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 a 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 brother and two sisters (his little mothers) are still alive and part of his life. His 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 teaching primary school on the reservation. He is in love but 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. Chee next falls in love with Janet Pete, a half-Navajo, half-white lawyer attached to the local prosecutor's office. Though this romance starts out strong, it, too, disintegrates. Janet cannot give up many of her ways, yet wants Chee to leave the reservation. Eventually she betrays him, and they part ways. Chee's third, and final romance is with Bernadette Manuelito, a full-blooded Navajo and member of the Tribal Police. They marry at the conclusion of Skeleton Man. 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. 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.
Chee and Leaphorn do not get along terribly well at first. Leaphorn views Chee (justifiably) as too hot-headed and impatient, while Chee in turn respects Leaphorn but sees him as too stodgy. Chee is willing, however, to call on Leaphorn whenever he is stuck with a particular problem in a case. Eventually the two men develop a healthy respect for each other, if not a deep friendship.
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.