I Like Painting Pines

You all remember this pastel sketch of Sasquatch, which was inspired by Starry Night …

Note the evergreens, because Sasquatch lives in the Northwest. (And yes, I know that not every evergreen is a pine! There are spruces, hemlocks, etc.)

I just like adding conifers (maybe we should call them that) when it seems called for. They are easier to paint than deciduous trees, though harder and less advisable to hug.

When I did this quick sketch of a certain little boy, he posed for me indoors. But I decided to add some conifers and some golden light to make it look as if he was standing in a Northern paradise.

Come to Idaho! We have trees. Happy little trees.

Just call me Bob Ross.


What can I say? Curly hair and artistic talent just go together …

To Build A Fire

Another post in the series taken from this book

Building a fire is really stinkin’ hard. Even with matches. When I was 11, I attended an environmentally-focused school that taught (or attempted to teach) survival and camping skills. For one project, we had to build our own fire, using grass for tinder, and keep that fire going long enough to boil a 2-minute egg in a coffee can. (Remember coffee cans?) We were allowed matches, but even so, it was a challenge.

Fire-Building in Books

I think I could do it now, assuming there isn’t a ton of wind, or wet, or any other thing that makes fire-building really difficult. In Jack London’s classic short horror story To Build A Fire, the man is equipped with matches but not with brains, and he ends up freezing to death. The moral seems to be, Don’t go out in the Yukon when it’s 75 below.

Without matches, it’s a whole different ball game. The two main ways to do it are by striking sparks (the “percussion method”), or with a bow and drill. For both, you need a pile of tinder and good dry kindling handy. In the YA survival classic Hatchet, the 13-year-old hero Brian figures out by accident that he can strike sparks by throwing his hatchet against the wall of the cave in which he’s sheltering. Even then, it takes him a long time to get the sparks to catch in his “spark nest” of tinder. Once he does get a fire going, he realizes that his best bet is to keep it going at all times. That is how many people handle it. I’ve been told that some Native Americans used to carry a live coal in a small leather bag rather than try to start a fire from scratch, which is frankly genius. In my books, I have my characters do the same because I don’t have time for them to be unable to start a fire whenever they pick up and move camp. And also, they’re not stupid. That’s part of the point.

Bow and Drill

A drill, of course, is even harder. The drill may be rotated by the use of a thong, or a thong attached to a bow.

The thong-drill is rotated by a cord passed round it in a simple loop. The two hands of the operator pull on the thong in such a way that the [drill] stick repeatedly changes its direction of rotation … Obviously there is a necessity for the drill to be held upright in firm contact with the hearth [the bottom piece] by pressure from above, and a small socketed holder of wood, bone, or stone, or even the cut end of a coconut shell, is provided for this purpose. This socket-piece may be held down on the top of the drill by an assistant, or if its shape is suitable, as it usually is in the Eskimo appliance, it may be gripped in the mouth of the fire-maker.

H.S. Harrison, quoted in Rudgley, p. 161

The White Man has not introduced a single item of environmental protection in the Arctic which was not already used by the natives, and his substitute products are not yet as effective as native ones… Eskimos are described as very ‘gadget-minded’ and are able to use and repair machinery such as motors and sewing machines with almost no instruction.

Dr. O. Solandt and Erwin H. Ackerknecht, quoted in Custance, p. 159

If the thong is attached to a bow, it becomes possible to hold the drill on top with one hand and rotate it with the other hand by pulling the bow back and forth. If all goes well, the drill will produce on the hearth (bottom wood piece) “a little pile of wood-dust which smoulders and can be blown upon to make it glow, at which point it can ignite the tinder” (Rudgley p. 160).  Obviously not an easy process.

