The Blessing Way

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For X-files Episode, see The Blessing Way (The X-Files).
The Blessing Way
1st edition cover (Harper & Row)
Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn Navajo Tribal Police Series
Author Tony Hillerman
Country United States
Language English
Genre Crime fiction
Publisher Harper & Row
Published 1970
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Preceded by First in series
Followed by Dance Hall of the Dead, 1973

The Blessing Way is the first crime fiction novel in the Joe Leaphorn / Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police series by Tony Hillerman first published in 1970; it introduces Joe Leaphorn.

Plot summary[edit]

Anthropologist Bergen McKee comes to the Navajo Reservation to research tales of witches, first visiting his old friend, Joe Leaphorn and his wife Emma. Leaphorn is a Navajo Tribal Police lieutenant. A young man, Luis Horseman, thought he had killed a man in a fight, and thus went out of sight. His victim survived, so Leaphorn spreads the word, so that Luis will talk with the police. Speaking at a trading post with McKee, Leaphorn sees a Navajo man, a stranger to him, buying a new hat. His old one was stolen, but not the expensive silver concho hatband on it (an odd sort of theft), which he places on the new hat. Leaphorn, to make his point, says that "Otherwise we'll go in there and get him",[1] if he does not appear on his own, a statement heard by the stranger. The next morning, the body of Luis is found near Ganado; he had been suffocated with sand after being killed elsewhere. Leaphorn rues his statement, feeling it somehow led to this murder.

McKee and his colleague, Professor J. R. Canfield, begin a joint field trip in the Lukachukai Mountains, the canyons of the west slope. A young woman, Ellen Leon, approached Canfield for assistance in finding a friend, Dr. Hall, who is working somewhere on the reservation, doing something with electronics. She arranges to meet them in Many Ruins canyon.

The Tsosie family hosts a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony, which Joe Leaphorn attends. In the course of the long event, he learns who found the symbolic scalp of the witch who has been killing their sheep and disabling their horses. Billy Nez, young brother of Luis, saw the man, and took his hat for the ceremony. Leaphorn understands the need for this curative Enemy Way ceremony; the effect of this ceremony is that the troublemaker will die within a year.

After interviews where he learns that there is a Navajo Wolf now, McKee returns to the campsite in his car, to see that Professor Canfield is not there, nor is his vehicle. Instead, there is a note saying he will return after helping a Navajo get medical treatment; oddly, he signed the note John, when his name is Jeremy. McKee sleeps outside, but is awakened hearing sounds in the otherwise silent night. He moves away from the campsite, to listen. A man wearing a wolf skin and holding an automatic weapon walks into the campsite, then into the tent to read papers there. He calls out McKee's name, rather startling, but McKee keeps silent and the man finally walks away. In the morning, he is prepared to drive out, but realizes that Miss Leon arrives that day. He awaits her arrival. During the night, McKee slipped on the rocks, leaving his face injured, and injuring his right hand rather painfully, so he looks less professorial than she expects. He tries to impress upon her the need to leave the canyon immediately, but fails. McKee finds Canfield's vehicle, and sees his dead body inside it, but does not tell Miss Leon of the death. He tries to drive his own vehicle, to learn that it is inoperable. As the two argue, the man returns, with his weapon. He wants McKee to write a letter like the one Canfield left him.

The man is Navajo, but he is not comfortable speaking the language with McKee. He takes the pair to an Anasazi pueblo. His partner Eddie arrives, also armed and talks to George, the Navajo. Miss Leon has now realized her error in delaying their exit, and apologizes to McKee. Left alone in the pueblo, McKee searches for the hidden exit normally part of the dwellings of these ancient people. He finds it, and sets a plan in motion for the return of Eddie and George. Miss Leon went out one way, while McKee used old hand and footholds to reach the level where Eddie is. Eddie has shot Ellen, and then seeks McKee. In their encounter, Eddie falls over the cliff edge into the crevasse, dying from the fall. McKee tends Ellen, then seeks Hall for help. He follows electric cable to a side canyon, and cuts off the insulation from it. George shoots him in the back from a distance. McKee uses the insulation to make a catapult with a sapling, to throw a sharpened pine stake, right into George, whose gun sight obscured his view. McKee picks up the wolf skin and the gun. As he walks toward the truck, Billy Nez appears with his rifle, and tells McKee to stop. McKee tells him that he is a teacher. The two reach Hall at his truck, tell him about Ellen. Hall tells Billie Nez to give up his rifle, while McKee says not to do that. Leaphorn arrives at the scene, telling Billie Nez to hold onto his rifle.

