Sacred Clowns

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This article is about the Hillerman novel. For Native American Sacred Clowns, see Sacred Clown. For the Lakota religious figures, see Heyoka.
Sacred Clowns
Sacred Clowns.jpg
First edition cover
Author Tony Hillerman
Cover artist Peter Thorpe
Country USA
Language English
Series Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police Series
Genre Detective fiction
Set in Navajo Nation in Southwestern United States
Published 1982 HarperCollins
Media type Print and audio
Pages 305
Awards nominated 1994 Anthony Award for Best Novel
ISBN 0-06-016767-X
OCLC 28025657
Preceded by Coyote Waits
Followed by The Fallen Man

Sacred Clowns is the eleventh crime fiction novel in the Joe Leaphorn / Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police series by Tony Hillerman, first published in 1993.

Murders happen on both the Navajo reservation and the Tano Pueblo. One happens during a Tano ceremonial, with the koshares (sacred clowns) and kachinas performing. Leaphorn is in charge of a new investigation unit, with Chee as his sole staff support.


Shop teacher Eric Dorsey is murdered at the mission school in Thoreau, for no obvious reason. Delmar Kanitewa slips out of his boarding school in Crownpoint, and his grandmother pushes the Navajo Tribal Police to find the boy. Lt. Joe Leaphorn heads up a new unit for investigations, with Jim Chee as his staff. Chee and Bureau of Indian Affairs officer Sgt. Harold Blizzard learn the boy came home to his mother the day the teacher was killed. Delmar had a package with him, for his uncle, to do with religion. Delmar said he must see his uncle a second time and left. Janet Pete, Cowboy Dashee and Ashton Davis meet up at the Tano ceremonial of kachinas and koshares, where Chee spots Delmar. He slips away before they can tell him to call his grandmother. The ceremonial includes Delmar’s uncle, Francis Sayesva, who is a koshare. In a break of the ceremonial, Francis is found murdered, not 40 yards from where Chee is standing.

A hit and run driver leaves his victim to die on the road, making a homicide of Victor Todachene’s death. The chief of the NTP really wants the driver found. Leaphorn asks Chee to find this driver. The driver speaks anonymously over the local radio apologizing for what he did. He will send money to the family. The radio station staff notice enough about the man for Chee to find Clement Hoski. Chee trails him home, seeing grandson Ernie get off the school bus. After talking with Ernie, a special needs child, Chee puts off arresting his grandfather.

The murders of two valuable men, Dorsey and Sayesva a few days apart, done the same way, has Leaphorn looking for connections. He finds one when a second search of Dorsey’s workshop and a visit with Sayesva’s brother reveal the story of the Lincoln cane possessed by the Tano Pueblo since 1863. Dorsey made a replica of it, based on the ebony wood shavings and silver mold found. The Lincoln cane is kept by the governor of the pueblo, currently Bert Penitewa, who has the original safe in his office. The boy Delmar visited Dorsey to get something for a friend, and seeing the cane, explained its story to Dorsey, who is shocked and angry at how he has been used. Delmar left with the replica cane, under instructions from Dorsey to give it to his people, the Tano. As Delmar leaves, a man enters, and that is the one who kills Dorsey. Delmar gives the replica cane to his uncle, who uses it in the ceremonial, as he worries that the governor might sell the original. Then he is killed, and the replica cane disappears.

Chee is distracted completely by the change in his relationship with Janet Pete, local lawyer and long time friend. He is in love, but now he must learn if the Navajo incest taboo in any way prevents them from being more than friends. He takes off for two days to consult with his uncle Frank Sam Nakai and another hataalii. He leaves without explaining a cassette tape that he plays in the tape player in Leaphorn’s office. The tape is of a phone call between Navajo Councilman Jimmy Chester and Ed Zeck, lawyer for the firm seeking to use an old open mine for a toxic waste dump site. They discuss money, leaving an appearance of pay-off. The tape is also played over the local radio station in the public time. The next day, while Chee is with his uncle, Leaphorn is suspended in response to the furious Councilman demanding an investigation. The suspension forces Leaphorn to cancel his trip to China, planned with Prof. Bourbonette. He wants to visit Mongolia, while she has colleagues to see there.