Fire in the Stone Age and Before

Both these methods – percussion, and wood friction – are attested in Stone Age times, as noted by Richard Rudgley. A site in Yorkshire has yielded flint and iron pyrites from Neolithic times. Various kinds of bows and drills, because made of wood, are less likely to be preserved for millennia than stone artifacts. However, the bow-and-drill’s wide distribution around the world indicates that it was a very old invention (or that people, wherever they go, are clever, and that the same thing was invented multiple times). An intact bow and drill was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, though he is comparatively recent on the time scale we are discussing.  The Maglemosian culture, a culture from Mesolithic Scandinavia, has left stone and antler hand-rests from fire drills, as well as a fire-bow made from a rib. Also, many Stone Age objects have been found with drill-holes in them, so clearly Stone Age people were familiar with the drilling process. (Rudgley 161 – 162)

In Europe, objects reported to be lamps have survived from the Upper Paleolithic onwards. Examples get more numerous as we come forward in time. As with the Venuses of a previous post, we don’t see an evolution from “cruder” to “more sophisticated” lamps; rather, both kinds exist together, with the simpler ones being more common (146). By 25,000 years ago, there is evidence of different kinds of pyrotechnology, from hardening spear points in a fire, to oxidizing ocher, to heat treating flint to make it easier to work with, to metallurgy, to pottery.

For Palaeolithic man to have used such pyrotechnology [heat-treating flint] successfully he would have had to master a number of skills. Detailed knowledge of a range of materials, as well as a very accurate sense of timing and temperature control and maintenance, would have been essential. In these three fundamental aspects of Stone Age pyrotechnology one can see key elements that are found in the subsequent industrial activities of firing pottery and smelting metals.

Rudgley p. 149

In other words, as I’ve been saying, ancient people were a heck of a lot more capable than me, and probably than you as well.

There is evidence from Dordogne, France, that Neanderthals had fire about 60,000 years ago. “The Neanderthals seem to have deliberately chosen lichen as their fuel.” Rudgley adds, “At this site there is no evidence that any cooking took place … The indications are that the cave was used only as an occasional haven from the outside world, as signs of long-term use were lacking. Compared to the rock-lined hearths and excavated fire pits that were made by Upper Palaeolithic people, these fireplaces are rather basic” (p. 145). However, it seems a little hard on the Neanderthals to assume that they had no hearths and did not use for fire for cooking, just because there is evidence of neither at what Rudgley admits was probably a campsite.

Going even farther back, sites have been found with traces of human habitation and of fire that are believed to be 400,000 years old (Suffolk, England); 1.42 million years old (Chesowanja, Kenya); 1.8 million years old (Xihoudu, China); and 500,000 years old (Zhoukoudian or Choukoutien, China). For me personally, when the dates invoked are this ancient, the imagination fails and skepticism about the dating methods starts to set in. But regardless of the exact dates, I can accept that these are some of the oldest human sites that have been found, and that they seem to have used fire. Of course, sites from this far back (or even half this far back) are by their nature so fragmentary, and their interpretation requires so much conjecture, that if you don’t believe early “hominoids” had fire, it’s extremely easy to cast doubt on whether these ashes were caused by people.

The Binfordian hypothesis of minimal cultural capacities for Pleistocene hominids [proceeds by] imposing impossibly rigorous standards of evidence on archaeological assemblages and postulating elaborate natural alternatives (lightning-caused cave fires, spontaneous combustion, chemical staining).

Geoffry Pope, quoted in Rudgley, p. 144

But in Zhoukoudian (the supposedly 500,000-year-old, Homo erectus site), “the case is seen to be particularly strong, as burnt bones and stones, ash and charcoal have been found in each and every layer of the site” (Rudgley p. 144).  As someone who believes that people have always been people and never merely “hominids,” I have no problem with the idea that the use of fire goes back to the very beginning of mankind.

Pyrotechnology in Ancient America

It’s an old saw that whenever archaeologists don’t know what a find was used for, they attribute to it some religious function. This proved to be the case with a mound near Indian Creek, Illinois, at the base of which was a “deposit of 6,199 flints … covered with a stratum of clay, 10 inches in thickness, and on this a fire had been maintained for some time” (Rudgley 150 -151). Most of these flints are unfinished. There was speculation, at first, that they had been buried as grave goods or, for some reason, to hide them from enemies. But it is now believed that this is a large-scale example of heat-treating flint.  “It has now become clear that the use of heat treatment in aboriginal North America can be traced back to the Palaeo-Indians … This, in conjunction with the fact that the practice is known from the upper Palaeolithic period in France, and has been reported from Aboriginal Australia, South America and Japan, shows that it is of … considerable antiquity” (151) and that the story of the world is that of an outward spread of already sophisticated peoples.


