Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Shaman Laughs, by James D. Doss

Review by Jeanne Englert

Utes – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Shaman Laughs
by James D. Doss
Published in 1995 by Avon Books
ISBN: 0-380-72690-4

AS COLORADO CENTRAL’S supposed Ute language authority and former editor of the Southern Ute Drum, it seemed a natural for me to review James R. Doss’s The Shaman Laughs, a mystery novel set on the Southern Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado.

It is the second in a series that started with The Shaman Sings. Tony Hillerman fans will get a kick out of it because Doss shamelessly borrows from the Hillerman genre. Although Doss is more fun, I don’t think he writes as well as Hillerman.

The plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of the stud of the tribal buffalo herd then the mutilation death, in Cañon del Espiritu, of Gorman Sweetwater’s prize Hereford bull, Big Ouray, whose ears and testicles (cuquavi) are cut off.

A venal insurance agent, head of the tribal Economic Development Committee, who was shamelessly promoting use of Cañon del Espiritu to store nuclear waste, is also found murdered — his testicles and ears removed, too.

Okay, the book’s got a fairly decent plot, plus a scary scene in the canyon when the two cops investigating the case do a stake-out high in its labyrinth, and also the sad, but touching, death of one of the book’s main characters. But those elements alone wouldn’t have sustained my interest.

What engrossed me was the shaman herself, Daisy Perika. She lives in a trailer in Cañon del Espiritu. She is known for her mystical ways though some, including her own kin, doubt it, especially her cousin’s daughter, Benita, a student at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

Her nephew, Charlie Moon, the Ute policeman (and a Hillerman Jim Chee clone) isn’t sure either. But then again, his crazy old aunt does claim to be on good acquaintance with the pitukupf, a dwarf spirit who lives in a badger hole up the canyon. Daisy pacifies the spirit by giving him packets of tobacco, and seems to have certain powers.

Well, maybe…

What we do learn about Daisy Perika is that she’s an astute observer, has mastery of magician’s tricks, and knows how to play a Ute practical joke, the last of which will leave the reader laughing out loud before turning off his bedroom light.

There’s a delightful episode when Benita, the college kid, comes for an unannounced visit. Benita poo-poohs this stuff about spirits and Ute mythology and is a certified “earth muffin,” a granola and decaf student who doesn’t approve of her aunt’s breakfast of pan-fried ham steak and buttermilk biscuits. (My mouth was watering.)

Benita’s sophomoric certainty that there’s no such thing as these mythological creatures from old Ute wives’ tales is shaken when she shows up with her dad, the rancher whose bull has been mutilated. “How did you know I was coming?” Benita asks, noticing the third plate set on the table. Shaman Daisy Perika knew because she recognized the lighter touch on the clutch of the old pickup with the loose tailpipe that Gorman’s daughter had driven up the rutted road to the trailer.

“Oh, I have my ways,” the old shaman lady replies with a wave of her hand. (In a parenthetical aside to the reader, Daisy says, “It was best to keep a step ahead of these college kids; kept them in their place.”)

Equally delightful is when the newly-assigned FBI special agent asks if there’s any “authentic Ute cuisine” on the menu at the Ignacio café.

After explaining it’s mostly American-Mexican food, Charlie Moon said he did, however, recommend the “three-meat stew.” Everybody in the café gets the joke, except the FBI agent, who says he hopes it’s not horse and dog meat which, he said, he had learned from his research, the Utes ate.

Moon replies they could rustle up a nag from the Sky Ute Downs horse training center. Another patron mentions the salamander.

If I wasn’t laughing so hard at how the locals could put-down a bombastic jerk like this dude, I’d say Doss made too much of it. But I’ve been the brunt of Ute humor myself as mukutach — white person naïve Drum editor.

I loved the scene when the officious FBI agent interrogates the shaman, who is in no mood for this and pretends she knows only Ute, but offers him some of her posole.

The FBI agent is suspicious. He knows he’s been had, somehow. He spies a copy of the Drum, which is written in English. “My aunt likes to look at the pictures,” Moon replies. (There’s truth to that. Some of my elderly Drum readers did get the story from the pictures.)

The two cops finally figure out who did what and why. Shaman Daisy, with the help of her pitukupf buddy — the canyon is his home too — saves the canyon from being turned into a nuclear waste dump. Only one thing left to do: feed a good meal to the FBI dude.

“‘The neighborhood sarichi might be howling high notes at the moon tonight,’ the shaman thought, ‘but they sure wouldn’t be chasing bitches in heat. Not after sacrificing their cuquavi.'”

The shaman laughs. You will too.

— Jeanne W. Englert