The Hopi Boy And The Sun

Where cultures overlap — as in areas of the Southwest, with its mixture of Hispanic, Pueblo, and nomadic traditions — legends are often modified and reshaped in the retelling. This story, related in 1920 by a Zuni elder who may have been part Hispanic, gives a curious twist to Hopi tales of the sun. Besides the traditional Hopi elements such as the trail of sacred cornmeal and the sun’s fox skin, it embodies the fear and antagonism felt by the Pueblo farmers toward the marauding nomadic tribes. At the same time, it is full of things unknown to the Pueblos before the coming of the Spaniards, such as peaches, silver bracelets, and the ocean itself.

A poor Hopi boy lived with his mother’s mother. The people treated him with contempt and threw ashes and sweepings into his grandmother’s house, and the two were very unhappy. One day he asked his grandmother who his father was.

“My poor boy, I don’t know,” she replied.

“I must find him,” the boy said. “We can’t stay in this place; the people treat me too badly.”

“Grandchild, you must go and see the sun. He knows who your father is.”

On the following morning the boy made a prayer stick and went out. Many young men were sitting on the roof of the kiva, the underground ceremonial chamber. They sneered when they saw him going by, though one of them remarked, “Better not make fun of him! I believe the poor little boy has supernatural power.”

The boy took some sacred meal made of pounded turquoise, coral, shell, and cornmeal, and threw it upward. It formed a trail leading into the sky, and he climbed until the trail gave out. He threw some more of the sacred meal upward, and a new trail formed. After he had done this twelve times, he came to the sun. But the sun was too hot to approach, so the boy put new prayer sticks into the hair at the back of his head, and the shadow of their plumes protected him from the heat.

“Who is my father?” he asked the sun.

“All children conceived in the daytime belong to me,” the sun replied. “But as for you, who knows? You are young and have much to learn.” The boy gave the sun a prayer stick and, falling down from the sky, landed back in his village.

On the following day he left home and went westward, hoping to begin learning. When he came to the place where Holbrook, Arizona, now stands, he saw a cottonwood tree and chopped it down. He cut a length of the trunk to his own height, hollowed it out, and made a cover for each end. Then he put in some sweet cornmeal and prayer sticks and decided he was ready to go traveling. Climbing into the box, he closed the door and rolled himself into the river.

The box drifted for four days and four nights, until finally he felt it strike the shore at a place where two rivers join. He took the plug out of a peephole he had made and saw morning light. But when he tried to get out, he couldn’t open the door, no matter how hard he pushed. He thought he would have to die inside. In the middle of the afternoon a rattlesnake-girl came down to the river. When she discovered the box, she took off her mask and looked into the peephole.

“What are you doing here?” she asked the boy.

“Open the door! I can’t get out,” he said.

The girl asked, “How can I open it?”

“Take a stone and break it.”

So the girl broke the door, and when the Hopi came out, she took him to her house. Inside he saw many people — young and old, men and women — and they were all rattlesnakes.

“Where are you going?” they asked him.

“I want to find my father,” the boy replied.

The girl said, “You can’t go alone; I’ll go with you.”

She made a small tent of rattlesnake skins and carried it to the river. They crawled into the tent and floated for four days and four nights. Finally they reached the ocean, and there they saw a meteor fall into the sea on its way to the house of the sun. They asked the meteor to take them along. In this manner they reached the sun’s house, where they found an old woman working on turquoise, coral, and white shell. She was the moon, the mother of the sun.

“Where is my father?” the boy asked.

“He has gone out,” the moon replied, “but he will be home soon.”

The sun arrived in the evening, and the old woman gave him venison and wafer bread. After he had eaten, he asked the boy: “What do you want here?”

The boy replied, “I want to know my father.”

“I think you are my son. And when I go into the other world, you shall accompany me,” the sun said this time. And early the next morning, he said, “Let’s go!” He opened a door in the ground, and they went out.

Seating himself on a stool of crystal, the sun took a fox skin and held it up. Daylight appeared. After a while he put the fox skin down and held up the tail feathers of a macaw, and the yellow rays of sunrise streamed out. When at last he let them down, he said to the boy. “Now let’s go!”

The sun made the boy sit behind him on the stool, and they went out into another world. After traveling for some time, they saw people with long ears, Lacokti ianenakwe. They used their ears as blankets to cover themselves when they slept. The sun remarked, “If bluebird droppings fall on those people, they die.”

“How is that possible?” the boy said. “How can people be killed that way? Let me kill the birds!”

The sun said, “Go ahead! I’ll wait.”

The boy jumped down, took a small cedar stick, and killed the bluebirds. Then he roasted them over a fire and ate them. The people shouted, “Look at this boy! He’s eating Navajos!”

“No,” said the boy, “these aren’t Navajos, they’re birds.” Then he went back to the sun, and they traveled on.