Custance, Arthur C. The Doorway Papers I: Noah’s Three Sons. Zondervan, 1975.

(The Doorway Papers can be found online at: https://custance.org/library_menu.php

My blog post that gives a very brief summary of Custance’s thesis: Two Views on the Sons of Noah )

Rudgley, Richard. The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age. Touchstone, 2000.

Latest Kachina Bridge Painting

Kachina Bridge with petroglyphs

I found my muse. It’s Kachina Bridge.

This is the second painting I’ve done of it. The other one is posted here. Both paintings were done with acrylic paints on a 12×12 canvas.

This particular painting provided a very emotional, up-and-down process. The first Kachina Bridge painting, I felt pretty good about during most of the steps of its slow creation. For this one, I went back and forth between loving and hating it every step or two. I’m still not completely sure about it. On the one hand, I love it because it looks as you see. On the other hand, I hate it because it’s supposed to look like this:

I may do more studies from the same photograph, but I need to recover first.

Still Chewing on This One

So I watched this on Netflix a few weeks ago.

It’s a critically acclaimed, independent film, but that’s not why I watched it.

I watched it because I “ought” to, because it has so much in common with my second book. Rugged landscapes, desperate situations, father-son relationships, snow. Even bears.

It’s sort of in the survival genre (if that’s a genre?). You know, as in To Build a Fire, where the story shows just how quickly things can go wrong when you’re out in the wilderness.

And did I mention the sound track is amazing?

Anyway, it’s very well done, and I highly recommend it.

The Wanderlust Tag

February is the month of romance, and the settings in this tag are as romantic as can be! I think this is most fun tag I’ve seen yet. I stole … er, got it from my faithful friend The Orangutan Librarian. She didn’t exactly tag me, but … she did say anyone can do the tag. So here goes!


  • Mention the creator of the tag and link back to original post [Alexandra @ Reading by Starlight]
  • Thank the blogger who tagged you
  • Answer the 10 questions below using any genre
  • Tag 5+ friends

The Questions

Secrets and lies: a book set in a sleepy small town … Many of Anne Tyler’s books are like this. Also, every almost every single Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie. Sometimes Miss Marple travels, and solves a mystery on a train, or in the Caribbean. But my favorites are the ones where she uses her knowledge of the character types, the dark dynamics, and the domestic history in a small town … her own small town, or someone else’s. As she always points out, small towns are not boring!

Salt and Sand: A book with a beach-side communityHave His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers. I’m not sure why the cover of this book looks the way it does, as the most striking scenes in it take place on a beach. This book stars Lord Peter Whimsey and his love interest, the tomboyish academic Harriet Vane, who is hiking along a deserted beach when she discovers the body of a man with his throat gruesomely slit. Harriet photographs the corpse, and after she leaves, the tide disposes of the evidence. Harriet herself becomes a suspect, and she and Lord Peter must put their heads together to extricate her.

Here there be dragons: a book with a voyage on the high seas … I don’t read many sea stories. In fact, this is the only one I can think of besides Treasure Island and the third book of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. Master & Commander is a really good book. When I was reading it, I even had dreams about it. They made it into a movie, which is also very good, but the movie only covers about half the material in the book, and not even the most sensational incidents.

Tread lightly: a book set down a murky river or jungle … There are many good missionary stories that take place in the remote jungle. These are novelized versions of real events. There is Bruchko (South America); Lords of the Earth (Irian Jaya); In Search of the Source, set in Papua New Guinea, by Neil Anderson; and Do You Know What You Are Doing, Lord?, which gives a very different perspective on the same events, written by Neil’s wife Carol. I am tempted to mention Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, but I haven’t actually read it.

Frozen wastes: a book with a frostbitten atmosphere … Ursula Le Guin’s Left of Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet that has two huge ice caps which reach well down into what on Earth would be called the temperate zones. The main character, an ambassador for an interplanetary council, ends up in a gulag-like camp, is rescued by one of the locals, and the two make an amazing trek across one of the glaciers to escape.

