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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 30, 2002 - Issue 75


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Tony Hillerman


Tony HillermanTony Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, OK on May 27, 1925. He was the youngest of three children, having an older brother and sister. His father, August A. Hillerman, was a storekeeper and farmer. His mother was Lucy Grove Hillerman.

He attended school from 1930-38 at St. Mary's Academy, a boarding school for Native American girls at Sacred Heart. He was one of several farm boys enrolled there. Sacred Heart was near a Benedictine mission to the Citizen Band Potowatomie Tribe. For high school, he was bused to Konawa High School. He graduated in 1942. He returned to farming after a brief sojourn to college and after his father's death.

In 1943, he joined the U. S. Army, serving in combat in World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Purple Heart after being wounded in 1945. (These injuries included broken legs, foot, ankle, facial burns, and temporary blindness.) He was discharged in 1945.

After the war, he attended the University of Oklahoma, receiving a B. A. in 1948.

He married Marie Unzner in 1948, to whom he is still married. They have six grown children.

From 1948-1962, he worked in a variety of journalist positions. He was a reporter for the Borger News Herald in Borger, TX (1948), city editor for the Morning Press-Constitution in Lawton, OK (1948-50), political reporter for UPI in Oklahoma City (1950-52), UPI bureau manager in Santa Fe, NM (1952-4), political reporter and then, editor for the Santa Fe New Mexican (1954-63).

In 1963, he returned to graduate school in English at the University of New Mexico. He was an assistant to the University president at the same time. He joined the journalism faculty of UNM in 1966 after receiving his M.A. He taught there until 1987, serving as department chair from 1976-81.

Although he says he feels great for the shape he's in, his health has been a concern. He told PBS in 1996, " I am 71, have now- and-then rhematic arthritis but now very badly, have in-remission cancer, have had a minor heart attack, have one mediocre eye, one tricky ankle and two unreliable knees due to being blown up in WWII. "

His memoirs were published in October, 2001. It won the Agatha Award for Best Non-Fiction.

He resides in Albuquerque, NM.

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Some words of Tony Hillerman about his writing

"Having grown up at Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, with Potawatomie and Seminole kids as friends, playmates, competitors, etc., I grew up knowing that the only difference between me and them was very marginal and totally cultural. Race wasn't a factor. Location and economics made the difference. The "us" of the "us and them" factor were a mixed-bag of white and Indian kids who's parents were trying to make a living farming. We wore overalls, work shoes, rode the school bus, carried sack lunches. The "them" were the town kids, some white, some Indian, who wore belt pants, lowcut shoes, bought their lunches at the school store, knew how to shoot pool, etc. We, on the other hand, were better shots, better at riding, and thought we could whip the town boys (until we tried.) In other words, race wasn't the issue. It was culture.

So, having grown up with Indians I learned as a child what many folks never learned -- we humans (alas) are born alike. We learn our cultural differences from parental yarns and observing behaviours. When I first ran into Navajos in August, 1945 -- just home from WWII on a convalescent furlough, I ran into "us" kind of people. I mean country folks. Poor but not letting it bother them much, generous, deeply religious, hospitable -- all those valuable little things not on the agenda of the silver spoon set. I got the oil well stuff I'd been hired to haul unloaded at the well site and hitchhiked home with a head full of memories and impressions. I had seen a little of an "Enemy Way" ceremonial, in which friends, family, and neighbors swarmed in to restore Navajo Marines back from the Pacific to health and Harmony. I loved the concept. I still do.

So, to get to the heart of the questions, when Marie and I moved to New Mexico in 1952, I made some friends. When I went back to college in 1963, I began doing some serious reading about the Navajo cuture (PhD dissertations, proceedings of various scholarly groups, books, etc.) and then asked Navajo friends to explain what I was reading about. I have never made any claims to being an authority on cultural affairs and, matter of fact, still impose on patient Navajos to read sensitive pages and correct me if I'm wrong.

To deal with specific questions: I speak a very few words of Navajo and usually mispronounce those. Most New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado Anglos know about as much about Navajos, Utes, Hopis, etc. as we know about Kurdistan political factions.

My proudest possession is a plaque the Navajo Tribal Council presented me at the Navajo Fair declaring me SPECIAL FRIEND OF THE DINEH as "an expression of appreciation and friendship for authentically portraying the strength and dignity of traditional Navajo culture." I am also very pleased that the Navajos and a good many other tribes use my books in their schools."

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