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Joe Leaphorn
First appearanceThe Blessing Way
Last appearanceThe Shape Shifter
Created byTony Hillerman
Portrayed byFred Ward
Wes Studi
In-universe information
OccupationNavajo tribal police officer

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is a fictional character created by the twentieth-century American mystery writer Tony Hillerman; he is one of two officers of the Navajo Tribal Police who are featured in a number of Hillerman's novels.[1] The other officer is Jim Chee.


Personal life and education

Joe Leaphorn was born to Anna Gorman, whose father was Hosteen Klee Thlumie, called Hosteen Klee by young Leaphorn. His maternal grandfather told him the stories of the Navajo way of life (Listening Woman). He was educated in the lower grades near home on the reservation, but sent to boarding school for the higher grades, thus missing some of the stories told only in winter season. He thinks back often to his college days at Arizona State University, where he completed a master's degree in anthropology, writing a thesis paper (Dance Hall of the Dead). In addition to anthropology, he has a lifelong interest in the many religions of American Indians and peoples of the world (Listening Woman). In the earlier books of the series, Lieutenant Leaphorn is married to the love of his life, Emma. They had no children. In Skinwalkers, Leaphorn recalls meeting his wife at university. They have been married for thirty years, and he is preoccupied by her health problems, which he fears mean Alzheimer's disease but are diagnosed as arising from a brain tumor at the end of the novel. In A Thief of Time, when Leaphorn's wife has died a few months earlier, he reflects on his marriage. Leaphorn had been funded to continue in anthropology, get his doctorate, be a professor. Then he met Emma on the campus, and married her. He found a job to support them and keep them on the reservation where she wanted to live. He had the habit of trying out theories of people with her, a sharp observer, as he solved his cases, and he misses that immediately as he grieves the loss of her. In The Fallen Man it is revealed that Emma survived the surgery to remove the benign brain tumor; she died from a staph infection following the surgery, when Jim Chee is in the same hospital recovering from wounds sustained on duty. Emma and her relationship with her husband are revealed after she dies, in Joe's recollections of how he would talk with her, the decisions he made to please her, and how he feels guilty having another woman in the house, in Emma's room, as he muses in Hunting Badger.

Later, Leaphorn becomes attracted to an anthropologist named Louisa Bourebonette, whom he meets while working on a case in Coyote Waits. Louisa sometimes helps in collecting information to solve cases, as she interviews older Indians of several tribes, in her professional pursuits of documenting the origin stories of each tribe. Leaphorn is always in love with Emma, but he enjoys Louisa's sharp mind and her company.

His life as police officer and detective

Joe Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now Navajo Nation Police)
Joe Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now Navajo Nation Police)

He was perhaps 40 and a lieutenant in the first novel (The Blessing Way), so the early days of his career as a policeman are revealed as stories of the past in the novels. Educated in assimilationist Indian boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he is not as well-versed in Navajo rituals as the younger officer Chee, though he has attended the usual ceremonies, and does so in the novels (e.g., attending the multi-day Kinaalda ceremony on two separate days while solving the case in Listening Woman). He is a police officer for the Navajo, he is a Navajo, fluent in that language and in English. In the first three novels of the series, he has no staff; he reports to superiors in the Navajo Tribal Police (Captain Largo) and works with officers of other tribes and often with agents of the FBI and other federal investigative agencies. Leaphorn's approach to his cases is informed by some Navajo, or Dine, tradition, but is also influenced by Anglo-European logic. In Skinwalkers, Leaphorn has responsibilities to assign officers where they are needed for specific situations.

The attraction of police detective work for him is the freedom to follow his curiosity to solve problems. He is skilled in tracking in the desert country where it can be months between rainfalls, and tracks are unchanged unless another crosses the path. He seeks the logic of each situation.

Leaphorn is not one to do the sings (lead the ceremonies) of his own culture and is resistant to some Navajo taboos. But at the same time, he realizes that many traditional Navajo follow those beliefs and often act on them, in cases that result in violence. He holds a Navajo world view, with no expectation of heaven in the afterlife, instead a need to find his place in this life and lead his life well. He follows the rules of courtesy of the Navajo as to the ebb and flow of conversations, and his ability to handle demanding characters from the white world around him. He is still learning the ways of white men in the novels, as he cannot understand the choices made by graduate student Ted Isaacs, who leaves the love of his life on her own when she needs a place to live, in favor of his career, in The Dance Hall of the Dead. In Talking God, we learn that in the year following the death of his wife, Leaphorn has a Blessing Way ceremony done for him by Jim Chee, an event that both find beneficial.

