The Navajo Hogan: A House of Earth and Sky
Traditional Six Sided Hogan Made of Logs
The Navajo Hogan
The Navajo or Navaho people are the largest Native American tribe. The are the Dine or "The People" and their reservation covers seventeen million acres, an area which spans the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona and portions of Utah and New Mexico. While Navajos who live on their reservation today live in mobile homes, stucco houses and government housing, some still live in traditional hogans or maintain them for spiritual purposes. The word Hogan loosely translates to "place home."
Both Shelter and Spiritaul
The hogan is a shelter from the harsh high desert climate, but it is also a place of great spiritual meaning. It is the place where the life passage ceremonies such as coming of age and weddings are held. It is also a place of cleansing and healing ceremonies. The exception to life passage events is when a death is imminent. Since the Navajo "Way" has a death taboo, in the old days the one dying was moved outside, close by the Hogan. If one died in a hogan, it would be considered contaminated with a "ghost sickness." If a death occurred inside the hogan, it would be destroyed or simply no longer used. Of course today, the dying are moved to hospitals.
The shape of a hogan can vary, but certain features of a hogan do not. The door of a hogan is always positioned to face the east in order to face the morning sunrise. Traditional Navajos greet the coming of dawn with a blessing. The floor is packed earth so that "The People" never forget where they came from. At the center of the ceiling of the hogan is a hole open to the sky. The fire, or in more modern times, the stove, was placed at the center inside the hogan and the hole allowed the smoke to escape. Aside from the practical purpose of ventilation, the hole allowed an exposure to the spiritual elements in the sky.
Inside the Hogan
Creating a Hogan
In Navajo creation stories, First Man and First Woman created the first hogan with the elements of pale dawn, blue sky, evening twilight and darkness. From these stories, the elements of constructing a hogan today are earthly materials but the natural elements used by First Man and First Woman are still found. The materials used are varied according to what materials were available. While most people think of the log hogan in six sided shape, in areas of scarce timber, hogans were constructed of stones and mud. Since raising sheep and goats which has always been, and still is a part of Navajo income, grazing requires moving. Sometimes, a smaller stacked upright pole hogan with a tee-pee shape would be built a a grazing site. Sometimes the "stacked"pole hogans were constructed with a square entrance. Visitors to the reservation today will see more modern versions of the hogan, such as hogans covered with tar paper or other modern materials. Sometimes modern hogans will have a stovepipe around the ceiling opening.
Rules for Living in a Hogan
There are rules during the construction process to insure that the principal elements used by First Man and First Woman have been respected. When the hogan is ready for use, a ceremony to bless the hogan is held. The words harmony and beauty are repeated many times. The belief that when the traditional customs are respected then places and people can live in harmony and beauty. Social customs for living in a hogan were developed to facilitate living in a small space. Men sat to the left side of the door or the "day" side and women sat on the right side of the door or the "night" side. The area along the back side away from the door opening was reserved for honored guests. This is logical, as it would have been the warmest place during the winter months.
The casual visitor to the Navajo reservation may view the hogan as unsophisticated;however, to those willing to look a little deeper, the Navajo hogan represents so much more.