Leaphorn finds that this is the second replica that Dorsey made. Chee returns to work, explains the tape. That ends the suspension for Leaphorn. The two search Dorsey’s office one more time, noticing that the sketch for the first replica cane is written on the blank side of a flyer from two years earlier, prepared by an environmental group led by Roger Applebee. Dorsey has no connection with this group. Applebee needed someone reliable to get the first cane sold privately two years earlier, and that must be his friend Ashton Davis, a trusted dealer in Indian artifacts.

Chee presents his ethical dilemma with the Hoski case to Janet Pete. She meets young Ernie, and watches Chee give him a new bumper sticker to put on his grandfather’s truck, with a message to take the old one off, or the police might stop him. The Navajo approach to Hoski’s problem is to help him get back in the blessing way. The law will arrest Hoski, taking him away from his grandson. Leaphorn feels the arrest will earn Chee promotion to sergeant, which Chee ignores. Janet Pete is pleased with Chee’s actions, and they become lovers.

Delmar recognizes Applebee’s face in the newspaper as being the man he saw. Leaphorn calls Dilly Streib, the FBI agent on the Dorsey case, to arrest Applebee. Within hours, Streib tells Leaphorn that Davis killed Applebee in front of the FBI, and then turned himself in. Davis saw the second replica cane at the Tano ceremonial, and knows he has no future as an honest trader. He has no part in the second one, but its existence makes his role in the first one known. Applebee made this second cane to ruin the Tano governor. Applebee played the tape of the phone call to ruin the Councilman, as he took the other side in the dispute about the toxic waste dump. The call was not about payoffs, but the cattle business that Chester and Zeck have together. Leaphorn learns that Louisa did not go on the trip without him when she appears at Saint Bonaventure Mission School, finally learning where he is.


