Are Dark Winds’ Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Based on Real Cops?

‘Dark Winds’ is a psychological thriller that is set in the Navajo Reservation where a double murder causes a stir. Despite it being a federal case, the FBI continues to ignore the investigation. The responsibility of solving it falls on the shoulders of officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The show keeps the story realistic, diving into the culture and tradition of the Navajo. The keen attention to detail in the show makes us wonder if there are other aspects of the story that are founded in reality, especially when it comes to the cops. If you are wondering whether Leaphorn and Chee are based on real-life cops, we’ve got you covered.

Are Leaphorn and Jim Real Life Police Officers?

No, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are not based on real cops. The characters were invented by Tony Hillerman, who wrote a series of crime novels with them as the protagonists. While the author didn’t write them exactly based on a real person, he did seek inspiration from the people he met. “My first newspaper job was as a police reporter in Borger, Texas, where I met the sheriff of Hutchinson County…I used him as a model for Joe Leaphorn, the way his mind worked,” he said.

The name Leaphorn came to the author while reading a book on the Minoan practice of bull-jumping. As whimsical as the name of the character was its role in the book. Initially, Leaphorn was supposed to be a minor character. However, after publishers got interested in his book, Hillerman decided to make some changes. He had grown to like Leaphorn and decided to expand his role.

In the first three books of the crime series that stars Leaphorn and Chee, the story has Leaphorn as the primary character. However, in the fourth book, the author changed the setting to the Checkerboard Reservation. He found that Leaphorn wouldn’t fit as well in that territory.  “I had been troubled by the fact that I had made Joe Leaphorn too old and too sophisticated and too wise in the white man’s ways to do what I wanted to do,” said Hillerman. “I was thinking this guy’s not what I need. I need someone younger, more traditional, more into his religion, more amazed by white ways.”  So, he simply crossed out Leaphorn’s name and concocted a new one.

Another thing to be rectified in the fourth book was the name of the officer. Despite his Native American roots, Hillerman had given Leaphorn a white man’s name. He didn’t want to repeat that mistake. So, moving forward, he referred to telephone books and the KNDN radio station while coming up with names. For Chee, he decided to go with the most common Navajo surname.

As for the inspiration behind the character, he said he didn’t have anything particular in mind. “I was teaching [at the University of New Mexico] and thinking of all the students I had, bright guys, young, had their own ideas about things. So I put him in there for the chance to open up some new doors”, Hillerman said.  No matter what Hillerman’s intentions were for Chee, the writers for ‘Dark Winds’ decided to make some changes to his character. In the book, he is closely attached to his culture and is also studying to be a traditional healer. Jim Chee in the show is a little more skeptical about the supernatural aspects of his culture and is quick to dismiss certain things, if not all.

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