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Joe Leaphorn

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Joe Leaphorn
The Leaphorn and Chee series character
First appearanceThe Blessing Way
Last appearanceThe Shape Shifter
Created byTony Hillerman
Portrayed byFred Ward
Wes Studi
Zahn McClarnon
In-universe information
OccupationNavajo tribal police officer

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is a fictional character created by the twentieth-century American mystery writer Tony Hillerman. He is one of the two officers of the Navajo Tribal Police who are featured in a number of Hillerman's novels.[1] The other officer is Jim Chee.

Character biography[edit]

Personal life and education[edit]

The mother of Joe Leaphorn was Anna Gorman. His maternal grandfather was Hosteen Klee Thlumie, called as Hosteen Klee by young Leaphorn. As a child, Leaphorn was told the stories of the Navajo way of life (Listening Woman) by Thlumie. He was educated in the lower grades near home on the reservation, but sent to boarding school for the higher grades. He attended college at Arizona State University, where he completed a master's 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. In the earlier books of the series, Leaphorn is married to the love of his life, Emma. They have no children.

Later, Leaphorn becomes attracted to an anthropologist named Louisa Bourebonette, whom he meets while working on a case in Coyote Waits. Leaphorn is always in love with Emma, but he enjoys Louisa's sharp mind and her company.

Leaphorn lives in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona.

Professional life[edit]

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

Educated in assimilationist Indian boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he is not as well versed in Navajo rituals, though he has attended the usual ceremonies. He is fluent in Navajo and in English. In the first three novels of the series, he has no staff; he reports to Captain Largo in the Navajo Tribal Police and works with officers of other tribes and often with federal investigative agencies. Leaphorn's approach to his cases is informed by some Navajo, or Diné, tradition, but also by Anglo-European logic.

Leaphorn 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. In Talking God, the year following the death of his wife, Leaphorn has a Blessing Way ceremony done for him by Jim Chee, an event that both find beneficial.

In his career he works in a number of locations, including a brief stint training at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Five months before The Fallen Man, Leaphorn retires, and as part of the plot he gets a commission as a private investigator.


Several reviewers have praised Hillerman's culturally sensitive depiction of the Leaphorn character. Kirkus Reviews noted the "quiet, wise presence of Leaphorn himself, unselfconsciously drawing on the best of two clashing cultures."[2] Another Kirkus review praised "Hillerman's anything but wooden Indians and the way in which he informs their way of life with affection and dignity."[3] Greg Herren wrote, "what makes Skinwalkers so outstanding, for me, is that it takes the reader inside the world of the Navajo reservation".[4]


Joe Leaphorn appears in the following novels:

  • The Blessing Way (1970) ISBN 0-06-100001-9
  • Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) ISBN 0-06-100002-7
  • Listening Woman (1978) ISBN 0-06-100029-9

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:

Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time and Coyote Waits were each adapted for television as part of the American Mystery! series by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)


  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.
  2. ^ "Listening Woman". Kirkus Reviews (April 1, 1978 ed.). April 4, 2012. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
  3. ^ "Dance Hall of the Dead". Kirkus Reviews (October 1, 1973 ed.). April 4, 2012. Retrieved 20 May 2014.
  4. ^ Herren, Greg (February 2003). "Skinwalkers". Reviewing the Evidence, Reviews. Retrieved March 7, 2012.