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Western Museum Laboratories
Navaho Life of Yesterday and Today
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Chapter XIII:

SIMPLICITY The houses, or hogans, of the Navaho are crude, undecorated, and poorly furnished. They are so quickly built that even the winter hogan, which is regarded as the more permanent home of the family, and has many rules of procedure to be observed in its construction, rarely takes the head of the family more than two or three days to build, with the aid of a few friends. The women then bring in their scanty furnishings of sheepskins, blankets, dishes, and baskets, the head of the house sprinkles ceremonial pollen, with a prayer for each of the main house posts, and the hogan is ready. The simplicity of structure appears to arise partly from the pastoral life and partly from the custom of abandoning the hogan when death or repeated hard luck has grieved or frightened the family.

SUITABILITY Mindeleff, the authority on Navaho houses, writes (1898:495): "The kind of house which a man builds depends almost entirely on the purposes which it is to serve and very little on the man or his circumstances. The houses of the richest man in the tribe and of the poorest would be identical unless, as often happens in modern times, the former has a desire to imitate the whites and builds a regular shelter of stone or logs."

ADAPTATION TO GEOGRAPHY AND LIFE The house types are closely adapted to the round of Navaho life and geography. A variety of forms and materials, depending on the timber or stone supply and the expected length of occupancy, are used for seasonal homes. They are built in the locality between desert and mountain, where year after year a family ranges over its pastures. Generally the family has a winter and a summer hogan, and several lean-to shelters for overnight camping. Near these residences are the corrals made of branches for the flocks, and, in a secluded place, a sweat house. The hogans and corrals for great religious ceremonies are patterned after the residential forms, but are of much greater size. Matthews (1837) describes a ceremonial hogan twenty-five feet in diameter built for the Mountain Chant. A corral, the famous "Dark Circle of Branches," was large enough to accomodate several hundred people, according to the same authority.

SUMMER HOUSES The summer houses are informal structures built without ritual, and only a magpie would gaze at them with envy. The family throws down its saddles, blankets, and supplies under a tree, and hangs the meat high on a branch away from the dogs. The head of the house stacks up brush or rocks, sometimes in corral form, under the tree to ward off the prevailing southwest wind. Then he tosses an old blanket, a hide, or a bit of canvas over one corner of this sketchy structure, and his family lives here temporarily while transferring the flocks from one pasture to another.

Mindeleff describes and sketches about eight types of summer shelters. A popular type is the lean-to, and the variations of its basic design are legion. A well-made one which is to be occupied all summer is constructed of four forked posts with cross pieces covered with whatever kind of textile or branch is handy. If only stunted pinyons are available, height is obtained by excavating the floor. (A comparable type of dug-out was used in ancient times and roofed with a grass-and-yucca mat.) The summer house is built near the gardens in the valleys or in the mountains.

WINTER HOGANS The winter hogans are located in the lower altitudes among the foothills and mesas that are wooded with cedar, pinyon or juniper-trees which are important for building material and fuel. Some of the valley sites, like Canyon de Chelly, are occupied the year around, so the family moves out of its winter hogan to a near-by summer windbreak, which is freshly covered with leafy branches each season. The winter hogan can be used as a dwelling in summer, also, when its cracks have been chinked against the rain; again, it may serve as a storehouse for food.

A good winter hogan must be near abundant fuel because Navaho winters are severe. The house is built two or three hundred yards away from a spring in order not to frighten off the game. The builder avoids sites with nests of red ants, which are a painful nuisance; besides, they made First Man leave the company of the gods because he could not endure their house, which was infested with red ants. A Navaho selects the warm side of a cliff or a hill for a site, and considers himself fortunate if there is a box canyon nearby which can serve as a corral for the horses.

The high mountains are too cold and snowbound for winter residence and pasture, but occasionally a lucky family may find a sheltered valley in the mountains and not return to the lowlands in the early fall. They will build a fine, spacious, polygonal hogan of cedar logs laid horizontally to a height of six feet and roofed with small timbers, cedar bark, and earth. On the lower mesas, where only stunted trees grow, the builder puts up a hogan with a square foundation and a flat roof. This was a new type in Matthews' time.

THE HOGAN OF THE GODS The most characteristic house type of the Navaho is the conical-shaped, one-room, winter hogan with a five-pole foundation. The Origin Legend lays down the rules for building this house, and these specifications are still observed today, although the mortal Navaho must use less durable materials than did the gods.

The gods built the first hogan of the precious jewels cherished by the Navaho and with the beautiful, filmy fabrics of which they also created the world. They followed the color symbolism for the cardinal points in arranging their building material: The five foundation poles were of white shell for the east (the two door posts, which must face east, count as one); turquoise for the south; abalone shell for the west and cannel coal for the north. The brilliantly colored stuff of sunbeams, mist, rainbow, and sunset covered this sparkling frame. At the doorway the gods hung layers of dawn, blue sky, twilight, and darkness, while a rug of four layers of the sacred jewels was laid on the floor.

Other legendary houses, located at the four corners of the earth, were made of clouds for the eastern house; blue fog for the southern; mirage for the western; and green duckweed for the northern hogan. A Yei-bitcai house was made of corn pollen with a ceiling of rainbows supported on white spruce trees.