The boonies: a book with rough or isolated terrain … I think many books depend on rough and isolated terrain for the danger and tension in their plot. Think of every murder mystery you’ve ever read where the group of suspects is cut off from the outside world by the tides or snows or whatever. This also goes for lifeboat stories, mountaineering stories, and post-apocalyptic books, all of which throw the characters on their own resources because “help is not going to come.” But I am going to mention Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin.

Hinterlands and cowboys: a book with a Western-esque setting … OK, you know what I am going to say here. I am going to, once again, recommend the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn police procedural/Navajo cultural mysteries by Tony Hillerman. What, you say you still haven’t started reading them? Get to it!

Look lively: a book set across sweeping desert sands … There are quite a few of these. I guess the desert really fires our imaginations. But I’m going to name one that I discovered recently: Sand. by Hugh Howey. (The period is apparently part of the title?) I know I’m late to the Hugh Howey party because the cover of Sand. tells me that he is the bestselling author of another book, Wool. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could make an entire novel centered on wool, but after reading Sand., I believe he certainly could and I’m going to pick up Wool as soon as I see it.

Wild and untamed: a book set in the heart of the woodsA Different Kingdom by Paul Kearney. Teenaged Michael lives on a prosperous farm in Ireland. When he ventures in to the woods near his home, he passes in to another, much larger, forest, which is also the source of all the myths and legends of the past.

Wildest dreams: a whimsical book shrouded in magicThe Dark is Rising series. These YA books are pagan as all get-out, and seem to be based on a very good research into British and Welsh pagan lore. They do a great job of creating an atmosphere of this whole world of magic breaking in to a kid’s everyday life, in ways that only initiates can perceive.

… And may I mention that settings like these are the reason that I love reading and writing? It’s my ambition to write a book in each of these settings (except perhaps the high seas). I would say my books, to date, have covered Frostbitten, Boonies, Small Town and possibly Western.

And as usual, I tag … you, dear Reader! In the comments! Which of these settings do you love? Which will you never tire of?

Dinosaur Tracks near Tuba City, Arizona

Maiasaurus tracks. Mother and baby tracks visible.
T-Rex! I have a picture of my kids standing on this footprint, but want to protect their privacy.
swamp grass
fossilized dinosaur eggs (son’s foot for scale)
skull, and neck vertebrae
This one is, according to our guide, a human footprint.
This little rise was the only high point in the area, except that we were already on high ground as the road climbed towards Tuba City.

There were also some coprolites, big rock cow pies which had been stacked and made into a little fence at one point. Nothing like a stone wall built of dino poop.

On My Complete Failure to Find the Kachina Bridge Dinosaur

Sometimes you want to see something with your own eyes.

My Dinosaurs in History post includes a link to a web site that discusses an Anasazi petroglyph that looks an awful lot like a dinosaur. Even on the web site, you can tell that the original petroglyph is very, very faint.

from the Defending Genesis web site
from Defending Genesis again

It’s on Kachina Bridge, which is in Natural Bridges National Park in southern Utah. So when I learned I would be passing through southern Utah, I thought I had better go and look at the thing myself. Do my due diligence. How could I live near this thing, drive right by it, and not try to get a glimpse?

Getting to Kachina Bridge

Here’s how to get to Kachina Bridge. First you drive to Natural Bridges National Park, which is about 35 miles from the main highway. The road is very good, but it is so twisty, with so much climbing, that the 35 mile drive took us about an hour.

We checked in at the Visitors’ Center and showed our national parks pass. From there, you drive your car around a one-way loop that takes you past all the major overlooks in the park. From the loop, you can park your car and access the trail heads. Kachina Bridge is down in a rocky canyon. The trail is about 1.5 miles round trip, but it’s basically vertical. It’s a combination of stone steps, scrambling over red rock following a trail marked by little cairns, scrambling down red rock faces aided by handrails the park has installed, and, in one case, a short climb down a wooden ladder.

It’s a beautiful hike, but despite what the Defending Genesis web site says, this trail would not be easy to navigate while carrying something bulky such as a ladder. In our case, it was made more beautiful and more perilous by the presence of snow and icy patches.

