Joe Leaphorn

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

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


Leaphorn is a realist. He was 40 in the first novel (The Blessing Way). Educated in assimilationist Indian boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he is not as well-versed in Navajo tradition as the younger officer Chee. Leaphorn's approach to his cases is informed by some Navajo, or Dine, tradition, but is also influenced by Anglo-European logic. Leaphorn is somewhat untutored in his own culture and is resistant to some Navajo taboos. But at the same time, he realizes that many traditional Navajo still hold such beliefs and often act on them, in cases that result in violence. Leaphorn is called the "Legendary Lieutenant" by many members of his staff, and some of the younger policemen (especially Chee) hold him in awe.

Leaphorn lives in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona. In his career he worked in a number of locations, including a brief stint training at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. His longest assignment appears to have been in Tuba City, Arizona.

Leaphorn creates a large, color-coded map for his police work. It is an enlargement of an old auto club road map of the Four Corners area. On this map he marks different kinds of crimes with different-colored pins - red-headed pins stand for alcohol-related crimes, for example. This process allows him to notice patterns that link various crimes together, and helps him solve them. Leaphorn eventually retires, and promptly begins working as a private investigator; he frequently gives Jim Chee advice (though never unsolicited). Leaphorn does not enjoy retirement. His contacts throughout the Southwest, and his renown, lead him into a number of cases, even after his active police career is over.

In the earlier books, Lieutenant Leaphorn is married to the love of his life, Emma. However, she dies between Skinwalkers and A Thief of Time. Later, Leaphorn becomes attracted to an anthropologist named Louisa Bourebonette, whom he meets while working on a case in Coyote Waits. In Listening Woman, readers learn that his mother is Anna Gorman and his maternal grandfather is Klee-Thlumie.

In his autobiography Seldom Disappointed (2002), Hillerman reveals that he named Leaphorn after the ancient Minoan practice of bull-jumping, as he was reading a book on Minoan culture while writing his first novel.[citation needed]

The Lieutenant's nickname among Hillerman fans is "Lovely Leaphorn."[citation needed]

Leaphorn is featured in television dramatizations of some Hillerman novels, played on the American television network PBS by actor Wes Studi, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Appearances in other media[edit]

In the film adaptation of The Dark Wind (1991), Leaphorn was played by Fred Ward.

Three of the Hillerman novels (Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time) were adapted for television as part of the PBS series Mystery!, in its American Mystery! specials. In these adaptations, Leaphorn was played by actor Wes Studi. Robert Redford served as the executive producer in all four film adaptations.


Joe Leaphorn appears in the following novels:

In each of the following he is joined by Jim Chee:


  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.