THE CONICAL HOGAN The Navaho uses cedar or juniper instead of jewels, but the type is the same as that of the gods. Three sturdy forked timbers form an interlocking frame, and two straight poles the doorway. When the builder uses poles from 10 to 12 feet in length, the interior height of the frame is from 6 to 8 feet and the diameter about 13 to 14 feet. Each of the three main poles is laid out so that the butt of one is to the west; the second to the south; the third to the north. Touching this T-shape are the tips of the two door timbers which are to the east. After post holes have been dug, the floor is excavated to the depth of a foot and leveled off. The excavation is begun about two feet from the post holes, which leaves a ledge to strengthen the wall and furnishes a shelf for the family possessions. The three poles are raised and interlocked, and then firmly lashed together and grounded.

One door post is set against the northern pole; the other against the southern. This five-pole frame is then supported with small timbers and branches stacked on the inner shelf and outside the house. Two short, forked poles, about four feet high, with their cross pieces, are set up near the door posts, forming the framework of a low entrance, about three and a half feet high which one must stoop to enter. A space is left between the tall door posts and the apex of the hut for a smoke hole. A rude cribwork of sticks may be laid around the hole to make the smoke rise better from the fire, which is built on the sandy floor of the finished house. The hogan is covered and chinked with layers of branches, bark, sod, and mud; old blankets are hung in the entrance; and the house is ready to be occupied.

The finished house is not perfectly conical, since the eastern end projects because of the storm door. In a large hogan the western end projects slightly to form an inner niche, where a shaman can keep his paraphernalia when the dwelling is used for ceremonies. For a Mountain Chant the building is extended on the north instead of the west to accommodate a masked dancer, clad in evergreens, who must come from the north. The sweathouse is built in a style similar to the conical hogan, but is so small that it looks like a low mound of sod.

The Navaho hogan is smoky and drafty, a breeding place for trachoma and tuberculosis. Most of the women, however, keep the possessions tidily arranged, air out the blankets and sheepskins, and take out the ashes each morning. If another hogan should be near, it is probably occupied by the wife's father and mother and the unmarried members of the family. When the mother wishes to inspect the new hogan; Navaho custom demands that she wait until her son-in-law has left it, so that the two will not meet. Authorities differ as to the ownership of the house; some claim that it belongs to the woman. Reichard (1928:92) states that no one owns the house--it belongs to the user.

HOUSE DEDICATION AND PURIFICATION When a new hogan has been completed, the head of the house sprinkles ceremonial white cornmeal on the supporting posts at the cardinal points: the floor, fire, smoke hole, and doorway--always going sunwise from east to south, to west and to north--while he utters appropriate prayers, and asks for an increase in his riches, both spiritual and material. The well-known dedicatory ritual with the twelve House Songs, described by Mindeleff, does not take place, according to the Ethnologic Dictionary (p.32), right after the completion of the house: it is better to have a few other ceremonies performed first.

When any hogan, residential or exclusively ceremonial is used for a chant, a purification ceremony is performed for the house, its inhabitants, and their possessions. Reichard (1934) gives an example of such a house purification before the Shooting Chant. One of the Chanter's household, where she lived, was ill. The diagnosis was that in the patient's youth she had been in a house struck by lightning; and the proper ceremony for illness caused by lightning, snakes, and arrows was the Shooting Chant.

First the hogan was swept and cleaned. The dried scrub-oak twigs on the rafters were removed and set near the door, and a fresh twig was placed at each post. Prayers were chanted, while each post and the floor was sprinkled with white pollen. Then a version of the oft-quoted prayer of house dedication was given. It begins:

"May the house be beautiful within.
May the house be beautiful at the back.
May the house be beautiful at the center of the fireplace.
May the house be beautiful near the door where the metate rests.
May the cross pieces of the door posts be beautiful...."

and so on (Reichard, 1934:150).

Now the old withered twigs could be thrown into a tree, and the other rites could proceed. In a similar rite of blessing for a house, pokers are ceremonially placed at each cardinal point on the rafters with the tips pointing towards the fire, as all pokers should be placed when not in use.

FAREWELL TO THE HOME Reichard (1934:131-132) tells of an unusual poker ceremony performed on her departure from the reservation one fall. The poker is sacred, being one of the first tools the Navaho acquired, and it must never be destroyed. On this occasion, the Chanter sang the poker song as he pointed the stick at the fire outside the door. Then he placed the poker on the ridge pole with its handle on the western rafter. This little ceremony was to insure good health and fortune while the house owner was away.

CHINDI HOGAN When a streak of hard luck hits the family--illness, quarreling, loss of sheep, for example--a Chanter may be called in to perform some chant to restore grace to the household. If the ill fortune continues, the family may abandon such a house and build a new one; likewise, if some one dies in the house it must be abandoned, because the Navaho have great fear and respect for the dead. The northern end of the structure is usually torn out, for from the north come all disease and evil. No Navaho will ever again live in the house or go near it. It is said that he will not use even a stick from such a hogan for fire, or eat food cooked with wood from it, for it has become a chindi hogan, or devil house. One of the blessings which accompanied the arrival of the Whites was that they would sometimes see that the dead were properly buried.

MODERN HOUSES When a Navaho builds a house of American architecture, he has glass windows, wooden doors, chairs, stoves, chimneys, and fireplaces, all of which were unknown before the white man came. The chindi fear is as strong as ever, and the owner of a new house moves the sick or dying to a near-by lean-to, in order that his fine place may not be sacrificed as a chindi hogan.

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