  • Police and agents
    • Joe Leaphorn: Lieutenant in the Navajo Tribal Police, based in the Window Rock office. He is widowed for a year and a half.
    • Jim Chee: Officer in Navajo Tribal Police who joined the new special investigations office under Lt. Leaphorn. He works in Window Rock now.
    • Albert ‘Cowboy’ Dashee: Deputy Sheriff in Apache County. He is Hopi and a good friend to Chee.
    • Sgt. Harold Blizzard: Bureau of Indian Affairs officer. He is a Cheyenne, just two months in this area. He grew up in the city, never on the Cheyenne reservation. He is assigned to the Sayesva murder.
    • David ‘Dilly’ W. Streib: FBI agent from the Farmington office, investigating the Dorsey murder. He is a long time agent, making his retirement plans, introduced in Skinwalkers.
    • Virginia Toledo: Administrative Assistant at the Window Rock office of the Navajo Tribal Police, who keeps track of everyone there.
    • Lt. Toddy: Farmington police officer for the area where Dorsey is found murdered.
    • Captain Dodge: Officer of the Navajo Tribal Police who leads the investigation into the tape of a conversation between Zeck and Chester that was played on the local radio station, but more ominously, heard by Sgt. Yazzie days before being played in the police offices, on Leaphorn’s tape player.
  • Murder victims
    • Victor Todachene: Old man killed by a car that hit him. Driver looked to see him and drove away, leaving the man to bleed to death. He was part of the Tano pueblo.
    • Eric Dorsey: Teacher, age 37, of wood and metal work. Known for his care for people and his ability to make people laugh. He was murdered at the Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission high school at Thoreau, New Mexico on the Checkerboard reservation.
    • Francis Sayesva: One of the sacred clowns, koshares who make people laugh showing human foibles, who was clubbed to death during a ceremonial at the Tano pueblo. He is the maternal uncle of Delmar. He is a CPA in daily life.
  • All others
    • Janet Pete: Attorney for DNA, the Navajo legal aid. She is half Navajo. Her father’s family was relocated to Chicago in the 1940s. She is assigned to defend Eugene Ahkeah. She is a long time friend of Chee; their relationship becomes romantic.
    • Asher Davis: Reputable Indian trader, friend to Dashee. He went to high school with Applebee.
    • Bertha Roanhorse: She is on the Navajo tribal council, and paternal grandmother of Delmar.
    • Delmar Kanitewa: Boy whose grandmother asks the police to find him. His father is Navajo and his mother is Tano, divorced. Delmar lives with his father since going to high school at Crownpoint NM. He ran away from the school.
    • Robert Sakani: Cousin to Delmar, who was supposed to drive him from ceremony back to school.
    • Felix Bluehorse: Best friend of Delmar Kanitewa. Delmar picked up a silver bracelet that Felix made from the Saint Bonaventure school, and met Felix in his father's pick-up truck outside the school.
    • Father Haines: Catholic priest at Saint Bonaventure Mission School.
    • Teddy Sayesva: Brother of Francis.
    • Mrs. Kanitewa: Tano mother of Delmar. She lives on the Tano Pueblo.
    • Roger Applebee: Attorney in Nature First charity based in Santa Fe. Janet Pete knows him from Washington DC. He opposes the toxic waste dump.
    • Mr. Bert Penitewa: Elected governor of the Tano Pueblo, holder of their Lincoln cane, and one who came out in favor of the mine being used as a toxic waste dump about two years earlier. The next election is coming soon.
    • Louisa Bourebonette: Professor at Arizona State University in Flagstaff, AZ and friend to Leaphorn. They met in Coyote Waits.
    • Eugene Ahkeah: Friend of Eric Dorsey and handyman at the same school. He is picked up by police from an anonymous phone tip that the items stolen when Dorsey was murdered will be found under Akheah’s trailer.
    • Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai: Maternal uncle to Chee, his “little father” and a respected hataalii.
    • Hosteen Barbone: Nakai and Chee visit this hataalii about Chee's question of the incest taboo.
    • Old Woman Mustache: Wise elder woman with Barbone, who made clear that the incest taboo depends mainly on the clans of the mothers.
    • Ed Zeck: He is a lawyer at the Dalman firm (where Pete once worked), and serves as counsel to Continental Collectors, in favor of the waste dump. His is one of two voices on the cassette tape left anonymously with Chee.
    • Jimmy Chester: He is on the Navajo Tribal Council. His is the other voice on cassette tape left anonymously with Chee. Chester is Navajo and is expecting a check from Zeck, over $20 thousand, per that tape of a phone call.
    • Gray Old Lady Benally: Navajo woman about 80 years old with ill husband, great grandmother to Delmar. This couple benefits from Dorsey’s charitable actions, like bringing water, food, and making a special rocking chair for her.
    • Clement Hoski: He is a Navajo who works at the Navajo farm, handles produce, and hit Todachene with his truck, while he was driving drunk. He raises his grandson. He confessed over the local radio, without giving his name.
    • Ernie: Grandson of Clement Hoski, he is a boy showing the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, limiting his development.


This novel evoked a range of responses, from "pallid" to "masterful". The stronger connection between the two detectives (Chee reports to Leaphorn) gains plaudits as does Chee's way of resolving a murder case that straddles the vantage points of his Navajo cultural view and the laws he is sworn to enforce.

Verlyn Klinkenbery finds this Mr. Hillerman's "most pallid mystery novel":

But Mr. Hillerman does not allow himself satire or irreverence or even vulgarity. He is writing across a particularly troubled ethnic divide, the one separating Anglos from Indians, and no matter how he demurs, his novels have the cautiousness of anthropology, the decorousness that comes when you don't want to presume too much upon an acquaintance. In "Sacred Clowns," we see the clowns dancing at a fictional pueblo ceremony as if through a veil, clowns who in reality are every bit as raucous, profane and funny as Shakespeare's.[1]

The Gainesville Sun finds the story captivating:

