From 1970 to 2006, white American author Tony Hillerman published 18 books that focused on the fictional Navajo tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn (and later added Jim Chee to complete the buddy cop genre) as mysteries and crimes were explored on the Navajo reservation. The books earned much acclaim during their publication and even gained some attention on the big screen (The Dark Wind (1992)) and small screen (“Skinwalkers: The Navajo Mysteries” (2002)). Now Hillerman’s vision returns to television, but this time with a much more Native presence. Created, written, directed, and performed almost entirely by Native talent, AMC’s new psychological thriller series DARK WINDS allows Natives to combine a unique cultural approach to pulp-detective stories with many of the true crimes aimed at Native people.
Set in the 1970s, the action hits right in the first scene as an armored car is robbed by a very well-coordinated group who escape in a helicopter, flying right over the squad cars racing to the scene. From there on out all the action takes place on the reservation as we find out another crime has been committed; a double murder has taken place at a cheap motel where members of the tribe were performing a purification ceremony. Both crimes set the stage for a tale that will crisscross jurisdictions and priorities. And at the center of all these crimes stands Joe Leaphorn (played by Zahn McClarnon [“Reservation Dogs”, “Westworld“]) who takes his job as Lieutenant very seriously, especially when it comes to the safety and preservation of the Navajo people and culture.
McClarnon establishes his character as a tough but fair lawman as he deals with an artifact thief in an intimidating yet forgiving manner. It’s clear that Lieutenant Leaphorn is a reasonable man, but not one to be messed with. As he sets out to investigate the double murder, it becomes clear that he’s not very welcome by one of the victim’s families because before Leaphorn can even deliver the bad news the situation becomes hostile. When the family demands action, he calmly reminds them that murder is a federal matter and would have to be handled by the FBI.
Despite the crimes occurring on the rez, white Agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich) arrives to review the evidence he’s found as well as the remains of the murdered Navajos. The whole interaction between Leaphorn and Whitover relies on the mistrust of each other’s culture and how the FBI only cares about the money, not the slain Natives. The FBI doesn’t really care about the death of a sick old man or a 19-year-old girl, but since the killings might connect to the robbery, Whitover has to pretend to be interested. There’s a clear undercurrent of cynicism and low-key animosity throughout the exchange, but both sides seem to know they have to work together to some degree. Each has their own priority, but that priority falls under the other’s jurisdiction. Leaphorn makes the blunt (and unfortunately true statement) when he expresses how murders get solved quicker if you pretend the victims are white, but Whitover raises a similar challenge by instructing the Lieutenant to imagine the robbers as Natives and they will see who solves their respective cases first.
Set on a Native reservation, DARK WINDS allows the story to unfold in interesting ways as we see the Natives’ mistrust of the US government which has been earned over the course of generations. The topics of forced sterilization, assimilation schools, theft of land, and robbery of culture all come into play with each episode including both the distant and more recent crimes against Native people. The setting also allows the story to explore and delve into Native culture by featuring ceremonies and the use of medicine for protection, which offers different dynamics and opportunities for the investigation to unfold. The FBI might rely on ammunition to provide themselves security, but on Navajo land, your best protection isn’t your .38, but your medicine.
In addition to Leaphorn, the Tribal Police also consists of Deputy Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) and new-comer Deputy Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) who both provide strong supporting roles to the ever-impressive McClarnon. The pair of deputies provide some fun chemistry as the young pair admit an attraction (and suspicion) for one another. Matten’s character provides the more mystical approach to the investigation, but the story interestingly weaves together science and technology with spiritualism and spells. Also included in the narrative we meet Deanna Allison who plays Emma, a nurse who is married to Leaphorn, but a tragedy strains their relationship, and some of the most dramatic exchanges in the series occur between McClarnon and Allison.
Aside from a few hokey-looking green screen moments when watching the horizon, the setting provides some amazing scenery and aesthetically creates a murder mystery like no other. With only six episodes for the first season, the brevity of DARK WINDS will not be enough to satiate most viewers because the series quickly introduces (and endears) us to well-written and well-performed characters all while taking us through the lives and trials of the Navajo. So hopefully, we can return to the rez in the near future and follow more of the adventures of Leaphorn and Chee as they continue to solve crimes.
DARK WINDS premiered on June 12th on AMC.