A Shaman Mystery
An Interview James D. Doss, author of the Charlie Moon mysteries
by Art Taylor
In James D. Doss's fifth novel, The Night Visitor, Ute lawman CharlieMoon and his friend and fellow policeman Scott Parris investigate a series ofstrange happenings surrounding an archeological dig which may alter man'sunderstanding of early North American history. One worker disappears, animportant artifact is stolen, another man meets a strange death. And whilethe police investigate, Moon's Aunt Daisy Perika and two young girlsentrusted to her care find themselves exploring their own mystery--one whoseorigins stretch back tens of thousands of years.
Doss, a native of western Kentucky, first came to the Southwest 35 yearsago, taking a job as an electrical engineer at Los Alamos NationalLaboratory, where he has worked on projects ranging from biomedicalelectronics for cancer therapy to particle accelerators--"what we used tocall atom smashers," he explains. Though he officially retired from hisengineering career in March 1999, Doss continues to volunteer at Los Alamosseveral hours each week. In fact, in the one-room cabin in which he spendsmuch of his time, he has a card table set up with two computers which healternates between: one on which he does his engineering work and a second onwhich he writes his novels.
MysteryNet: When did your interest in Native American life begin?
James D. Doss: I've always been interested in--as we used to say when I was akid--Indians, before we were politically correct. Back in western Kentucky, Istarted finding flint arrowpoints and I got really interested in that. Ijoined three archeological societies. I wanted to be an archeologist, butwent into engineering instead. When I started the first book, The ShamanSings in 1994, I decided to write about southern Colorado and didn't intendto write about Indians at all. I started with one minor character who's adispatcher in a police station, an Indian who has a real small part. Becauseof her, I decided I should learn something about the Utes. And I went to thelibrary in Los Alamos and found one good book on the Utes and I was thumbingthrough that and started reading about Ute shamanism and I learned about acreature called the pitukupf (a mythical character who serves as an oracle toshamans) and this absolutely blew me away. I had two or three books at homeabout the Utes and they didn't even mention this character. It was sointeresting that I decided I'd have to make a trip up to the Ute reservation.There are actually two Ute reservations here: the Southern and the UteMountain reservations. I made a trip to one of them and I got some of thecurrent-day Utes there to tell me about this character and I decided therejust had to be more in my book about him. Well to have more about him, therehad to be someone to talk to him. And so that's where Daisy Perika came in.And then near the end, it was necessary to have a Ute policeman show up. Andthat's where Charlie Moon appeared, practically in the last chapter. Andthat's how it started. I had no intention to write about Utes at all. ButDaisy Perika and her nephew, Charlie Moon, became so interesting that theyhave simply dominated the stories.
MysteryNet: I assume you do a lot of background research for these books.
Doss: Well, nothing very unusual. I visit the reservation, talk to people. Ivisit the library at Durango, which has a lot of material on the Utes, and Ivisit a lot of the other reservations. Of course, naturally, I readeverything I can get my hands on. There's not that much out there on theUtes. They're a relatively small tribe. The tribe that lives on the Southernreservation only has about 1,300 registered members. Ute Mountain is evenslightly smaller. They have not received a lot of attention, so I feelfortunate in a way. It's sort of like unmined gold.
MysteryNet: How have the Ute people responded to your books?
Doss: The ones I've talked to have been very polite, they say they like them.They're a very polite, friendly, sociable people with a great sense of humor.I suspect they're like my other friends. The ones who don't like my booksprobably won't tell me.
MysteryNet: How do they feel in terms of how you portray their culture, theirfolklore?
Doss: When I was up there doing research on the sundance, there was agentleman who had been assigned to be the sheriff of the sundance, whichmeant he was supposed to keep order; he didn't arrest people or anything buthe made sure that people obeyed all the rules. Obviously, he was a goodsource of information. I had explained to him already that I was a writer,but at one point he got concerned and said, "You really shouldn't be tellingwhat we're doing here." I became apprehensive right away. Then, the more hetalked, he said, "Now when you tell what we're doing, be sure you get itright." So he gave me two diametrically opposed bits of instruction. Idecided to tell it and tell it as right as I could. Now that does notmean--especially when you're writing about something like the sundance--thatyou do everything accurately. In The Shaman's Game, which is about thesundance, I found out from someone else up there--quite by accident--how tosteal the power that the sundancer is about to receive, which is a verydangerous thing to do, for the sundancer and for the person who stole it. Theperson who mentioned this immediately realized their mistake and said, "Oh, Ishould have never told you this." And I of course promised them that I wouldnever reveal it. So when I wrote the story, I had to invent my own techniquefor stealing the power. Yet it had to be something that within the culturecould be reasonably plausible, something that when they saw it, the Uteswouldn't simply laugh at. This is a serious thing. The Utes are basicallyChristians, but like most Native American groups, they do hold onto their oldreligious traditions too. And by and large, as a Christian myself, as Iexamine those old traditions, there's not really that much there that I seethat is contradictory of their Christian heritage. And that's something Ilike to work on in the books, where Daisy Perika tries to balance hertraditional ways against her relationship with the Catholic priest.
