Stream On: Home on the strange—‘Dark Winds,’ a Navajo police procedural

By on November 9, 2023

Novelist Tony Hillerman (1925–2008) was born in Oklahoma of German and English ancestry, but he attended grammar school at St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding school for Native American girls. Hillerman was one of only a few boys enrolled there, and he attributed his respect for Native cultures to the experience. Most of his mysteries featured Navajo (Diné) tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

Dark Winds, the first two seasons of which are based on Hillerman’s novels Listening Woman and People of Darkness, features Leaphorn and Chee. The series has been renewed for a third season, expected to premiere in early 2025.

DARK WINDS (Official site)

/Streaming /🍅100%🍿61% /Trailer /2022 /TV-MA

The action is set in 1970’s New Mexico. A helicopter lands on a highway; its passengers rob an armored truck (in an expensive-looking set piece), killing two guards. The helicopter then disappears over a nearby Navajo reservation. Three weeks later, a man who saw it fly over the reservation is found dead along with Anna Atcitty, the granddaughter of a Medicine Woman he was visiting since seeing the helicopter.

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon, Longmire, Fargo season 2) of the Navajo Tribal Police investigates the murders; as he begins, his department is joined by Deputy Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), unbeknownst to Leaphorn, an undercover agent for the FBI. Agent Leland Whitover (Noah Emmerich, The Americans, The Spy), Chee’s handler, believes the armored truck robbery was committed by a radical splinter group of the American Indian Movement and wants Chee to use the motel killings as a cover to investigate his case on Navajo land.

Dark Winds was filmed on location in three different sovereign nations, with screenplays from five Indigenous writers, primarily directed by filmmaker Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes) produced by Graham Roland (Chickasaw), shot by a mostly Native American crew and starring actors Zahn McClarnon (Lakota), Kiowa Gordon (Hualapai) as Detective Jim Chee and Jessica Matten (Red River Metis-Cree) as Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito.

Dark Winds is peak Hillerman: the first season of the noir neo-western earned a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while Season 2 attracted 1.7 million viewers each week, a 146% rise in viewership. The pilot episode, “Monster Slayer,” was awarded Outstanding Fictional Television Drama by the Western Heritage Awards of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

It’s a rare Hillerman film adaptation, too. Robert Redford, who owns the film rights to most of Hillerman’s Leaphorn-Chee novels, is an executive producer; one of his earlier Hillerman efforts, The Dark Wind (1991; based on Hillerman’s novel The Dark Wind, a different story than the Dark Winds series) wasn’t distributed originally. It starred Fred Ward and Lou Diamond Phillips as Leaphorn and Chee, and Redford said, it was “a false start. It was miscast. It was ill-conceived and I didn’t think it was the right beginning for the series.” In 2002, Hillerman’s novel Skinwalkers was adapted as a 90-minute “American Mystery” special on PBS. It seems to be available only on DVD from PBS. A Thief of Time, adapted from the novel of the same name, is currently available on YouTube. It stars Wes Studi and Graham Greene (the actor—Longmire, Duct Tape Forever) and appears to be an episode of PBS’ Mystery! Series.

And land sakes, Dark Winds is a great watch. Zahn McClarnon’s reserve gives him an air of mystery not seen in a protagonist since Sam Spade, and Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten are excellent as his staff. The writing is detailed and suspenseful with just enough dark humor to recall Fargo or Justified, and the cast, which includes Rainn Wilson (Six Feet Under) as a demented missionary and used-car salesman, is just right.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.


Barnhill Contracting Company will receive sealed proposals for Manns Harbor – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-8), Kitty Hawk – EMS/Fire Facility (EMS-9), Manteo – Youth Center on January 09, 2024. Times to be given on via addendum #01. See the following SCOPE OF WORK: BP 100 – General Trades, BP 105 – Final Cleaning, BP 205 – Demolition, BP 390 – Turnkey Concrete, BP 400 – Turnkey Masonry, BP 500 – Turnkey Structural Steel & Misc. Steel, BP 505 – Light Gauge Metal Trusses, BP 740 – Roofing, BP750 – Siding, BP 790 – Caulking/Sealants, BP 800 – Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware/Toilet Specialties/Accessories/Division 10, BP 840 – Curtainwall/Storefront/Glass/Glazing, BP 925 – Drywall/Framing, BP 960 – Resilient Flooring/Carpet/Base/Epoxy, BP 980 – Acoustical Ceilings, BP 990 – Painting and Wall Coverings, BP 1230 – Finish Carpentry and Casework, BP 1250 – Window Treatments, BP 2100 – Fire Protection, BP 2200 – Plumbing, BP 2300 – HVAC, BP 2600 – Electrical, BP 3100 – Earthwork/Turnkey Site, BP 3213- Site Concrete, BP 3290 – Landscaping. Scopes of work may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager.

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