The belief in skinwalkers, common among so many Navajos, is the one that bothers him most and for good reason. In times of troubles, when people seek a scapegoat, the notion of a skinwalker being the cause gives a person reason to kill the skinwalker, who is another human being. He encountered a triple murder by one man who then killed himself early in his police career, we learn in The Blessing Way, the first book in the series, the one man believing the others to be skinwalkers and Leaphorn did not act on that knowledge as quickly as he later thought he might have. As a police officer, he arrests murderers, along with the FBI, who are formally responsible to prosecute homicides on the reservation lands. Times of troubles may be fatal medical problems for the one seeking a scapegoat when there is no cure. This to Leaphorn is superstition that would be helped greatly by seeking treatment and by accepting current knowledge of health and disease, then accepting fate in the Navajo way. The skinwalker has many attributes that are not human, such as the ability to turn into birds or animals, to fly, and to put a bit of bone into a person, thus marking the person for death.

Leaphorn is called the "Legendary Lieutenant" by other police officers in later novels, and especially by Chee, who holds him in awe.

Leaphorn lives in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona. In his career he worked in a number of locations, including a brief stint training at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. His longest assignment appears to have been in Tuba City, Arizona, where he was a traffic cop, before the story told in The Blessing Way, as described in the Listening Woman.

Leaphorn is connected to many on the reservation. One example is his encounter with John "Shorty" McGinnis in Listening Woman (Chapter 5), where McGinnis tells Leaphorn he knew his maternal grandfather in younger days. His grandfather had not yet earned the title of Hosteen, and was called Horse Kicker by his friends, all long before Leaphorn's time. McGinnis is again a useful contact in Skinwalkers and in Coyote Waits.

Leaphorn creates a large, color-coded map for his police work. It is an old auto club road map of the Four Corners area, Indian country. On this map he marks different kinds of crimes with different-colored pins - red-headed pins stand for alcohol-related crimes, including bootlegging as alcohol is illegal on the reservation, blue for sheep stealing, brown with a white center for the rare homicides and others for "white man crimes" like burglary, vandalism and robbery, which occurred mainly on the edges of the reservation. This process allows him to notice patterns that link various crimes together, and helps him solve them. This map is enhanced by notations, as well, noting places where roads have washed out in a heavy rain, places where witchcraft has been reported, and summer camps for sheep grazing for various Navajo families. In Coyote Waits, Leaphorn's map is described as a photographic enlargement of an auto club map, posted up in his office; he used it trying to make sense of the murder by Ashie Pinto, but in that case most of the useful information comes from conversations with people who seek him out (the niece of Ashie Pinto), or who he seeks out (McGinnis, Kennedy), and his running internal conversations as if his wife were still alive to make useful observations on people, than from studying the map. It showed only how very far from home Ashie Pinto was arrested, with no explanation how he arrived at the scene of the murders.

Five months before The Fallen Man, Leaphorn retires, and as part of the plot he gets a commission as a private investigator. An old case he left as an unsolved missing person case is solved on the basis of new information uncovered by Jim Chee. Chee accepts praise from Leaphorn and the two work together to resolve the case. He gives Jim Chee advice when requested, and shares information with him, as Chee develops more confidence in himself and evaluates Leaphorn as a very smart man. Leaphorn does not enjoy retirement. His contacts throughout the Southwest, and his renown, lead him into a number of cases, after his active police career is over. in Hunting Badger, Leaphorn and Chee work together, including using the map to figure out where the criminals are hiding, matching up their trail with the story of an old coal mine shaft that opened on the rim of Gothic Creek Canyon. Leaphorn was drawn into that case as a pawn of the main criminal, which he realizes at the end, but he also follows through with Chee until the very end.

His name

In his autobiography Seldom Disappointed (2002), Hillerman reveals that he named Leaphorn after the ancient Minoan practice of bull-jumping, as he was reading a book on Minoan culture while writing his first novel.[citation needed]

The Lieutenant's nickname among Hillerman fans is "Lovely Leaphorn."[citation needed]

Appearances in other media

In the film adaptation of The Dark Wind (1991), Leaphorn was played by Fred Ward, though his character was not part of the novel.

Three of the Hillerman novels (Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time) were adapted for television as part of the PBS series Mystery!, in its American Mystery! specials. In these adaptations, Leaphorn was played by actor Wes Studi, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Robert Redford served as the executive producer in all four film adaptations.


Joe Leaphorn appears in the following novels:

In the three novels published between 1978 and 1986, the stories focus on the younger Jim Chee.

In each of the following Leaphorn and Jim Chee work together:

Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time and Coyote Waits were each adapted for television as part of the American Mystery! series by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)


  1. ^ George N. Dove and Earl F. Bargainnier (eds), Cops and Constables: American and British Fictional Policemen, Popular Press, 1986, pp. 98–113, ISBN 0879723343.