Born a Chief

Born a Chief is a sharp-eyed, perceptive account of living in two radically different societies, one of which dominates and mistreats the narrator’s native people.  The book recounts the first twenty-two years of Edward Nequatewa (1880?-1969), a Hopi forced to live in both the Indian and white worlds during an intolerant era.  Destined by birth to become a clan leader, he says, “I really belonged in the Crane Clan house” (18) but family jealousies and white domination of the Hopi thwarted this.  He describes his experiences in both the Indian and white worlds sharply, as though comparing the spiritual, community-oriented Hopi to the violent, often hypocritical and intolerant white culture of the 1880s and 1890s.

Nequatewa depicts the Hopi with reverence, discussing their religious rituals and respect for nature and life in general.  He is more critical of the dominant white culture that subjugated the Indians and forced him to leave his family to attend white-run Indian schools.  Editor Seaman describes whites’ motives as “both sincere and selfish” (xvii), and Nequatewa confirms this.  His years in Arizona’s Indian schools show how whites tried to eradicate their culture and cared little about Indians’ true needs.  The white world clashes with the tightly-knit Hopi community, but he perseveres, driven by his grandfather’s admonition to “learn both sides, otherwise you will never find out . . . what the truth is in this world” (106).  Later, upon meeting an intolerant white missionary, he tells the woman, “The only thing you have done for [Indian converts to Christianity] . . . is to take them out of one superstition and get them into another” (166).

Nequatewa’s memoir depicts his as a savvy, independent character with great reverence for his native culture and patience for (and skepticism toward) the white world that tried to deprive him of his culture yet made him respect his Hopi ways even more.

Seaman, David P.  Ed.  Born a Chief.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.