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Skinwalkers is a mystery fiction novel and is the seventh book in a series of 30 other novels by Tony Hillerman. The narration begins when an unknown assailant tries to kill the officer Jim Chee by firing a shotgun into his trailer. Three people are later found murdered, in different locations in the Navajo reservation region. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal police find almost no clues on the murders apart from small pieces of bone found in the shotgun shells used by the assailant and in the bodies. This leads them to conclude that the victims and the assailants were Skin-walkers.

According to some Native American legends, skin-walkers are people with supernatural abilities to turn into any animal that they want. However, in order to transform, they must first be wearing a hide of the animal. Skin-walkers are normally involved with Navajo witchcraft. The Navajo are the second largest Native American tribe of North America.

Leaphorn, who is a secular Navajo, does not believe in witchcraft and regards it as odious superstition that has no place in the Navajo folklore. However, Chee, a practicing medicine man (traditional healer), also referred to as yatalii, does not dismiss the role and use of witchcraft so easily. It is for this reason that they do not get along well at first. Leaphorn views Chee as too impatient and hot-headed while Chee sees Leaphorn as too dull, though he has great respect for him. In order for them to solve the case, they are required to find a balance between Western inductive reasoning and the Navajo folklore. They have to risk their lives, and track down a killer whom they have very little clues of, and kill him before he gets to them.

The characters in this book are carefully chosen to represent an array of contemporary Navajos. These characters vary from the modern Navajos, who were educated in the white world and are slowly adapting its ways, to the non-English speaking ones, and are deeply traditional. The main characters in this novel are Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Other supporting characters are Dr. Yellowhouse, a doctor who opens and operates a clinic that practices both Western and Navajo traditional medicine. Others are Kennedy and Streib, FBI agents who juggle responsibilities with Lieutenant Leaphorn and Chee.

In the course of the series, Officer Jim Chee is perceived as a man with many personal problems. He falls in love with Mary London, a white, primary school teacher and later with Janet Pete, a half-white, half-Navajo lawyer working with the local prosecutor’s office. Chee finds that he is not compatible with any of these two as they want him to abandon his Navajo ways, which he refuses to do. Eventually, he falls in love with Bernadette Manuelito, a full blooded Navajo, and they are both married under the conclusion of the Skeleton Man.

Lieutenant Leaphorn is perceived as a realist, and as a result of his non-Indian education, he is not conversant with the Navajo tradition. Leaphorn’s approach to cases is highly influenced by his Anglo-European logic, as well some Navajo tradition. A graduate of Arizona State University, he stayed on the reservation to please Emma, his college-educated wife, who was a deep, traditional Navajo woman. They   live in Window Rock, Arizona; the Navajo capital. He has worked in several locations, including a brief training at the FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. and upon retirement; he begins working as a private investigator and often gives Chee advice when solicited (Hillerman, 1986).

The theme of witchcraft is widespread within the book. To begin with, though Leaphorn is fairly skeptical of tradition and does not believe in witches, he takes reports on cases of witchcraft seriously. This is especially after three people are killed by what is believed to be a skinwalker. In Native America, skinwalkers are believed to be people who use witchcraft to transform to animals of their choice. Chee, on the other hand, takes a more traditional view, believing in the power of rituals and chindi, Navajo ghosts.

At the beginning of the story, Chee is attacked by an unknown assailant who later goes on and kills three people. This attacker does not leave any evidence apart from the shotgun he used to attack which contains small pieces of bone in its shell. This reveals the theme of witchcraft as in the Navajo community; the skinwalkers used people’s body parts in order to sermon the spiritual powers to instill fear and control over their victims. These bones embed themselves beneath the victim’s skin and do not leave a mark.

Officer Jim Chee has been trained to become a yatalii or medicine man, which was a form of spirituality or witchcraft used by the Navajo people. They believed that illnesses or misfortunes were a form of disorder and could be remedied in various ways. Some of these ways included the use of herbs, prayers and songs which were meant to appease the spiritual beings to help the individuals in need. It is for this belief that Chee does not get along with some characters in the story such as Mary London who asks him to abandon his belief and practice of the form of witchcraft.

In the Navajo culture, witchcraft is viewed as a kind of spirituality, and is a phenomenon that is rarely mentioned especially to outsiders and is greatly feared. The Navajo believe that there are two categories of beings: earth people who are mortals and the spiritual beings, who are unseen and are holy. They believe that the spiritual beings have the ability to help or harm the mortals. They also believe that life problems and illnesses are ‘disorders’ in one’s life and can be remedied with songs, prayer, herbs and ceremonies. While medicine men learn the Navajo tradition to help those afflicted, others learn and practice this witchcraft in order to direct the spiritual beings to cause harm to others.

The Navajo believe that there are specific places where the powers for both good and evil are intense and that they can be harnessed for healing or harm. Within the Navajo spirituality, the physical and the supernatural worlds are tightly intertwined and, therefore, pieces of physical objects such as hair and bone bear strong mystical properties that can be manipulated. There are four basic ways of Navajo witchcraft, which are; sorcery, witchery, Frenzy and wizardry.

Witchery concentrates on corpses in all of their ceremonies and rituals while sorcery involves burying a victim’s body parts or personal objects during ceremonies. Wizardry involves the injection of foreign objects into the victim while frenzy focuses on use of charms that influence the mental or emotional states of others (Kluckon, 1944). Although little is known of Navajo witches, they reportedly gather in caves or secluded areas where they transform to animal. These witches are called skinwalkers, and they normally take advantage of the special powers and characteristics of those animals.

Though, towards the end, we discover that the actual perpetrator of the fraud was Dr. Yellowhouse, the book ‘Skinwalkers’ greatly reveals the ways of life of the Navajo people and their belief in witchcraft. It further reveals the aspect of Navajo spirituality, and how they incorporate witchcraft, as a way of life, into their daily lives. 

Code: Sample20

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