The Death at Awahi
The author of The Death at Awahi grew up on Indian reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, and his knowledge of and sympathy for embattled indigenous culture shines from every page. The novel is a sort of delayed-action murder mystery. It is set in the 1920s, when the “Christianize and civilize” program of the Indian Service—the educational arm of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs—was coming under fire from progressives. The Awahi are fictional, but they are such a convincing amalgam of southwestern Native People—Hopi, Zuni, Navajo—that I thought they were simply a tribe I’d never read about. (I learned my error by reading the author’s notes.)
The story concerns a new principal’s arrival at Awahi pueblo along with his new wife, who is a nurse. Both are government employees, but they are also pragmatists who are far more interested in helping the Indians than in toeing an ideological line. Other outsiders living in the pueblo include teachers at the government school, the owner of the local trading post who has an Awahi wife, a Catholic priest, and two hellfire and brimstone Protestant preachers. There are characters who immediately appear to “need killing,” but unlike a genre murder mystery, the death of the title does not occur until almost the last chapter. This proves to be satisfactory because The Death at Awahi is not a standard whodunit, but something deeper, a fable about justice and the long unresolved culture clash between the U.S. and this land’s First People. An enjoyable read which left me with a lot to think about.