(By the way, could I just pause here and express how grateful I am for our national parks. Someone has created and maintained a fantastic road to get out to this place, then a driving loop and parking places, and then a trail with carved steps, handholds, etc. Because of all this, I (and even my kids!) are able to access this remote and beautiful spot. Without all this, we would have no reason to go there, no way to get there, and probably no idea that the place existed.)

Anyway, finally we were on the canyon bottom. We followed a gravel path beside a stream, and eventually we emerged and – ta-da! – there was the bridge before us.

Sneaky Petroglyphs

When you first get to the bridge, your natural instinct is to approach it and then walk under it. Consequently, I at first walked right past all the petroglyphs without even noticing them. Or actually, I walked right under them.

The biggest group of petroglyphs is on the side of Kachina Bridge that faces you as you approach it. They are on a relatively flat, vertical strip of canyon wall, about 10 or 15 feet up, with a ledge protruding below them. To get a close look at them, you would need to scale the ledge using rock climbing equipment or a ladder. If you stand right underneath them, the ledge partially blocks your view. So if, like me, all you have is a stupid cell phone camera, you have to back way up and then use the zoom to get grainy “close ups” of the petroglyphs.

Showing the ledge. What looks like a tiny pueblo under it is eroded red clay. The glyphs we’ll be looking at in a moment are farther along to the left of this group.

Some of these petroglyphs are really famous, but some of the most famous ones are the hardest to see. They are made up of dibbles in the rock which itself has an irregular surface. I imagine that the best time to photograph them would be morning or evening when the slanting light would help pick them out. (We were there at noon.) And to use a professional camera with a good zoom lens maybe.

For example, can you see three human figures, zigzags, and spirals in this photograph?
Here I’ve used Paint to enhance the ones I could see … which did not include the second man’s head. There is also a turtle-like something I did not enhance because I wasn’t sure of it.

Me, Trying to Photograph Them Anyway

So I wandered around in the snow and took about a million photos of the different sections of the wall with my cell phone, hoping that I might photograph the dinosaur by accident and be able to find it later. There were so many petroglyphs, and many of them overlapping each other, and I had no idea where in this composite mural the supposed dinosaur might be.

I also took some photographs of the whole scene from a distance to give a sense of context of the petroglyphs.

As I stumped around in the frozen red mud, I thought to myself. These are so hard to get to and photograph. How hard must they have been to make? What would motivate anyone to make all this art (or language) in this hard-to-get-to spot? It’s a similar question to cave paintings. Of course, there is lots of good information out there about what these spirals and zigzags and blocky figures tell us about probable Anasazi cosmology. The only thing I could undeniably tell that the original artists must have been saying, though, was,

“We were here!”

I Did Photograph It! But You Can’t See It

When I got home, I tracked down the web site and tried to identify which section of the wall the dino petroglyph occupied. Turns out I did photograph that section of wall! Here it is.

It’s actually just to the right of the spirals, zigzags, and people I had to enhance.

Of course, you can’t see the dino at all. So I cannot verify that the thing is there. Certainly you can’t see it with the naked eye, from a distance, at noon on a winter day. But then, that goes for many of the petroglyphs.

In this picture, you can see the spiral that is to the right of the dinosaur’s head but not the dinosaur itself.

Further evidence that the dino glyph is actually there: Senter and Cole went out of their way to analyze it and disprove it. They seem to be able to see it, I guess. Enough that it bothers them.

My Kids Trying to Help Me Find the Dinosaur

Sometimes another pair of eyes helps, so before we left I asked my kids (who had spent the previous hour scrambling over red boulders and breaking ice in the stream) to see if they could spot any dinosaur.

They didn’t spot the dinosaur, but they did point out a number of glyphs that could have been dinosaurs (or, from that distance, anything).

Here are some clearer ones on the other side of Kachina Bridge. I don’t know what the situation was like when these were first made, but now, they are on a sheer wall that looms directly over the deepest part of the icy stream.

