‘Dark Winds’ is a crime thriller TV series set in the 1970s in the Navajo Reservation, where a double murder forces two law enforcement officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee to look deeper into themselves as well as their community. Created by Graham Roland, the show has a mainly Native American cast and setting and was written in an all-Native American writers’ room. The crime that kickstarts the show is chilling, but so are several other things. With so many true crime stories finding their way into a television adaptation, we wonder if ‘Dark Winds’ draws inspiration from real life. Here’s what we know about it.
Is Dark Winds a True Story?
No, ‘Dark Winds’ is not based on a true story. The psychological thriller show is mainly adapted from a book called ‘Listening Woman,’ written by Tony Hillerman. It is the third novel in the Leaphorn-Chee crime series and was first published in 1978. While the author didn’t base the story on any particular real-life incident, he was heavily influenced by his own experiences in writing it. Hillerman is not a Native American, but he was drawn to write a story with Native American characters. He felt comfortable with those characters because he saw himself in them.
The author found a lot of similarities between his own background and the situations in which Navajos had to live back then. He grew up in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, where he befriended many Potawatomis and found kindred spirits. The incident that pushed Hillerman to really consider writing a book with Native American background was when he returned home from the Second World War. In 1945, while working as an oilfield truck driver, he frequently visited the Navajo Reservation. There, Hillerman noticed that they were much more in touch with their culture than the children he grew up with.
Hillerman thus became fascinated with their ceremonies and customs and dived deeper into the subject. In an interview published in the LA Review of Books, he explained how a novel about Australian aborigines made him look towards the natives closer to home. “The imagery stuck in my mind. They were really interesting, I thought. I thought it would be better if I could run this against a background that would be interesting. At first, I thought I’d use Apaches. But I was really much more interested in Navajos, and it seemed to me they offered much more opportunity,” he said.
The author continued, “They’re a more complicated culture, and there are more of them, so I decided on the Navajos, thinking I would try my hand at a mystery and then, if I could go the distance, then I would write something important.” The narrative of ‘Dark Winds’ has Leaphorn and Chee as the mismatched duo trying to do their job the best way they can. While they work together in the show, the books have them solving crimes separately.
The first three books in the series are focused on Leaphorn, while Chee’s character developed from the fourth one. Leaphorn’s presence in the latter books is pretty scarce. In fact, Hillerman believed that both men are so different from each other that bringing them together won’t work because “they wouldn’t like each other very much.” The character of Joe Leaphorn is well fleshed out with a complicated backstory and an even more complicated case to solve in the present. The show’s writers had a lot of material from the novels to bring a pre-planned depth to his character.
For Hillerman, however, Leaphorn was more of an accident. He hadn’t intended to make him a prominent character in the books, but notes from his publishers made him reconsider. “I’d become very enamored of Leaphorn as a character, so I expanded his role in the book. But I still had given him a non-Navajo name, and I was very careless. I hadn’t developed him as I would if I’d known he was going to be an important character,” he said.
Even though the story is fictional, the author tried to keep things as close to accurate as possible when it came to the portrayal of the Navajo culture and the mysticism surrounding it. “There’s tradition, and there’s precedent for it. They’ve survived for thousands and thousands of years without anybody else bothering them, and it’s because of their traditions that they hold so dear in their ceremonies. There are also skeptics and people who are superstitious and not superstitious. So, [Dark Winds] kind of displays all of that, and people can take what they want from it,” said Kiowa Gordon, who plays the role of Jim Chee.
The murders might be what kickstarts the events, but most of the story is eventually set around the people and their relationship with each other. The show also uses the premise to highlight the racism and the prejudice that Native Americans have to put up with, while also subverting the stereotypes surrounding them. So, despite its fictional setting, ‘Dark Winds’ is still rooted in reality, drawing from and reflecting on it in a raw and honest manner.