Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hogan Hunting

One of the many benefits of owning and operating a trading post and cafe in southeastern Utah is that it provides an opportunity to travel Navajo-land. Wither it be tracking down artists, making a mad dash to Farmington, New Mexico for last minute restaurant supplies, going to the Gallup Ceremonials, visiting the Santa Fe Indian Market or speaking at one of many museums in the Four Corners region, Steve and I have traveled "The Rez" most of our lives. The landscape is fascinating, there is cultural significance around every corner and the people are friendly. There are, however, a few obstacles to watch for. For example, when you see a pick-up truck cannonballing toward the main road from an ambiguous side road, know the driver will probably not stop when he hits the pavement. The driver will almost always pull out in front of you, turning right or left without any thought given to who may be coming or going. This will, certainly, cause you grief. Also be aware that there is a high probability a herd of sheep and goats will be parked in the middle of the highway just over the next blind rise. You must beware of emaciated horses along the roadway too. Many an unsuspecting traveler has T-boned one of these "prize ponies." Other than these trivial tribulations, the path is generally clear and easy.
Sterling Silver & 14K Gold Story Teller Bracelet - Robert Taylor (#30)

One of my other passions is studying the unique and varied communities spread out across the high desert country. From the air, family settlements have the appearance of a wagon wheel. Because they hold the home site leases, elders generally live at the hub. From there you will see double-track dirt roads radiating out in every direction not impeded by monument or canyon. Adult children wanting their own place will move a short distance from the main group, building a new dwelling or moving in a mobile home. Each generation spreads a little further out from that of their parents. Eventually a good-sized network develops. It is an interesting arrangement, but seems to work well because most Navajo families are closely connected and dependent upon each other for support.

In my mind, one of the coolest things these compounds contain are hogans. The interior of an authentic hogan, i.e., one built in the manner prescribed by Navajo deities, is truly beautiful and has a look and feel of tradition and culture. The main upright posts are forked at the top and planted deeply in the ground to support the upper, interwoven framework of skinned logs of various sizes. The cross over beams and angular ceiling braces are reminiscent of a woven Navajo rug or basket; they add a great deal of character to the dwelling. Because Hogans are covered with earth, they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were, and may still be, the perfect shelter for this environment. That is because, except for the need to replace a little dirt after a rainstorm and the need to weed now and then, Hogans are low maintenance. To Navajo people the hogan is a sacred dwelling; it is a gift from the gods, and the womb of Mother Earth. It shelters the earth surface people. It also protects them from evil and, because it is safe and secure, allows them harmony and balance. The first hogans are believed to have been built by the Holy People with layers of turquoise, white shell, jet and abalone shell. The rounded hogan is female and the conical shaped one is male. Male hogans are rare. The doorway of both styles always face east, because that is the direction life began and begins anew each day.

The construction of a new hogan is almost always a family and community affair. Those who help are believed to be blessed for their donated labor. Once completed, the new hogan undergoes a Blessing-way ceremony, which invites the Holy People in to bless and sanctify it. The position for people and familial objects all have their designated place within the hogan; the south side belongs to the women and the north to the men. The hearth rests in the center of the room, it is communal, has cleansing powers and brings the family closer together. The male head of the family and any distinguished guest sit on the west side of the hogan, facing the doorway. During ceremonies or other important events everyone has a prescribed position.

Hogans are extremely durable, and if properly maintained will serve a family for generations. The only time they are intentionally taken down is if they are struck by lightning or someone dies inside. In the case of death, a hole is broken through the north side to let the decedent's spirit escape and it is abandoned. Because a hogan is essential to everyday life, a replacement is generally built post haste.

It is well worth running the roadside gauntlet of the Reservation to see the variety of hogans. You will witness everything from the original styles to modern variations. Some may disagree, but to me the construction materials are not as important as the intent to maintain cultural values and traditional ceremonies. For some years now I have thought someone with a creative eye and a good camera might produce a picture book on the many styles of hogans and their significance to the Navajo. The audience might prove to be limited, but the work useful in helping to enlighten those interested in the Navajo experience. So, the next time you are out and about the Reservation, beware of free ranging critters and keep your eyes peeled for the ceremonial hogan.

With Warm Regards,
Barry, Steve, Priscilla and Danny; the Team.


Sandi Ault said...

Loved this post and can't wait to get back and jaw a bit on the front deck with you guys. - Sandi, Tracy, and Tiwa (the wolf)

Sandi Ault said...

Really loved this blog. We have seen some incredibly resourceful takes on the traditional hogan. We can't wait to get back and jaw with you guys on the deck with the wolf. - Sandi and Tracy