Jim Chee is one of two Navajo Tribal Police detectives in a series of mystery novels by Tony Hillerman. Unlike his superior Joe Leaphorn, the "Legendary Lieutenant", Chee is a staunch believer in traditional Navajo culture; indeed, he is studying to be a traditional healer at the same time that he is a police officer.
Jim Chee is an acting sergeant in the Navajo Tribal Police when we first meet him in People of Darkness, working in the Crownpoint, NM office. He has two older sisters, and his mother and his mother's uncle and her two sisters (his little mothers) are still alive and part of his life. His grand uncle, Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai is frequent help to Chee, whose advice runs through Chee's mind, and whose tapes of the words for various Navajo rituals aid Chee in memorizing them. From childhood on, Chee is remarked for his excellent memory, detailed and exact.
Chee's uncle has told him that he cannot actively choose to be Navajo until he understands the culture of the whites who surround and interact with the reservation. He is in this process of learning when he first asks Mary Landon out in People of Darkness. She is a white schoolteacher at a primary school on the reservation. He is in love but slowly realizes that they will never be compatible. At first, she wants him to give up many of his Navajo ways and live in her home state, away from the Navajo people, which he cannot do. Then, in The Ghostway, she realizes she does not want to change him, and goes home to Wisconsin to figure out if their love could make them a couple. In Skinwalkers, she sends him a letter saying she is not returning to Crownpoint, but getting her masters degree in Wisconsin. Also in Skinwalkers, Chee meets Janet Pete, a half-Navajo, half-white lawyer attached to the local prosecutor's office. In Talking God, Mary Landon writes to Chee not to visit her again, and then they end their relationship by telephone. Also in Talking God, he spends the vacation meant to be in Wisconsin to visit Janet Pete, who seems afraid because someone is following her. She followed her lover to Washington D.C., so she and Chee are just friends, thus far. Pete returns to the reservation area in Coyote Waits, where their connection goes a step beyond friendship when she sees Chee in a new light after the case of Hosteen Ashie Pinto. Though this romance starts out strong, it, too, disintegrates. Janet cannot give up many of her ways, yet wants Chee to leave the reservation, in The Fallen Man. Eventually she betrays him in The First Eagle, and they part ways. Chee's third, and final romance is with Bernadette Manuelito, a full-blooded Navajo and member of the Tribal Police. She works for Chee in Shiprock, learning to be a detective, in The Fallen Man, where she has her first success in finding and arresting the cattle thieves. She transfers to another office because she has a crush on him. They marry at the conclusion of Skeleton Man. In The First Eagle, Chee learns that his uncle has lung cancer and does not have long to live, but gets advice from him one more time on how best to deal with a Hopi man and to hunt an eagle. At the same time, Chee's uncle Frank Sam Nakai tells him that to be a good shaman (yataalii) he must 'believe and not believe.' Chee interprets this to mean he cannot be a good shaman, and is devastated.
Chee's education is similar to that of Lt. Leaphorn, as he studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico and attended a boarding high school, described in People of Darkness. In Coyote Waits, Chee mentions that it took him about seven years to graduate from college, as he had to skip a term to earn tuition money. Both came from families or clans with many singers, or yataalii. Chee's Navajo name, given him by his maternal uncle, is Long Thinker. When Chee first appears in the novels, he is younger than the age Lt. Leaphorn appeared, and still a single man.
In People of Darkness, Chee solves a case involving a man made wealthy in buying land with uranium in it, at the dawn of the atomic age. He does his best to kill those who knew him in his first occupation, as the geologist working for an oil company. As Chee figures this out, a hired killer is after him, even in the hospital as he recovers from being shot. He is generally sharp, alert, but still young and takes risks matching his age and experience. In The Dark Wind, Chee works on the four cases assigned to him, told to stay away from the drug smuggling case. He does as Captain largo tells him, but those cases involve him in the drug case, which is resolved with the help of the sudden and heavy seasonal rains that carry away the corrupt DEA agent and the drugs he valued over his life. In The Ghostway, Chee works on a case that involves Navajos relocated to Los Angeles, entangled with major criminal gang, and a savvy young Navajo woman still on the reservation. Chee knows how to talk to the very old, who are shunted to an old people's home in Los Angeles. The contrast of his Navajo view of the world, and the larger one around him is sharply drawn.
