Home > 1990, 20th Century, American Literature, Beach and Public Transports Books, Crime Fiction, Doss James D., Highly Recommended, Polar > The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss – a trip to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss – a trip to the Southern Ute Indian Reservation

December 5, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Shaman Laughs by James D. Doss. (1995) French title: Le canyon des ombres. Translated by Danièle et Pierre Bondil.

James D. Doss (1939-2012) is the author of the crime fiction series set in the Southern Ute Indian Reservation (Colorado) and featuring the Ute detective Charlie Moon. The Shaman Laughs is the second book of the series.

It all begins when Big Ouray, Gorman Sweetwater’s bull, is found dead in the Cañon del Espiritu. The bull was mutilated and it is a great loss for its owner as it is a valuable breeder. Gorman had insurance for his bull, a policy he subscribed through a local and Ute insurance broker, Arlo Nighbird.

Arlo is not the most well-loved Ute in the community. He cheats on his wife, Emily. He’s a sexual predator. He’s a shrewd and dishonest business man who doesn’t want to pay Gorman for the loss of Big Ouray. He’s working on a project with the Federal government to bury nuclear waste in the Cañon del Espiritu, which means that Gorman won’t be able to let his herd graze there and that Daisy Perika, the last shaman of the community will have to move out of her trailer set at the mouth of the canyon. The man is a nuisance to the community.

So, when Arlo is found dead with the same mutilation as Big Ouray the bull, nobody grieves him too much. But the tribal police, led by Charlie Moon and Scott Paris, flanked by a rookie FBI agent James E. Hoover have to investigate the murder.

The Shaman Laughs owns its title as there is a great sense of humor in this book. Charlie Moon plays tricks to Hoover, not openly lying to him but leaving out important information that bring comical effects. Like not correcting him when he assumes that Big Ouray is a human. Charlie Moon and his people enjoy playing pranks to Matukach (white) people, mostly using their own prejudice and clichés about Indians against them.

We go into Charlie and Scott’s love lives. Charlie’s unexpressed feeling will stay buried with the girl’s death. His grief is private, full of what will not be. Scott doesn’t quite know where things will go with his girlfriend Anne, now that she has taken a job in Washington D.C. and he’s still in Colorado.

Humor and diving into the characters’ personal lives is not new and happens a lot in modern crime fiction books, to get the readers attached to the characters and alleviate de tension.

The additional kick of this series, one that Tony Hillerman started in the 1970s with its Navajo Tribal police mystery novels, is the Native American setting and the description of the Ute beliefs and traditions. You’ll find the same in Craig Johnson’s books as he always makes room for Cheyenne customs. The common point between these Western series is also the role of law enforcement in small rural communities. They are sheriffs (Walt Longmire), Tribal Police (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Charlie Moon) or Game Warden (Joe Pickett) and they have to compose with being the law in a small community where everyone knows everyone, a community they are a part of. What they do on duty impacts their off-duty life as they live among the people they work for.

The Shaman Laughs emphasizes on nature and its connection with animal and human lives. The landscape descriptions are stunning, vibrant and captivating. Several times, the point of view switches to an animal’s like a mouse or a rabbit. It connects the reader to the land in a different way.

A lot of spirituality comes off the land and the story relies on dreams, visions and intuition. It leaves imprints on people and impact their actions but it doesn’t sound artificial. It seems to be embeded in the place. Even Scott the white man feels it. Daisy goes into trances, seeks for answers in her dreams and leaves offering to the pitukupf, a sort of Leprechaun who lives in the Cañon del Espiritu. Christianism is part of the mix and Doss pictures how the Ute incorporate Christian faith and Ute spirituality. He also shows that the Ute customs are dying with the elder and that they need to be protected.

Black Mesa Landscape New Mexico, Out Back of Marie’s II,1930 by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Doss’s talent lies in his ability to mix all these ingredients into a story that makes you travel into this Indian community, far from your home and daily life, looking forward to knowing who killed Big Ouray and Arlo.

Incidentally and thanks to Goodreads, I discovered that November was Native American Heritage Month in the US.