McKee wakes up in the hospital two days later, confessing to two murders. Ellen Leon is recovered from her wounds. She had set a very smoky fire to attract attention, which is how Leaphorn found her. Joe Leaphorn tells McKee that Hall shot himself when Leaphorn arrived, right in front of him, just as McKee fainted from loss of blood. Hall was collecting radar data about missiles under test from a federal facility near the Reservation, hoping to sell his information for a huge fee. George and Eddie worked for him, keeping people away from his work. From the federal perspective, George and Eddie did not exist; Dr Canfield and Hall were killed in a car accident, which injured Ellen Leon and McKee. Still recovering, McKee gets a long note from Ellen Leon.


  • Joe Leaphorn, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant, based in Window Rock, Arizona, 40 years old
  • Emma Leaphorn, wife of Joe Leaphorn and a Navajo traditionalist
  • Bergen McKee, Professor of Anthropology, friend of Leaphorn
  • Ellen Leon, girlfriend of Jim Hall and the daughter of a friend of Professor Canfield
  • Jeremy Canfield, fellow professor and friend of McKee
  • Jimmie W. Hall, Ph.D., electronics expert, engaged to Ellen Leon; raised in New Mexico, educated in Philadelphia
  • Luis Horseman, young Navajo man, recently married, petty criminal, 23 years old
  • Billy Nez, brother of Luis, about 16 years old, helps family in tending their sheep
  • Charlie Tsosie, relative to Billy Nez, requested the Enemy Way ceremony
  • Eddie Poher, blond haired white man working with George
  • George Jackson, a Navajo raised in Los Angeles, long involved with mob crimes


Kirkus Reviews finds this an unqualified success:

Bergen McKee, a professor and "monster slayer" of Navajo witches and wolves, finds he has more real ores to contend with in the deaths of "no good for anything" Luis Horseman and of a colleague. . . . Authentic anthropological details; the self-effacing courage of McKee; and a particularly exciting entrapment in the canyons of this no white man's land make this an unqualified success.[2]


This story has a strong theme of the Navajo philosophy of keeping peace in life, setting priorities and living by them, against the greed for money represented by Hall and his two hired helpers. Hall is driven to make a million dollars (a lot of money in 1970) and turns to illegal means to do it, hiring one notable criminal (George) and his lesser known ally, both eager for their share if the scheme had worked.

The creative process[edit]

In his autobiography, Hillerman explained that McKee was the main character, and initially Leaphorn had a minor role. However, at the advice of his editors, he expanded Leaphorn's role.[citation needed]

Marilyn Stasio describes the history behind this first novel by Tony Hillerman:

In the late 1960s, [Hillerman] said, he began to “practice” writing by working on a mystery, drawing on an earlier encounter he had had with a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and feathers in Crownpoint, N.M. They had been holding a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony for a soldier, a curing ritual that exorcises all traces of the enemy from those returning from battle. Mr. Hillerman had himself just returned from the war after a long convalescence.

He was so moved by the ceremony and so stirred by the rugged landscape that he resolved to live there. The experience became the basis for “The Blessing Way” (1970).

He spent three years writing the novel and sent the manuscript to Joan Kahn, a respected mystery editor at Harper & Row, now HarperCollins. She published it after he complied with her suggestion — that he expand the role of a secondary character, the Navajo policeman Joe Leaphorn.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tony Hillerman (1970). The Blessing Way. p. Chapter 4. 
  2. ^ "The Blessing Way" (March 1, 1970 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. April 4, 2012. Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  3. ^ Marilyn Stasio (October 27, 2008). "Tony Hillerman, Novelist, Dies at 83". New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2014.