This one, which a dispassionate observer has called “Chicken Man,” could be a large bird. Or (just a thought here), it could be a T-Rex if we are assuming there are multiple glyphs of dinosaurs. At any rate, the 3-toed, bird-like foot, long neck, and fat body on 2 legs are clearly visible.

This one, which my son suggested as a possible dino, looks more like a giraffe to me, but who knows. Or it could be pure symbol, not meant to represent an animal at all. As you can see, it’s near the giant chicken.

Lesson Learned

So that’s my fail. I can tell you that there is not, on Kachina Bridge, a dinosaur petroglyph that you can’t miss and that unmistakably leaps out at the lay person.

I can tell you that there are many interesting symbols which are hard to discern and need to be (and have been) photographed and analyzed by experts who are familiar with Southwestern archeaology and anthropology.

And that, like everything having to do with ancient man and with dinosaurs, the process of interpretation is more art than science and is hugely influenced by our assumptions.

OK, American Southwest, You Win

I was always sort of attracted to you. My husband and I camped our way through you right after we got married, and it was interesting, but I didn’t commit myself because I didn’t think I’d be back. I thought the two of us were going to move to Indonesia. And indeed we did, and we learned its languages (a few of them) and explored its tropical, Southeast Asian landscapes and cultures, a world away from your deserts. But we didn’t, as I had expected, end up raising our kids there. Ultimately we ended up coming back to North America. American Southwest, I was getting pulled into your orbit.

Betataki cliff dwelling at the Navajo National Monument

Things only got worse when I discovered Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and then the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels of Tony Hillerman. (The first Hillerman novel I read was so sad, I swore I’d never read him again. But eventually, inevitably, I picked up another one, and then it was all over for me.)

Bought at the Navajo Cultural Center gift shop in Tuba City, AZ. They had many of Hillerman’s novels and I’d have bought them all if I could.

Yes, I know there is plenty of terrific nonfiction about you. But I always tend to reach for fiction.

Petroglyphs on Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Park, Southern Utah

And then, the final blow: We moved to the Intermountain West. Within driving distance of … you. And this last week, I got the opportunity to explore you with my children by my side. I got to drive through Navajo country, Dinetah, the land of my book friends Chee and Leaphorn, seeing the places and hearing the language that I had read about in their adventures. I can’t describe how this felt. It was like getting to visit Middle Earth or something.

Dinosaur prints near Tuba City, AZ

So, after this trip, you win, American Southwest. You have conquered me. I am hooked. It is not possible to learn everything about you … not even in one lifetime, and I am getting started late. But whenever possible, I will be back. I promise you that.

Kachina Bridge

I know I’m not the first outsider to fall for you. In fact, that’s another thing that I sort of like about the tourist and transplant culture surrounding you: you seem to attract people who are into art. I look forward to doing some paintings of you that are exactly like the bajillions of other paintings done by your other adoring fans.

Paintings of landscapes like this one.

And I promise, I won’t steal or “acquire” any priceless artifacts. I don’t want your relics or your pots, American Southwest. They wouldn’t look good in my house. They look best exactly where they belong: right in the middle of you.

The other side of Kachina Bridge. Can you spot the petroglyphs?

Book with the “Best Diverse Cast” (Calendar Girls Tag)

Whenever I see “Calendar Girls” I think of the hilarious British movie by that name, but in this case, it means a group of (girl?) book bloggers who treat a different bookish theme during each month of the calendar.  (So we will not be posing. I am sure you are relieved.) And this month, December, I was actually able to think of a book that fulfills the theme! 

Calendar Girls is hosted by NeverNotReading, who says of this month’s theme, “What I really like about this theme is it allows you to interpret diversity in whatever way is meaningful to you. Racial or ethnic representation, LGBTQ diversity, neurodiversity, whatever you’re passionate about, we want to read it too!”

Picking a book with a diverse cast felt somewhat arbitrary because so many of my faves have casts that are diverse in one way or another. Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women springs to mind, as do Ursula le Guin’s novellas set on the planet of Yeowe (navy-blue colored upper class, grey-blue colored underclass, red-brown foreigners with a very different culture coming from distant Hain).  Even the very Nordic Lord of the Rings has a main cast of four different species and minor characters that are even more diverse (Ents, anyone?).  And then there’s Clan of the Cave Bear, which features Neanderthals as main characters.