But what is captivating about this story is the thrill of the chase and more the clarity of the scenes, the reflectiveness of the characters, and most of all, the way Chee succeeds in resolving a conflict between Navajo values and those of the surrounding society without weighting the plot unduly or battering the reader with invidious comparisons.[2]

Kirkus Reviews finds this intricately plotted and a masterful novel in its own right:

Navajo Detective Jim Chee, working now for Lt. Joe Leaphorn's two-man Special Investigations Office, has followed Delmar Kanitewa, a runaway student who may know something about the murder of shop-teacher Eric Dorsey, to the Tano Pueblo for a ceremony of koshares, sacred clowns, only to see it interrupted by a second murder. The boy, who's exonerated by Chee's own eyes, has vanished again, leaving the mystery of how the two murders are connected--and (since this is one of Hillerman's most intricately plotted stories) of just how to interpret the eventual linkup: a copy of the Lincoln Cane, a century-old tribal gift, that Dorsey had made. There's also time for the reopening of an unsolved hit-and-run and for accusations that Horse Mesa Councilman Jimmy Chester is taking bribes to legalize a toxic-waste dump inside a reservation mine. The byplay between prickly Leaphorn and spiritual Chee; Chee's sobering reflections on Navajo and white people's justice; problem-strewn new romantic intrigues for both heroes--all of these make this not only a masterful novel in its own right, but an object lesson in how to develop an outstanding series.[3]

Dick Adler writing in the Chicago Tribune finds that Hillerman keeps up his high standards:

How long can Tony Hillerman keep it up? He has been writing his Navajo thrillers for over 20 years, and each time I pick up a new Hillerman book I wonder if this is the one that will disappoint, lower the standard, signal the beginning of the end. . . .

Well, it hasn't happened yet to Hillerman. Sacred Clowns is as good as anything he's done-as flavorful and chewy as beef jerky, so evocative of the land around the Four Corners area of New Mexico that even if you've never been there you'll think you have. And best of all, it's a book as full of kindness, love and compassion as it is of murder, sadness and mystery. That's not a balance you find very often, especially in this field. . . . The two murders involve men who were indeed God's fools-a selfless teacher at a mission school who used humor to overcome his shyness, and an actual Hopi koshare-"sacred clown"-who used humor in a religious ceremony to ridicule the sins of his people.[4]

Publishers Weekly finds the plot is resolved with gratifying inevitability:

Telling his story the Navajo way, Hillerman (Coyote Waits) fully develops the background of the cases pursued by Navajo Tribal Policemen, Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, so that the resolutions--personal and professional--ring true with gratifying inevitability. . . . Leaphorn searches for clues while simultaneously grieving for his wife who died 18 months earlier and considering his relationship with linguistics professor Louisa Bourebonette. Jurisdictional conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Apache County Sheriff's Office reflect the cultural differences that obtain among tribes and clans as this first Leaphorn story in three years, steeped in Navajo lore and traditions, draws to its convincing conclusions.[5]


The novel was nominated for the 1994 Anthony Award for Best Novel.[6]

Allusion to real places and events[edit]

One of the murders takes place at Saint Bonaventure School in Thoreau, New Mexico. This is a real school, part of the Catholic mission for the eastern part of the reservation.[7] It has been in operation over forty years. Hillerman acknowledges the school and specific people in it in the dedication of the book. The name of the town is pronounced like threw as the town was named for an engineer, not the American writer Henry David Thoreau.

The Lincoln canes figure in the plot. These were ebony canes with a silver head given by President Lincoln to recognize 19 Pueblo tribes for their neutrality in the Civil War and their acknowledgment of US sovereignty following the Mexican War. The canes follow a tradition begun by the Spanish. Some photos are included in the Smithsonian collection of tribal governors posed holding their cane, indicating the significance the canes held for the Pueblo tribes.[8]

The lands of the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, in New Mexico, are called the Checkerboard reservation. This arose from the way in which land was given to railroads in the 19th century, leaving questions of who owns land, a problem for police jurisdictions among others. Saint Bonaventure Mission is located in the Checkerboard.


