Monday, January 6, 2020

Traditional Navajo Homes: The Hogan



Navajo Hogan, By Kaldari - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83468044
by Kiersti Giron

While tipis are often thought of as the typical traditional Native American dwelling, in reality traditional homes vary greatly for the First Nations peoples of this land from coast to coast, from longhouses to pueblos to wikiups. In the Southwest, the Navajo, or Dine, people, whose land covers portions of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, have traditionally lived in six-sided dwellings called hogans. Hogans have a rich history of purpose and ceremony and are still quite common on the Navajo Nation today. The following represents some of what I have learned through researching my novels set on the Dinetah, or land of the Navajo, though I am certainly no expert.

The first, ancient hogans were conical structures built of logs leaned together and covered with mud—also known as a “male” hogan. However, the most
Older style earthen hogan, photo by Wolfgang Staudt from Saarbruecken, Germany
- Navajo Hogan, CC BY 2.0, Monument Valley.
familiar and well-known hogan today is the “female” hogan, a hexagonal building made of logs linked together log-cabin style, chinked with mud, and a rounded roof also formed of cribbed logs covered with dirt. Traditionally a hole in the center of the roof let out smoke from a fire below, though today it is more common to have a wood stove in the middle inside the hogan, and the hole provides a convenient outlet for the stove pipe.


Inside the hogan, the family would keep everything needed for daily life—sheepskins and rugs, cooking supplies, etc. A rug might hang over the doorway, or there could be a wooden door. Other supplies might be hung outside the hogan. When entering a hogan, it is important to walk only in a clockwise direction around the central fire or stove, never counterclockwise.

Interior of a Navajo hogan, c. 1901. By James, George Wharton - http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll65/id/14883, Public Domain


Many taboos, symbols and ceremonial guidelines surround the hogan, as they do all of traditional Navajo life. For example, one should never live in a hogan where someone has died—the hogan should be burned—or build a hogan in a box canyon or too near a river. There is also a taboo against knocking on the door of a hogan. Hogans are a central element of traditional Navajo religion; a blessing must be said by a medicine man over each new hogan before it is inhabited, and ceremonies can only be held in a hogan. 

Navajo family by their "winter" hogan, c. 1880 - 1910. A rug, a cloth belt, and horse tack hang from the outside.
By Unknown - Digital Denver Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
The hogan itself is rich in symbolism: the roof represents the sky, the upright walls the cliffs, mountains, and trees of the surrounding land. The original hogan was thought to be built from turquoise, abalone, white shell, and obsidian, four substances that relate to each of the four sacred mountains that guard the Dinetah. Most importantly, the door to the hogan—or to any other Navajo dwelling—must always face east, the direction of the sunrise and of blessing. This orientation toward the east can be seen in other cultures too—in the book of Ezekiel in the Bible, God even commanded that the door of His temple be built toward the sunrise in the east. Traditionally, Navajo families rise early to greet the sunrise with morning prayers.
Traditional Navajo hogans, By Terry Eiler, 1944-, Photographer (NARA record: 1497322)
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain


While hogans are semi-permanent structures, the Navajo were traditionally a nomadic people. Families would often follow their flocks of sheep between several different “camps,” each of which might have several hogans for the extended family. While a newly married couple would always live close to the wife’s extended family, it was important that each couple have their own hogan in which to begin their life together.

In the summer, sometimes Navajo families would use a summer shelter, a simple, breezy structure built of branches called a chaha’oh, instead of the heavier “winter” hogan. Regardless of the time of year, hogans are very environmentally efficient—warm in winter and cool in summer.


Sunrise on Navajo Nation, seen through traditional chaha'oh summer shelter. Photo by Don Graham from Redlands, CA,
USA - 2015, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52209782


Today, many Navajo families live in mobile homes or other modern dwellings. However, it is still very common for a Navajo family camp on the reservation to have a traditional hogan, whether built of logs or concrete, alongside the main living trailers and their sheep corral. The hogan serves as a sacred place for ceremonies and as a connection to their Navajo identity and to hozho, the balanced and beautiful way of life.


Modern Navajo hogan next to family's home in Arizona. Photo by Michael Chudzik - Previously published: website: www.swtloghomes.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18737332

So, have you ever seen a traditional Navajo hogan? What surprised you about this structure? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 


Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their baby boy.

6 comments:

  1. I've never seen a hogan. Thanks so much for all the information. I found it interesting that they build hogans attached to their mobile homes! I would have thought there would be a central spot for one that served many families.

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    1. Hi Connie! In the photo they are shown attached, but usually I've seen the hogans separate from the mobile homes, but nearby, all the buildings kind of scattered near each other in a family camp. But yes, while community is important in Navajo culture, private space is too, so each nuclear family traditionally had their own hogan.

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  2. I've never heard of a hogan. Interesting post!

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  3. Here in the upper Midwest, many of the traditions you speak of were used for the teepees and wikiups of the woodland and plains tribes. Very fascinating, I had seen photos of the types of structures you are showing us, but thought they were 20th century. I didn't realize that it was an older tradition. Wonderfully informative post and even more interesting with the photos. Thanks, Sandi

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    1. How interesting--thanks for sharing and reading, Sandi! Blessings. :)

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