But here is the book I have settled on: Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman.

 Clowns is part of Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. It’s a mystery/police procedural series set in Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, which straddles the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.  Chee and Leaphorn both work for the Navajo Tribal police. Because of the way jurisdiction on Indian reservations is handled, they frequently have to work on their cases with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or Utah State police and/or with the FBI.

Books in this series usually take place on the Navajo reservations and the plot often turns on Navajo culture. That’s already “diverse” to an outsider like me. But it quickly gets deeper.  Chee and Leaphorn have each had a different experience of being Navajo. Leaphorn was of the generation that was sent away to boarding schools right around the time their adult vocabulary would have been developing. Consequently, his grasp on the Navajo language is a little shaky, and he thinks like a modern, secular white man. He doesn’t, in his bones, believe in Navajo cosmology. Chee, a younger man, was raised at home and enculturated, as per tradition, by his mother’s brother. He is a fully spiritual Navajo and wants to become a haatalii, or traditional healer, like his uncle (though Leaphorn, and others, feel the demands of being a hataalii would not mix well with a policeman’s schedule).

Sacred Clowns is even more diverse than the average Leaphorn and Chee book because in this case, the mystery takes place in Hopi culture, which is different from Navajo culture.  (For example, Navajos tend to invite everyone to their religious ceremonies, whereas Hopi ceremonies are held in secret and never talked about.)  In the opening scene, Chee is attending a Hopi cultural event that features clowns, which are supposed to show people their own folly. At one point, a Hopi clown mimes selling cultural artifacts to an outsider for a lot of money. He is clearly criticizing this practice, but Chee senses “there’s something I’m missing.”  When the clown first drags his little wagon of artifacts out into the middle of the square, the Hopi crowd falls silent. Chee wants to find out why, and this will get him digging into local politics and ultimately solving the case.

Chee isn’t at the top of his game during the event, however, because he is also there sort of on a date with Janet Pete. Janet’s father was Navajo, but she was raised on the East Coast by her Scottish-American mother. Chee really likes Janet, and he spends most of the book trying to find out whether it would be OK for him to get involved with her. The Navajo have an elaborate system of incest laws which prohibit you from marrying anyone whose clans have a historical connection to your own clans. Janet doesn’t know her father’s clans, and anyway the maternal clans are considered more important.

Meanwhile, Leaphorn, a widower, is planning a trip to China with his lady friend, who is a white anthropologist (Lousia Bourbonette – a French name: more diversity, and a romance between older people!).  He wants to visit Mongolia, because he’s read that his ancestors probably originated there.

And cramming in as many cultures as possible, there is another tribal cop, Harold Blizzard, who is Cheyenne.  About halfway through the book there’s a great scene where Chee and Janet Pete are at a drive-in movie, and Blizzard is there, sort of as a third wheel. The movie is an old Western called Cheyenne Autumn, which is a cult classic among the Navajo because the “Cheyenne” characters in the movie were actually played by Navajos. When they are supposedly speaking Cheyenne in the movie, they are actually speaking Navajo, and of course saying crude and saracastic things that were not in the script.  Chee, as the only person in the car who speaks Navajo, has to translate for Janet and Harold so they can understand why certain supposedly solemn lines are funny and why all the other (Navajo) moviegoers are laughing and honking their car horns. It’s this experience that gets Chee thinking about how much outsiders to a culture miss, and wondering what he was missing at the Hopi gathering.

Finally, when Chee consults some elders about Janet’s father’s clans, he gets an earful from them about how young people aren’t traditional enough. They are referring to the way that hataalii of Chee’s generation will sometimes break up the weeklong Navajo healing ceremonies over a couple of weekends so that people who work 9-to-5 jobs can attend them. According to the elders, this is not acceptable, but Chee will probably have to do it if he becomes a healer. He must struggle with how much he can adapt his ancestors’ culture and still remain Navajo.

All of Hillerman’s books do a great job exploring themes of culture and identity, but in this book he really outdoes himself.