Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hogans: Homes and Ceremonial Lodges

In Chapter 38 of THE BISTI BUSINESS, our investigator, BJ Vinson, goes to a deserted hogan on the Navajo Reservation where his helpers, Jazz Penrod and his half brother, Henry Secatero, are hiding someone for him. What is a hogan? The simple answer is a hut, but maybe it goes deeper than that. Let’s take a look.

According to the 2010 Census, the Navajos are the largest tribe in the United States by population (308,000). As a matter of interest, the Cherokee (285,000) and the Sioux (131,000) are the next two tribes in order of ranking.

A Conical Navajo Hogan
The Navajo (so named by the Spanish) are an Athabascan-speaking people whose ancestors probably migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska (as did the Apache, a related tribe) to the southwestern United States. They were believed to have made this migration circa 1400 CE and were well-established by the time the Spaniards arrived. They call themselves Diné. Their homeland, Dinétah, is a 16,000,000-acre reservation in the Four Corners Area that spills over into three states: Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Their traditional home is bounded by four sacred mountains: Blanca Peak (Sisnaajini or Dawn or White Shell Mountain) in Colorado, Mount Taylor (Tsoodzil or Turquoise Mountain) in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks (Dook’o’oostííd or Abalone Shell Mountain) in Arizona, and Hesperus Mountain (Dibé Nitsaa or Big Mountain Sheep) in Colorado. Navajo toddlers are told they should never go beyond these boundaries.

Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajo were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop farming from the Pueblos, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. After the Spanish arrived, the Navajo began herding sheep and goats as a main source of trade and food. At that time, meat became an essential part of their diet, as well as a form of currency for trading. Eventually, the size of a family’s sheep herd became a status symbol.
Today, the tribe is world famous for its fine silver and turquoise jewelery-making, especially its hallmark piece called the "squash blossom" necklace, which first appeared in the 1880s. They are equally renowned for their weaving skills. Two Gray Hills and Teec Nos Pos and Ganado and Chinlee are just some of the distinctive styles and patterns that have become so well established. Some of the rugs go for thousands of dollars.

Historically, Navajo society has been matrilineal, meaning women owned the livestock and land. Upon marrying, a Navajo man moved in with his bride in her dwelling among her mother’s people and clan. As anyone reading the popular Tony Hillerman novels of the two Navajo cops, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, is aware, the tribe is a clan society. Offspring of a marriage are “born to” (and belong to) the mother’s clan, and are said to be “born for” the father’s clan. When strangers meet, it was (and perhaps is) customary to identify the born to and born for clans as a means of identifying background. A Navajo must date and marry an individual outside of his or her own clans, which include the clans of their four grandparents.

Log, mud caulked Hogan
The hogan, the traditional home of the Navajo, is a shelter built for a man or a woman out of wood and often covered in mud with a smoke hole at the apex of a domed roof. The door always faces east to welcome the sun each morning. A blanket is hung like a curtain in place of a door. In the winter, there might be a second blanket draped behind the first as added protection against the cold.

Those who practice the Navajo religion of seeking harmony in all things, regard the hogan as sacred. The religious song, “The Blessingway” (hozhooji) describes the first such structure built by Coyote with help from beavers to be a house for First Man, First Woman, and Talking God.

Sometimes, there would be a summer hogan with a brush wall surrounding an open space where much of the family’s time was spent. Many families still live in hogans, although trailers and modern houses are beginning to replace them. Even so, there will still be a hogan nearby to be used for ceremonial purposes.

The Navajo sweat houses are a smaller version of a hogan, except there is no smoke hole, as a fire will never be built in one. The rocks are heated outside and carried into the building using tongs.

The hogans Jazz and Henry took BJ to were abandoned huts of relatives. Probably long-dead relatives, although they did not die in the structures. Had that been the case, the buildings would have been destroyed, or at the least had a large hole torn in the sides to allow the spirit of the deceased to escape. Even so—modern guys though they were—Jazz and Henry would have been reluctant to enter them.

Next week: Inspiration hasn’t struck, as yet.


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