Dance Hall of the Dead

Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead is a novel in a popular mystery series; however

the mystery isn’t as complex as one might have thought. Yet this novel, as well as the series, is

quite popular despite its simplicity. There are many reasons this could be, two possible reasons

could be because Hillerman gives such a vivid picture of the Navajo and Zuni cultures and

respective religions.

From the very beginning the reader is exposed to the religion of the Zuni people. The

reader is immediately introduced to one of the murder victims, not by his given name but by the

Zuni spirit he will personify during a Zuni ritual welcoming of the Shalako: “Shulawitsi, the

Little Fire God, member of the Counsel of the Gods and deputy to the Sun, had taped his track

shoes to his feet…. In two days… he led Longhorn and the council from the ancestral village to

Zuni…. And when Shalako came he would be ready to dance all the night without an error. And

the Salamobia would never have to punish him” (7). Even during the murder of Shulawitzi,

whom the reader comes to know as Ernesto Cata, is shrouded in the Zuni religion: “It was a

Salamobia, its round yellow-circled eyes staring at him…. This was the Salamobia of the mole

kiva, its masked painted the color of darkness” (9). In the murder of Shorty Bowlegs, the Navajo

religion is brought in: “… staring at the dark humped shape of the Hogan, aware of the shrieking

curses of the wind, of the evil ghosts of a thousand generations of Dinee who rode the night ”

(76). Later that night Leaphorn realizes how hard the death of Shorty Bowlegs will be: “…this

would be [a]… complicated death. No relatives… to arrange of disposal of the body,… to break

a hole into a… wall to release Shorty’s ghost for its infinite wandering,… to nail shut the door as

a warning… and… to… arrange a …Sing to cure any of those… touched or endangered by this

And the prayer… it was a statement of thanks that went with the drinking of the Sacred Wind of Life…. These concepts of religion and culture are so foreign to the average American. The Zuni have only one God….death” (81). crops. But the kachinas are different. The Zuni people had come through the four underworlds and were hunting for the Middle Place of the Universe. to teach the people and dance with them. and gall. and blood from the heart and hair from the proper places. the reader is introduced to the Zuni ideas towards the killing of animals: “… the Zuni hunter breathed in the animal’s last breath. Some children of the Wood Fraternity were being carried across a river by the older people and were dropped. They’re not gods. rain dances around a . So the kachinas didn’t come anymore. These two religions. In the hunt for George Bowlegs Leaphorn visits a priest. who tells him a bit about the Zuni religion. and other blessings. and neither do you. These kachinas would come back every year to bring rain. When Leaphorn goes searching for Bowlegs by the lake that he believes George would think the Kothluwalawa would be located. and some fetish offerings to be buried when the deer had fallen” (172).” (128). We don’t have a word for this concept. The children turned into water animals. and instead requested that masks be made to represent them and that special men of the kivas and some fetish societies would impersonate them (127-133). They’re so far removed from the Native American cultures depicted in Hollywood. and if you followed them you would die.… The kachinas aren’t like anything in the Navajo or white culture. Maybe you could call them ancestor spirits. Some of the Zuni would follow them. Again while with Father Ingles Leaphorn asks if the kachinas are like the Navajo’s Holy People: “Not really. Father Ingels. swam downstream and turned into the kachinas. The priest recounts a Zuni myth. and of the making of the ball of deer fat. so different are bought in to emphasize each other and play up the differences between them to captivate the reader and show them the two distinct cultures.

The religions of the Zuni and Navajo people are so integrated into their cultures that it is hard to distinguish a cultural influence from a religious influence and a religious one from a cultural one. and exhilarating. To peak into the culture and religion of a people so different from mainstream America. .huge fire. The cultural and religious aspects are intertwined. This is why people keep reading and enjoying the novel. The way Hillerman presents the aspects of the two peoples is well done and allows the reader to very clearly envision the culture and religious rituals of the Navajo and Zuni portrayed in Dance Hall of the Dead. and the mystery is simple. passing around a peace pipe and the white man’s fire water. but people continue to read this novel. captivating. even though the mystery isn’t complex. This is a truer depiction of a more modern way of life on Native American reservations. is exciting.