Chee and Leaphorn first meet and work together in Skinwalkers, when an attempt was made on Chee's life as he slept. Chee is seven years out of college, so about 30 or 32, and Leaphorn is married thirty years to a woman he met in college, so he is past 50. Chee knows the reputation Leaphorn has for his success in police work, and after Leaphorn retires, Chee thinks of Leaphorn as legendary and always smarter than Chee is. Leaphorn judges Chee as each situation reveals him. Leaphorn sees why Captain Largo, Chee's boss, calls him smart as they seek the links in a string of homicides; in another situation, Leaphorn thinks Chee stupid for not having thought out a situation in his personal life before the person who tried to kill him has been found. Chee is willing to call on Leaphorn whenever he is stuck with a particular problem in a case. In Talking God, the two independently vacation in Washington D.C., eventually working together to solve a few cases for the FBI. Over time, the two men develop a healthy respect for each other and a deep friendship. In Sacred Clowns, Chee reports directly to Leaphorn in a newly formed unit for special investigations, the only novel in which they are both in the police force and Chee is directly reporting to Leaphorn. In the next novel, The Fallen Man, Leaphorn has retired and Chee accepts a promotion as Acting Lieutenant, with a staff of five officers in Shiprock. When a case appears related to one Leaphorn did not solve eleven years earlier, Leaphorn approaches Chee to talk about it. Leaphorn gets hired by one of the parties to investigate the new evidence, and cautiously works out a way to do police work but not have the authority of a sworn officer. Chee notices this. Chee applies himself to the administrative aspects of being a Lieutenant, remaining in that position through The First Eagle, when he is assigned to Tuba City. He takes on the promotion for the higher pay and as a way to meet Janet Pete half way. Chee and Leaphorn work well together, though Chee still gets tense when Leaphorn approaches him, as Chee recollects his own shortcomings to compare with Leaphorn's insights, even when Chee has done the key work. The clearest example of this is in The Fallen Man when it is the ledger kept by Lucy Sam's late father, uncovered by Chee, that reveals the information to explain the odd situation of the disappearance of Hal Breedlove, allowing Chee and Leaphorn to bring the case to resolution.
Development of the character
Hillerman writes in his autobiography, Seldom Disappointed (2001), that he created Jim Chee as an alternative to Leaphorn for the novel People of Darkness (1980) because the novel is set on the Checkerboard Reservation, and Hillerman felt that Leaphorn was too hardened to fit into the plot. He needed someone more naive, and Chee fit the bill.
Appearances in other media
Three of the Hillerman novels (Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time) were adapted for television as part of the PBS series Mystery!, as part of its American Mystery! specials. In these adaptations, Chee was played by actor Adam Beach. Robert Redford also serving as the executive producer in all four film adaptations. Skinwalkers first aired November 24,2002; A Thief of Time first aired July 11, 2004, and Coyote Waits first aired November 16, 2003.
Jim Chee appears in the following novels:
- People of Darkness (1980)
- The Dark Wind (1982)
- The Ghostway (1984)
- Skinwalkers (1986)
- A Thief of Time (1988)
- Talking God (1989)
- Coyote Waits (1990)
- Sacred Clowns (1993)
- The Fallen Man (1996)
- The First Eagle (1998)
- Hunting Badger (1999)
- The Wailing Wind (2002)
- The Sinister Pig (2003)
- Skeleton Man (2004) ISBN 0-06-056344-3
- The Shape Shifter (2006)
- Spider Woman's Daughter (2013) (written by Anne Hillerman)
In every novel from Skinwalkers on, he is joined by Joe Leaphorn.