In an interview in September 1993 at Recorded Books, Tony Hillerman mentioned the 3 year gap since the last novel.[9] He was ready to write another book sooner, but personal situations intervened: his brother died, then Tony Hillerman got cancer, both of which slowed him down. In the chronology of the novels, it is just six months after the prior novel (Leaphorn was widowed a year in Coyote Waits and 18 months in this novel). The way of life in the pueblos was the starting point for the plot. For hundreds of years, the pueblo peoples have no police with batons, no punishments. Rather the kachinas, representing the spirits, and the koshares, representing foolish humans, show the wayward recent actions in the pueblo. The koshares use laughter and public scorn as the ways to keep their people on the right path. They are very private about their culture, so Hillerman invented a pueblo for the novel; there is no Tano pueblo in real life, in contrast with the real mission school. Hillerman reports the mission school to be a success, so he honored it by including it and its people in the plot.

Publication history[edit]

  • 1993 January, US, Harper Collins Publishers, paperback, ISBN 0-06-099283-2 / 978-0-06-099283-5
  • 1993 April, UK, Michael Joseph Ltd hardback, ISBN 071813527X / 9780718135270
  • 1993 October, USA, Harpercollins, hardback ISBN 0060168307 / 9780060168308
  • 1993 USA, Recorded Books, Inc by arrangement with Curtis Brown Ltd, audio cassette tape, reader George Guidall, includes portions of a September 1993 interview with Tony Hillerman regarding Sacred Clowns, ISBN 1-55690-910-1
  • 1994 July, USA, library edition, Turtleback Books: A Division of Sanval, hardback, ISBN 0785732225 / 9780785732228
  • 1994 November UK, Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0140177337 / 9780140177336
  • 2004 May, USA and UK, HarperCollins e-books, Kindle edition
  • 2005 March, USA, HarperAudio, audio CD, ISBN 006081506X / 9780060815066
  • 2009 May, USA, Harper, paperback ISBN 0061808369 / 9780061808364

Other paperback editions have been published.[10] All of the above are listed at Fantastic Fiction, except the 1993 Recorded Books edition, found in a local library.

The University of New Mexico Library lists seven foreign language editions of this book.[11] It also explains the process of rolling out this book, with two advanced copies (with their own ISBN) and a limited signed edition with a special paper cover, all before the first edition.


  1. ^ Klinkenborg, Verlyn (October 17, 1993). "CRIME/MYSTERY; The Reservation Is His Beat - New York Times". Retrieved March 8, 2012. 
  2. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (December 26, 1993). "Three suspense novels run true to formula". Gainesville Sun. Retrieved March 8, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Sacred Clowns" (August 1, 1993 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. May 20, 2010. Retrieved October 4, 2014. 
  4. ^ Adler, Dick (September 26, 1993). "Two Linked Murders Bemuse Tony Hillerman's Navajo Cops". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved November 5, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Sacred Clowns". Publishers Weekly. September 1993. Retrieved November 9, 2014. 
  6. ^ "Bouchercon World Mystery Convention : Anthony Awards Nominees". October 2, 2003. Retrieved March 8, 2012. 
  7. ^ "St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School". 2014. Retrieved November 5, 2014. St. Bonaventure Indian School is a private, Catholic school located at the southeastern edge of the Navajo Nation in Thoreau, NM. The school is one of the ministries of St. Bonaventure Indian Mission which serves the Diné of the area. 
  8. ^ Minakowski, Adam Reference Archivist (January 22, 2013). "Lincoln canes live on". Smithsonian Collections Blog. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved November 5, 2014. Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections 
  9. ^ Hillerman, Tony; Guidall, George (September 1993). Sacred Clowns. Recorded Books, Inc. ISBN 1-55690-910-1. includes Tony Hillerman speaking about Sacred Clowns and how he came to write it 
  10. ^ "Sacred Clowns". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved November 8, 2014. 
  11. ^ "Editions of Sacred Clowns". Tony Hillerman Portal. University of New Mexico Library. Retrieved November 9, 2014. 

External links[edit]