderland. The Hopi need eagle feathers in certain religious ceremonies. A Navajo policeman arrests a Hopi for catching an eagle on what he considers Navajo land. The Navajo try to resolve the problem by giving the Hopi 20 eagles a year. ("I'm not sure how any of this fits in with Federal law," he quips). The policeman is killed. Jim Chee gets the case.
Joe Leaphorn, on the other hand, gets involved with a biologist who studies diseases spread by mammals. Another researcher conducts a similar study. The action turns on a colony of small mammals on the Navajo reservation, which if eliminated, would put an end to the plague the rodents may cause.
Each plot portrays values in conflict. The writing serves as a bridge between world views. This plays to Hillerman's forte - finding a vision for one heart.