RARA-AVIS: More Indian Cops - AT (After Tony Hillerman)

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 26 Apr 2004

Bill's recent post on his acquisition of Brian Garfield's RELENTLESS reminded me that I wanted to do a follow-up on my post about cops stories featuring American Indian protagonists created prior to Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn/Chee series.

The best of the post-Hillerman Indian cop characters is Sam Watchman, the hero of RELENTLESS, who is a full-blood Navajo working as a trooper in the Arizona Highway Patrol. RELENTLESS is a particularly good example of a type of cop story that is fairly prevalent in procedurals with rural Southwestern settings, the "wilderness pursuit" story. One of the most famous examples of this type of cop yarn is Steve Frazee's award-winning short story "My Brother Down There," which he expanded into the novel RUNNING TARGET. In RELENTLESS, Watchman, his partner, and an FBI agent are on the trail of a gang of military-trained bank robbers who have killed two cops
(including Sam's uncle) and taken a hostage. They have fled into the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains along the Arizona/Nevada border. Excellent use of setting. Excellent story-telling. Compelling characters.

RELENTLESS was made into a TV-movie some 20 or 30 years ago. Watchman was played by Will Sampson, the Indian actor who'd made a splash in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. When the recent PBS films based on Hillerman's novels were broadcast, a great deal was made about the fact that they featured Indian actors playing Indian roles. However, years earlier, the film version of RELENTLESS was the very first Hollywood feature-length production to feature an Indian lead character who was portrayed by an Indian actor.

Unfortunately Garfield wrote only one more book about Watchman. THE THREEPERSONS HUNT, not quite as good, but still very enjoyable, had more of a traditional
"whodunit" plot than RELENTLESS.

After Watchman, the best of the Indian cop characters is Kirk Mitchell's Emmett Parker, a Commanche who is a criminal investigator with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs Police. A descendant of the legendary war chief Quanah Parker, Emmett is often partnered with FBI Agent Anna Turnipseed, a three-quarters Modoc, one-quarter Japanese rookie. There are hints of romance, but they haven't yet come to fruition. The first Parker novel, CRY DANCE, moves around between Indian reservations in Arizona, Nevada, and the desert region of Southern California. The second, SPIRIT SONG, is set in the same Navajo Reservation that Hillerman uses as his setting. Since Parker and Turnipseed are federal cops, they are not tied to the Southwest, and the third and fourth novels are set, respectively, in the Pacific Northwest and New York State.

Though not Indian himself, Mitchell, a former Inyo County, CA, deputy sheriff, is one of the few mystery writers with experience in policing Indian reservations, having supervised a detail of deputies assigned to patrol the various Indian properties in that county.

NAKIA was a short-lived TV series starring Robert Forster, who only slightly more Indian than Julia Roberts, as Nakia Parker, a full-blooded (!?!) Navajo deputy sheriff working under Arthur Kennedy. Produced by TV copmeister David Gerber (POLICE STORY, EISCHIED, TODAY'S F.B.I.), it only lasted a half-season.

Jean Hager's Mitch Bushyhead is a small-town police chief in Oklahoma. Half-Cherokee, he's a widower raising a daughter by himself, unfamilir with his Indian heritage but learning about it little by little from some of his full-blood colleagues. Hager's series, rather gentle as cop stories go (almost approaching cozy), have won local awards in Oklahoma.

James Doss's Charlie Moon is the police chief of the Ute Reservation Police in Colorado. His best friend is a white chief of a small town police force adjacent to the reservation. He's often helped in his investigations by his aunt, who's a tribal shaman. Haven't read these but have heard very good things about them.

Aimee and David Thurlo have created two Indian cop series. The first features Ella Clah, a Navajo FBI agent who, in her first appearance, is assigned to a case on the Big Reservation, and decides to quit the Bureau and join the Tribal Police in subsequent books.
 Haven't read these, but, reportedly, Tony Hillerman thinks highly of them.

The second series, at least I think it's planned as a series, but thus far there's only been one book, features a New Mexico State Trooper named Lee Nez, who's also a full-blood Navajo. The first (and so far only) novel, SECOND SUNRISE, is a cross-genre piece in which Trooper Nez, infected by a Nazi spy who's also a vampire in the closing days of WW2, must use his tribe's religious rituals to keep his vampirism at bay. A half-century later, Nez, now known as "Leonard Hawk," has again joined the New Mexico State Police and is on the trail of his old nemesis, the Nazi vampire. Haven't read it, and I'm not a horror fan
(though neither do I dislike it).

One pre-Hillerman Indian cop character I nbeglected to mention was the comic book sleuth "Pow-Wow" Smith, a non-descript Indian who was the sheriff of a rural community somewhere in the Southwest. It wasn't always evident whether this was the contemporary west or the Old West, but since the stories were back-ups in DETECTIVE COMICS, a contemporary setting can be inferred. In an anniversary issue of DETECTIVE COMICS, Smith, along with other back-up features from the magazine's sixty-year history (PI Slam Bradley, TV detective Roy Raymond, the "Human Target," etc.) teamed up with Batman to solve a mystery. In recent, more politically correct, years, Smith has been given a more authentic sounding Indian name to make up for the condescension implied by the nickname "Pow-Wow."

Beause of this month's them, and my own inclinations, I've concentrated specifically on Indian cops, specifically operating in in the Southwestern United States, but there are Indian detective characters who aren't cops (William F. Nolan's Nick Challis is a half-Indian PI and Bill Ballinger's Joaquin Hawks is a spy), and there are Indian cops who operate in settings other than the Southwest (The TV series HAWK was about a Mohawk NYPD lieutenant who worked in the Manhattan DA's Office; Scott Young writes about an Inuit Mountie in novels set in Canada; and Suzanne Blanc about a half-Aztec Mexican Federal Police Inspector who, of course, work south of the border).


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