Leaphorn and Chee Do Public TV
- Indian Comics Irregular #88
PBS has broadcast an adaptation of the Tony Hillerman mystery
"Skinwalkers." It's the first American production in the formerly
all-British "Mystery!" series. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Set largely on a Navajo reservation and populated almost entirely
by Indian actors, "Skinwalkers"--adapted for the screen by
Redford's son, James ("Ring of Fire"), and gracefully directed by
Chris Eyre ("Smoke Signals")--looks in on a world both exotic and
The San Francisco Chronicle (11/24/02) continues:
"Skinwalkers" follows Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) and Officer Jim
Chee (Adam Beach), who share a heritage but have divergent
personalities. While Leaphorn is a by-the-book authority figure
who doesn't look to his ancestors for answers, the younger Chee is
a medicine man in training and well versed in Navajo history.
There have been recent movies that treat American Indians with
respect ("Dances With Wolves," "Thunderheart," "Windtalkers"), but
all of them are told through the eyes of a white protagonist
(Kevin Costner, Val Kilmer, Nicolas Cage).
Other movies just throw a token, one-dimensional American Indian
into the background. Eyre criticizes those films as "a slap in
the face" because the characters are barely developed.
My reaction to "Skinwalkers": The above is all true. The movie dealt
honestly with the Native characters and culture, which is still rare
in the entertainment media. Nevertheless, I was somewhat
disappointed. A few problems:
The movie was filmed in and around Superior, Arizona, southeast of
Phoenix--not on the Navajo reservation. I never had a good sense of
where the characters were, which is unfortunate in a movie where place
Hillerman's novels are complex, with lots of interconnected subplots.
I found it a bit hard to follow what was happening, and I know the
style and pattern of Hillerman's mysteries. Someone who hadn't read a
Hillerman book might've got lost.
Most important, the core of Hillerman's series is the relationship
between Leaphorn and Chee. And the movie changed that entirely. In
the books, Leaphorn is the Legendary Lieutenant, the calm, methodical
veteran who seems to know everything. Although he's a rationalist
who has assimilated the Western mindset, he's at ease in the Navajo
In contrast, Chee is the inexperienced cop who's unsure of himself
and his direction. Part of him wants to emulate Leaphorn, the
pragmatic professional, and part wants to learn the traditional
The movie almost reverses Leaphorn and Chee. Leaphorn is a blustery,
procedure-bound outsider who knows little about Navajo culture. Chee
is the composed, confidant insider who has already balanced detective
and healing work. Chee shows Leaphorn how to conduct investigations
on the rez, not the other way around. It's almost painful to see
Leaphorn falling off a ladder or dismissing a clue that might be
These characters aren't the Leaphorn and Chee I know. To stretch a
metaphor, they're like skinwalkers--inhabiting the skins of Leaphorn
and Chee, but acting like strangers. And that's a shame.
Rob's rating for "Skinwalkers": 7.5 of 10. For more on the movie, go
As always, thanks to Victor Rocha for hosting my website, my advisors
for their answers to my questions, and Blue Corn Comics' fans
and visitors for their support. Stay tuned for more Indian comics
action. The best is yet to come.
Blue Corn Comics