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Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn

Sharon and I love the Southwest.  We have made numerous trips there, enjoying the museums and shopping at Indian Market in Santa Fe, hiking through the ruins of Chaco Canyon, attending conferences at Ghost Ranch, exploring Albuquerque, and driving Route 66 through Gallup, New Mexico.  The most memorable trip, however, was the time we decided to act on our vision of trying to find Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.  To find them, we had to drive many miles through the Hopi and Navajo Reservations in Arizona.  If you have ever read any of Tony Hillerman’s detective mysteries, you will recognize immediately the names.  Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are Navajo Tribal police detectives.  My ministry with Native Americans had afforded me opportunities over the years  to travel to the Hopi and Navajo Reservations.  So I brought some familiarity with the area to our quest.  Even though they are fictional characters in Hillerman’s mysteries, I had met enough residents of the area who reminded me of them.  In fact, I had two people in mind when we began our quest.

 Louie Quanimptewa is a police officer on the Hopi Reservation; and he reminds me very much of Joe Leaphorn.  And I pictured Francis Teller every time I read about Jim Chee.  Here is the story on Francis Teller.  Late one night, when I was out of town for a Presbytery meeting in Portland, there was a knock on the front door of the church manse on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.  My first wife, Nancy, opened the door slightly to see who would be at the door at such a late hour.  Francis explained that he had been on the road for almost a week and was looking for work.  When he left home on the Navajo Reservation, his mother instructed him to try either the jail or a church to find overnight housing upon arrival in any strange, new community.  Francis decided to try the church first.  That was the beginning of our year long friendship.  Nancy had him spend the night in the church basement until I came home the next day.  After that first night, we invited Francis into our home.  He found work with a local logging company and lived with us for about a year.  He was so happy living with us in Warm Springs that he invited his brother-in-law to come for a visit.  Jim Davis ended up staying a while also.  We learned that Francis practiced traditional Native American medicine.  Jim Chee did too.  Francis moved back to his home on the Navajo Reservation after a year with us.  We lost contact with him.  I had not heard, much less seen, Francis in 25 years.

Louie Quanimptewa, a Hopi, was a student at Sherman Institute in Riverside, CA, when I first met him.  He came regularly to our weekly off-campus program at the church.  When the school year ended and the young people returned to their homes on the Hopi, Navajo, Apache, Pima, Ute Reservations for the summer, we had a standing invitation to come visit them. On our first trip, we met Louie’s family in their home in Shongopovi on Second Mesa.  We lost contact with Louie after he graduated from Sherman.  We did receive news that after his service in the Marine Corps, he became a policeman.  With his potbelly, Louie was how I pictured Joe Leaphorn.  I had not seen Louie in almost 30 years.

Sharon and I had just completed a seminar at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  We decided to spend the remainder of our week in the Southwest to see if we could find Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.  Leaving Ghost Ranch, we stopped for the night in Gallup, New Mexico.  Arriving in Arizona the next day, as we were driving through the Navajo Reservation, I saw a sign pointing to Rough Rock.  I surprised Sharon when I made a sudden turn in that direction.  I said to her, “I think that’s where we will find Jim Chee.” We stopped at the trading post as soon as we entered town.  I asked if anyone there knew Francis Teller; and was told that we just missed him.  We were given directions to his sister’s house down the road because that was where he was headed.  We rushed out of the trading post and drove to the house with the directions in hand.  We were greeted at the door by his sister and told that he didn’t come by today.  She went on to say, however, that he should be home by now and that we would find him there up in the hills.  The directions were sketchy, but it was all we had.  The road was not named; we relied upon estimated miles traveled and markers, the final one being an old trailer.  Jim Chee, a bachelor, lived in a trailer up in the mountain.  Losing track of miles, we kept climbing the mountain road.  All of a sudden we came upon an old trailer!  It looked vacant.  But further up the road, we saw an old log cabin with smoke coming out the chimney.  We parked at a distance and got out of the car and waited to be greeted.  It is customary that you don’t go knocking on someone’s door.  You show yourself at a distance and wait to be invited in.   A tall, striking, dark skinned Navajo finally came out of the cabin.  He squinted in our direction.  I introduced myself: “Francis, I am Cal Chinn.”  A shocked expression came over his face and he practically collapsed in disbelief on the bench in front of his cabin.  Recovering, he stood up and came towards us.  We smiled warmly and deeply and were overcome by emotion.  He grabbed my hand.  We could not find adequate words to tell each other how glad we were to see each other after all these years.  I introduced Sharon.  And we squeezed in news of all that had happened in our lives since we last saw each other.  

We drove down the mountain from Jim Chee’s house to look for his partner, Joe Leaphorn.  In contrast to how we located Francis Teller, I was confident that we would have no difficulty finding Louie Quaninptewa.  I remembered where his family lived.  Once we entered the Hopi Reservation, it didn’t take long for us to park in front of Louie’s house on Second Mesa.  Louie didn’t live there anymore.  He was married, had a family, and had his own house.  His mother called the Hopi Police station to see if Louie was there.  He was.  So we drove down from the Mesa to the main highway, found the station, and there he was, waiting for us.  Joe Leaphorn welcomed us in, gave us a bottle of water.  And we caught up on the news of our lives these past 30 years.

Sharon and I came home inspired by that quest.  We learned that the line between fiction and non-fiction is not always sharp and clear.  We came to appreciate that our willingness to blur that line made our vision quest not only possible, but also full of wonder.  We came home knowing that we had encountered mystery.

1 thought on “Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn”

  1. Cal,
    Your stories never fail to evoke a panoply of possible emotions in the closing! That’s what I find so rich and deep about all your blogs.
    In my mind the line between Fiction and Non-Fiction is artificial and “Blinds the eye (Tao de Ching). A writer or speaker of Fiction cannot claim the definition of “untrue” because the content of the writing or speech is drawn from the writer’s own true but limited experience. The “line between” Fiction and Non-Fiction, True or Untrue, is the realm of all possibilities (Deepok Chopra influence).

    You and Sharon have made living a time of all possibilities, a mystery out of something that could be viewed as mundane and ho-hum. Thank you both for showing gratitude, courage, adventure, and clear seeing.


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