  1. December 5, 2021 at 8:31 pm

    The problem with Hillerman and Doss is that as white writers their portrayals of Ingenious life were not very accurate. There are very good Native authors writing crime fiction including: Marcie R. Rendon, Mardi Oakley Medawar, Linda Rodriguez, Thomas King, Stephen Graham Jones, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Also two authors who don’t typically write crime fiction but have titles that fit into that genre are: ‘Mean Spirit’ by Linda Hogan and ‘The Round House’ by Louise Erdrich.


    • December 5, 2021 at 9:29 pm

      I don’t know if what Hillerman and Doss wrote is accurate, just like I don’t know if everything is accurate when I read historical fiction. But I don’t think that being white has anything to do with it. It’s a question of research as far as customs are concerned and for the rest, being human is universal. If they’re inaccurate, they have to be hold responsible for it, that’s for sure.

      However, I don’t think that you need to be Native American to write about Ute culture, otherwise we tend to go towards a direction that says that a man can’t write a female character or that a white translator cannot translate a black writer. And that’s a slippery slope.

      Thanks for the list of Indigenous writers, I didn’t know any of them except Louise Erdrich. I’ve browsed through their bio and they all came after Hillerman who started his series in the 1970s and most of them came after Doss too. Hillerman and Doss might have indirectly contributed to these Indigenous writers’ publication. Indeed, Hillerman and Doss’s success showed that there’s a public for that kind of literature.


      • December 6, 2021 at 2:02 am

        It does matter when the work of white writers got published when many Native writers could not because there wasn’t room for their voices, it’s only in recent years that more Native writers are breaking that barrier, and they are still often published by smaller presses that cannot match the marketing of the larger publishers. There has also been a history of white writers claiming Native heritage, including Hillerman early in his career, to make their writing seem more authentic. Though I would never argue that any writer can’t write from a different background, sex, age, etc. if done well, I prefer to know whose voice the story is coming from/through.

        You’re welcome. I chose newer voices for the most part because I thought you might be interested in what is being written now.


        • December 7, 2021 at 10:48 pm

          This is the kind of discussion where my thinking is limited by not writing in French. *sigh*

          I didn’t know about white writers claiming Native heritage to boost their sales, which is simply dishonest and unacceptable.

          I get your point and yes, it is a pity that there isn’t more room for Native writers (or women writers or any kind of minority writers) and that white male writers have better chances to be published. (or so I guess. I don’t know the statistics) That’s about access to publishers and equal opportunities to get published.

          I’m with Baldwin who wrote Giovanni’s Room with a white character to be assessed, not as a black writer but as a literary writer. I don’t pay a lot of attention to writers’ biographies or read their interviews. I’m not very interested in the background behind a book. I dive into the text and go from there. (And that’s probably why I’m not a literature graduate but just a reader. 🙂 )

          Liked by 1 person

          • December 8, 2021 at 3:43 am

            It is a difficult and nuanced issue and I do realize it’s also difficult to be discussing it in a language not your own and I appreciate your willingness to do so. I also want to make clear that my criticism wasn’t directed at you but at the authors, publishers, and press that give misleading impressions of what certain books are.

            Though not a literature graduate, I am often curious about where and from whom a book is coming from. To use another example, I read many books set in and about Russia and for the most part I’d rather read a novel set there written by a Russian than an American!

            Liked by 1 person

            • December 12, 2021 at 10:13 pm

              Thanks for being understanding. Too bad we can’t chat in person! 🙂

              Like you, I’d rather read a novel set in France and written by a French writer or at least someone who’s lived in the country.
              But there are counter-examples, like Anne Perry’s books set in England or Steven Saylor’s series set in Ancient Rome.

              Liked by 2 people

  2. December 6, 2021 at 3:40 pm

    I agree with Ms Cunningham, sorry Emma. White voices too often crowd out minorities, or unnecessarily speak on their behalf.
    Your mention of police in the community reminds me of the old days (in Australia) when every country town had a policeman who was part of the town. Now they are congregated in district centres and have a far less personal contact with town life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 7, 2021 at 10:58 pm

      “White voices too often crowd out minorities, or unnecessarily speak on their behalf.” They do and it’s a shame. We agree on that.

      My point is more about confining a writer to their “racial” (I hate that word) identity or cultural background.

      Liked by 1 person

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