About noon they came to another town. The sun said, “Look! The Apache are coming to make war on the people.” The boy saw a whirlwind moving along. When wheat straw was blown against the legs of the people, they fell dead. “How can people be killed by wheat straw?” he said. “Let me go down and tear it up.”

The sun said, “I’ll wait.”

The boy jumped down, gathered the wheat straw, and tore it up. The people said, “Look at this boy, how he kills the Apache!”

“These aren’t Apache,” the boy replied, “they’re wheat straws.” Then he went back to the sun.

They came to another town, where the Hopi boy saw people with very long hair reaching down to their ankles. They had a large pot with onions tied to its handles. Inside it thin mush was cooking and boiling over, and when it hit a person, he died. The sun said, “Look at the Jicarilla Apache, how they kill people!”

“No,” said the boy, “that’s not Jicarilla Apache; it’s mush. I’ll go down and eat it.”

The sun said, “I’ll wait.”

Then the boy jumped down, dipped the mush out of the pot, took the onions from the handles, and ate the mush with the onions. The people said, “Look how this boy eats the brains, hands, and feet of the Jicarilla Apache!”

The boy said, “This isn’t Jicarilla Apache! It’s corn mush. Come and eat with me!”

“No!” they said. “We’re not cannibals; we don’t eat Apache warriors!”

Then the boy went back to the sun, and they traveled on.

Finally they came to the house of the sun in the east. There the sun’s sister gave them venison stew for supper. After they had eaten, the sun said to his sister, “Wash my son’s head!” The sun’s sister took a large dish, put water and yucca suds into it, and washed the boy’s head and body. Then she gave him new clothing, the same kind that the sun was wearing — buckskin trousers, blue moccasins, blue bands of yarn to tie under the knees, a white sash and belt of fox skin, turquoise and shell earrings, a white shirt, silver arm rings, bead bracelets, and a bead necklace. She put macaw feathers in his hair and a “miha,” a sacred blanket, over his shoulder, and gave him a quiver of mountain lion skin.

Then the sun told him, “Go ahead! I’m going to follow you.” The boy opened the door in the ground and went out. He sat down on the crystal stool, took the fox skin, and held it up to create the dawn. Then he put it down and raised the macaw feathers, holding them up with the palms of his hands stretched forward until the yellow rays of sunrise appeared. After that he dropped his hands and went on into the upper world. As he did, the people of Laguna, Isleta, and the other eastern pueblos looked eastward and sprinkled sacred meal. The sun behind him said, “Look at the trails, the life of the people! Some are short, others are long. Look at this one! He is near the end of his trail; he’s going to die soon.” The boy saw an Apache coming, and in a short time the Apache had killed that man whose trail had been so short. The Hopi boy said to the sun, “Let me go and help the people!”

“I’ll wait,” the sun replied.

The boy jumped down into the territory where the Laguna people were fighting the Apache. He told the people to wet their arrow points with saliva and hold them up to the sun, for this would help them in battle. The boy himself killed ten Apaches, then went back to his father.

They traveled on, and when they saw a group of Navajos setting out to make war on the Zuni, the boy killed them. He and his father crossed the land of his own people, the Hopi, and then came to Mexican territory.

A Mexican was playing with his wife. When the sun saw them, he threw the Mexican aside and cohabited with the woman. “I don’t need a wife,” he told his son, “because all the women on earth belong to me. If a couple cohabits during the daytime, I interfere as I just did. So I’m the father of all children conceived in the daytime.”

In the evening the sun entered his house in the west. By then the boy wanted to go back to his own people, so the sun’s mother made a trail of sacred flour, and the boy and the rattlesnake-woman went back eastward over it. At noon they came to the rattlesnakes’ home.

The rattlesnake woman said, “I want to see my father and mother. After that, let’s go on.” They entered the house, and she told her relatives that the Hopi boy was her husband. Then they resumed their journey.

That evening they arrived in the Hopi village. The boy made straight for his grandmother’s house, but an old chief said, “Look at the handsome man going into that poor home!” He invited the boy into his own house, but the boy replied, “No, I’m going here.”

The war chief said, “We don’t want you in that dirty house.”

“The house is mine,” the boy replied, “so tell your people to clean it up. When all of you treated me badly, I went up to the sun and he helped me.”

On the following evening the boy appeared before a village council and told all that had happened to him. “You must teach the people how to act rightly. The sun says that you should forbid all bad actions.”

The people accepted his words, and everyone worked hard at cleaning his house. In return the boy gave peaches, melons, and wafer bread to the poor. Every evening after sunset the women would come with their dishes, and he would offer them venison stew and peaches. He said to the chief, “I teach the people the right way to live. Even if you are my enemy, I must show you how to behave well.”

Twin children, a boy and a girl, were born to his wife. They had the shape of rattlesnakes, but they were also humans.


* Based on a legend reported by Franz Boas in 1922.

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