MysteryNet: When you talk about the pitukupf and the sundance, you obviouslyhave a lot of respect for these beliefs and traditions. In The Night Visitor,for example, the pitukupf is a very real being, not just a mythical figurewhom Daisy beliefs in but a character who interacts with others. Do youyourself believe in the pitukupf, or in the power that the sundancerreceives?
Doss: I don't have the same attitude that a Ute would, particularly atraditional Ute. I don't go up there ever expecting to meet the pitukupf.However, the answer isn't really that easy. I don't, even to myself, say thatnone of these things exist. As you get older, my experience has been, moreand more strange things happen. I'm very cautious as I get older not to justdismiss things. But that's not the same as believing they're true either. Iwouldn't be surprised if there's not something behind some of these myths. Ididn't realize, as it turns out, how many Native American groups do believein a small male character. Whether there was once a little deformed man, adwarf who started some of these rumors, I don't know. Here I am, a Christianwho believes all of the things in the New Testament. And if you want toexamine that, there are a lot of incredible things in there. I'm sure somepeople would say, "You believe THAT?" And the answer is, "Yes, I do." Andthese things are far more astonishing than these so-called Indian myths forexample.
MysteryNet: Let's move to an easier question. The Orlando Sentinel wrote:"James D. Doss could be accused of poaching in Tony Hillerman territory." Howwould you compare and contrast your work with Hillerman's?
Doss: I could smile a little bit and say, "Well, my writing needs to be a lotbetter." But one thing that's different is that Mr. Hillerman really doesn'twrite about mysticism among the Navajo. He writes about religion in a veryauthoritative way, but he really stays away from mysticism, and I don't atall. It's a central theme. Charlie Moon doesn't believe a word of it; he'smore like a younger, less traditional Ute. And he has an aunt who believesall of it. And I find that a lot of fun, to have these drastic attitudesabout mysticism. And that's probably one of the principal differences.
MysteryNet: I also find more humor in your works than in Hillerman's. CharlieMoon, for example, is always pulling somebody's leg.
Doss: Well, Charlie Moon is that sort of character, and there's a reason forthat. The Utes historically have been known as a people who really appreciatehumor. And I found this in visiting with them. One of the very first Utes Imet at a police station, the first thing he did is start ribbing me. Thereare several caricatures about Native Americans and one of them is theincredibly solemn person who doesn't say much and never smiles.... and itjust isn't so.
MysteryNet: But despite the humorous elements, Charlie faces some seriousmoral questions.
Doss: One issue that Moon faces involves arrest. In The Shaman Laughs, forexample, he finds out that someone has done something really terrible--infact, there's something in that book that's so bad, I wish I hadn't put itin--but even in this case, there is really strong justification. And Moon isfaced with the issue, "Do I arrest this person or do I just turn my back andwalk away?" I think in reality, most policeman don't feel they have a choiceabout it. But I have a suspicion from a few policeman I've talked to thatthey still feel it might be best to turn their backs and walk away, becauseby making the arrest, they might be making a bad situation worse.
MysteryNet: One last question. Are there actually butchering marks on mammothbones in the U.S. which date back to 31,000 years ago, indicating an earlierperiod when humans first walked this land?
Doss: Archeology has been a hobby of mine all my life. Certainly there arebutchering marks on mammoth bones and bison, and up until the last 10 or 15years, the oldest flint implements to be found in association with thesebones were about 11,500 years ago. There's been a strong belief for severaldecades that there wasn't anybody here much before that. But there's going tobe a big conference in Santa Fe in October and the head people in the fieldare going to talk about evidence from South America that indicates thatpeople have been on these continents a lot longer--certainly a few thousandyears longer and maybe even longer than that. And that's something Ipurposefully wanted to bring up in this latest book as a possibility. Thestories in this latest book about anthropology and archeology doesn'trepresent any real find, but it's not totally implausible either. And the waythings are going, it wouldn't be too surprising for something just likewhat's in my mystery book to happen--even in the next decade.
MysteryNet: So you'd be ahead of the curve with this information?
Doss: [laughs] Well, I'm hoping. Maybe sometime after I'm gone from thisworld, somebody will find some bones and say, "Hey, didn't some old guy inNew Mexico write about this years ago." And that would be nice.
Art Taylor's mystery fiction and mystery-related nonfiction has appearedin Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, TheArmchair Detective and the North Carolina Literary Review. Most recently, hehas interviewed Phyllis Richman, Susan Issacs and Sue Henry for MysteryNet.
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