Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian is a book written by Don C. Talayesva, a Hopi who learned the ways of white people. Talayesva and Simmons write to educate the reader about the Hopi culture. The book is told from only one man’s point-of-view and yet Talayesva writes in a way that introduces all readers to the unique ways of life shared by all the Hopi people. Although the narrative is told from a man’s point-of-view, the reader understands what it means to be both a man and a woman in the Hopi society. In addition to discussing matters of gender, the author also delves into issues related to sexuality. What makes Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian remarkable is the way that the book discusses Hopi culture in relation to the white oppressor. Talayesva writes for a white audience, and is deliberately provocative so that white people pay attention to Native American worldviews.
Written by Hopi Don C. Talayesva, Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian is one man’s attempt to introduce Hopi values, culture, and mores to a white audience. The book might have been one of the first attempts of any Hopi to do such a thing. Written in the middle of the twentieth century, Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian also capitalizes on the way of life of most Americans during this time. For example, most Americans (white, black, Hispanic, Indian, or other) during the middle of the twentieth century had experienced several world wars. The Americans understood their place in the world, as leaders of a free and democratic society. Materialism and a sense of superiority had always characterized the American society since its birth but during the 1950s, such issues became more prominent than ever before due to the victories of the Second World War.
Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian is organizes chronologically, that is, from the birth of the author until his end days. The chronological ordering allows the author to convey his growth as an individual and human being. The author learns much during his encounters with his Hopi people and even more so with the white people that he first believed to be oppressors. Even though the author continues to perceive the white people as inherently hostile to the Indian way of life, Talayesva admits that much of his character is owed to his encounters with the white people. The book is organized into fifteen chapters by the author, plus what is written in the introduction and appendixes. Many chapters are what allow the reader to organize the issues and ideas into sections related to themes. For example, the author begins by discussing even what happened before his birth. Then the author talks about his early childhood, his adolescence, and progresses through until adulthood.
Don Talayesva is trying to convey many complex ideas to his audience. One of the issues the author conveys is the nature and quality of Hopi society. Hopi society is many things, including superstitious, religious, and devoted to family. Unlike an anthropologist who is on the outside looking in, Talayesva is an insider looking out. In other words, the author is someone who knows deeply and intimately the ways of life of the Hopi and can translate those ways of life into the Western or European tongue. Because Talayesva had a white American education, he is uniquely in the position of doing this.
There are morals, ethics, and philosophical views on culture, nature, social relationships, and religion throughout the book Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian. For example, the author talks about sexuality a lot throughout the autobiography. Sex is not something to be ashamed of in Hopi society. Quite the opposite: sexuality is something to be proud of and that is why Talayesva speaks freely and frequently about his sexuality. Even in the chapter that starts the book, called “Twins Twisted into One,” the author talks about how his father and mother had a lot of sex during their pregnancy. This was not just because they were horny but because it was part of the customs of Hopi society to make love during pregnancy. It was believed that having intercourse during pregnancy is like “irrigating a crop,” (Talayesva 25). Without irrigating the crop, the baby inside the womb does not grow. Moreover, when the father of the child irrigates the crop, the baby inside will look like him as opposed to anyone else the mother is sleeping with. Talayesva speaks of sexuality to suggest that Hopi culture condones, or at least tolerates, adultery and premarital sex too.
Another issue that Talayesva speaks about in Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian is family. The extended family lives with the mother and father of the new child. With close proximity to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other more distant relatives, the Hopi people become aware of the importance of blood and kinship ties. Blood and kinship ties are also important in terms of clan and social relationships. Hopi culture is clan-based. That means that there are different groups of people that are loosely related spiritually as well as physically. Each of the clans is symbolized by an animal like the lizard. When the author talk about the clans, he educates the white reader as to the differences between the cultures. White American culture is not clan-based, because by the time that Talayesva wrote his autobiography, the nuclear family was the norm in the United States.
It is difficult to say whether Don C. Talayevsa represents the model personality for a Hopi or is typical of a man his age. However, it is safe to say that the author represents Hopi society better than any white scholar or anthropologist would. Talayevsa at least gives his perspective on genuine Hopi upbringing, worldviews, and ways of life. A scholar or anthropologist would only project biases and personal beliefs onto the Hopi and therefore tarnish the narrative.
There are many points of comparison and contrast between the Hopi worldview and the white American worldview. In fact, this comparison and contrast is the main theme of Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian. One main point of comparison and contrast is sexuality. The author is keenly aware of how uptight the Protestant Christian society around him is, which is why he talks a lot about sex. Another point of comparison between the Hopi and the non-Hopi is family and social structure in the society. The author also talks about concepts related to intelligence, creativity, spirituality, health, and overall well-being. The white person and the Hopi seemingly have very little in common and yet, Talayevsa does a good job showing that all human beings are inherently the same at heart.
Don C. Talayevsa is qualified to speak freely about Hopi culture and society because he is an insider. The insider has a biased perspective in the sense that it is impossible to stop being a Hopi. Talayevsa can never know what it is like to be a European or an Asian person, for example. He assumes a lot about the European point-of-view because his encounters with the white American are limited to his being a Hopi. People react to him as a Native American, such as his descriptions of the teachers t school who think he is a smart kid just because he can chop wood. But just as Talayevsa is unqualified to talk about life as a French man, no French man is qualified to talk about life as a Hopi. Therefore, a reader should only trust a book about Hopi culture that is written by a Hopi. Any book about Hopi written by a non-Hopi is going to be biased from an outsider’s perspective.
At the same time, it is difficult to know what Talayevsa is holding back from his audience because he does not want to divulge the Hopi secrets. Hopi society seems more mysterious than before Talayevsa wrote his autobiography Sun Chief. This is because more questions are raised than answered during the course of the book. The book is powerful because the author talks about superstitions and ways of life that are completely foreign to anyone but a Native American. Yet there are common points that all people can share. The one issue that is not addressed with sufficient sensitivity is that of gender, because the author is a male. Gender issues are problematic in Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian. For example, the author states that he was thought to be “lucky to be born twins and lucky to just miss becoming a girl,” (Talayevsa 27). The author does not critique this patriarchal way of thinking. It seems that although Hopi society is not too patriarchal, that there are obvious male biases that come out strongly in the Talayevsa’s autobiography.
Talayesva writes for a white audience, and is deliberately provocative so that white people pay attention to Native American worldviews. Because of this, there is no way of knowing how much the reader really knows about the real Hopi culture and society. However, Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian might be the most the outsider will ever know about the Hopi culture. Hopi culture is ancient, complex, and completely different from any other culture. The author understands that white people speak a different language than the Hopi, a language of values, beliefs, and morals. Sexuality, customs, religion, and values are all different and difficult to translate. Readers of Sun Chief should appreciate the insight into Hopi culture that is hard or impossible to find elsewhere.
Talayesva, Don C. And Simmons, Leo William. Sun Chief: Autobiography of a Hopi Indian. Yale University Press: 1963.
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