His stories, while steeped in contemporary crime, often describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world. The books are instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals to incest taboos.
“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures,” Mr. Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. “I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.”
Anthony Grove Hillerman was born on May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Okla., to August Alfred Hillerman, a farmer and shopkeeper, and his wife, Lucy Grove. The town was in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, and the family’s circumstances were so mean that Mr. Hillerman would later joke that “the Joads were the ones who had enough money to move to California.”
“In Sacred Heart, being a storyteller was a good thing to be,” he said of his country village, which was 35 miles from the nearest library. Growing up on territorial lands of the Potawatomi Tribe, he went to St. Mary’s Academy, a school for Indian girls run by the Sisters of Mercy, and attended high school with Potawatomi children. He said he owed much of the veracity of his stories to his friendships.
“I cross-examine my Navajo friends and shamelessly hang around trading posts, police substations, rodeos, rug auctions and sheep dippings,” he wrote of his research methods.
His third book, “Dance Hall of the Dead” (1973), won the 1974 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery novel, given by the Mystery Writers of America. In 1991 the group gave him its highest honor, its Grandmaster Award, after he had solidified the Navajo Tribal Police series with “A Thief of Time” (his own favorite novel), “Talking God” and “Coyote Waits.” His last book in the series, “The Shape Shifter,” was published by HarperCollins in 2006. Mr. Hillerman also wrote children’s and nonfiction books, including a memoir.
For all the recognition he received, Mr. Hillerman once said, he was most gladdened by the status of Special Friend of the Dineh (the Navajo people) conferred on him in 1987 by the Navajo Nation. He was also proud that his books were taught at reservation schools and colleges.
“Good reviews delight me when I get them,” he said. “But I am far more delighted by being voted the most popular author by the students of St. Catherine Indian school, and even more by middle-aged Navajos who tell me that reading my mysteries revived their children’s interest in the Navajo Way.”
"The people spilled their guts to him," said James Peshlakai, who is characterized as a Navajo shaman in one of Hillerman's books, "The Wailing Wind." "The elders, they told him stories about things their own children never asked about."
Hillerman returned the blessings he received from Navajos by donating money for a water delivery program at St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau, New Mexico, to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gallup, New Mexico, and to put up lights at a football stadium in Monument Valley, Utah.
Staff at the Thoreau mission, where a murder takes place in Hillerman's "Sacred Clowns," "have already been saying Mass for him and saying prayers," executive director Chris Halter said Monday.