Joe Leaphorn

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

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.


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 masters 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)

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.

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.

Leaphorn is called the "Legendary Lieutenant" by many members of his staff in later novels, and some of the younger policemen (especially Chee) hold 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.

Leaphorn creates a large, color-coded map for his police work. It is an enlargement of an old auto club road map of the Four Corners area. On this map he marks different kinds of crimes with different-colored pins - red-headed pins stand for alcohol-related crimes, for example. This process allows him to notice patterns that link various crimes together, and helps him solve them. Leaphorn eventually retires, and promptly begins working as a private investigator; he frequently gives Jim Chee advice (though never unsolicited). Leaphorn does not enjoy retirement. His contacts throughout the Southwest, and his renown, lead him into a number of cases, even after his active police career is over.

In the earlier books, Lieutenant Leaphorn is married to the love of his life, Emma. However, she dies between Skinwalkers and A Thief of Time. Later, Leaphorn becomes attracted to an anthropologist named Louisa Bourbonette, 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.

His name[edit]

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[edit]

In the film adaptation of The Dark Wind (1991), Leaphorn was played by Fred Ward.

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:


  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.