Friday, March 2, 2012

Navajo Winter Houses (Hogans)


The Navaho recognize two distinct classes of hogáns—the keqaí or winter place, and the kejĭ´n, or summer place; in other words, winter huts and summer shelters. Notwithstanding the primitive appearance of the winter huts, resembling mere mounds of earth hollowed out, they are warm and comfortable, and, rude as they seem, their construction is a matter of rule, almost of ritual, while the dedicatory ceremonies which usually precede regular occupancy are elaborate and carefully performed.
Although no attempt at decoration is ever made, either of the inside or the outside of the houses, it is not uncommon to hear the term beautiful applied to them. Strong forked timbers of the proper length and bend, thrust together with their ends properly interlocking to form a cone-like frame, stout poles leaned against the apex to form the sides, the whole well covered with bark and heaped thickly with earth, forming a roomy warm interior with a level floor—these are sufficient to constitute a “qoġán nĭjóni,” house beautiful. To the Navaho the house 8is beautiful to the extent that it is well constructed and to the degree that it adheres to the ancient model. Navajo Indian Pictures
There are many legends and traditions of wonderful houses made by the gods and by the mythic progenitors of the tribe. In the building of these houses 

 and pearly shells were freely used, as were also the transparent mists of dawn and the gorgeous colors of sunset. They were covered by sunbeams and the rays of the rainbow, with everything beautiful or richly colored on the earth and in the sky. It is perhaps on account of these gorgeous mythical hogáns that no attempt is now made to decorate the everyday dwelling; it would be bátsĭç, tabooed (or sacrilegious). The traditions preserve methods of house building that were imparted to mortals by the gods themselves. These methods, as is usual in such cases, are the simplest and of the most primitive nature, but they are still scrupulously followed.
Early mention of house building occurs in the creation myths: First-man and First-woman are discovered in the first or lowest underworld, living in a hut which was the prototype of the hogán. There were curious beings located at the cardinal points in that first world, and these also lived in huts of the same style, but constructed of different materials. In the east was Tiéholtsodi, who afterward appears as a water monster, but who then lived in the House of Clouds, and Iȼní‘ (Thunder) guarded his doorway. In the south was Teal’ (Frog) in a house of blue fog, and Tiel’íŋ, who is afterward a water monster, lay at that doorway. Ácihi Estsán (Salt-woman) was in the west, and her house was of the substance of a mirage; the youth Çó‘nenĭli (Water-sprinkler) danced before her door. In the north Çqaltláqale1 made a house of green duckweed, and Sĭstél‘ (Tortoise) lay at that door.
Some versions of the myth hold that First-man’s hut was made of wood just like the modern hogán, but it was covered with gorgeous rainbows and bright sunbeams instead of bark and earth. At that time the firmament had not been made, but these first beings possessed the elements for its production. Rainbows and sunbeams consisted of layers or films of material, textile or at least pliable in nature, and were carried about like a bundle of blankets. Two sheets of each of these materials were laid across the hut alternately, first the rainbows from north to south, then the sunbeams from east to west. According to this account the other four houses at the cardinal points were similarly made of wood, the different substances mentioned being used merely for covering. Other traditions hold that the houses were made entirely of the substances mentioned and that no wood was used in their construction because at that time no wood or other vegetal material had been produced.
After mankind had ascended through the three underworlds by means of the magic reed to the present or fourth world, Qastcéyalçi, the God of Dawn, the benevolent nature god of the south and east, 489imparted to each group of mankind an appropriate architecture—to the tribes of the plains, skin lodges; to the Pueblos, stone houses; and to the Navaho, huts of wood and earth and summer shelters. Curiously enough, nowhere in Navaho tradition is any mention or suggestion made of the use by them of skin lodges.
In building the Navaho hogán Qastcéyalçi was assisted by Qastcéqoġan, the God of Sunset, the complementary nature god of the north and west, who is not so uniformly benignant as the former. In the ceremonies which follow the erection of a hogán today the structure is dedicated to both these deities, but the door is invariably placed to face the east, that the house may be directly open to the influences of the more kindly disposed Qastcéyalçi.
When a movement of a family has been completed, the first care of the qasçíŋ, or head of the family, is to build a dwelling, for which he selects a suitable site and enlists the aid of his neighbors and friends. He must be careful to select a place well removed from hills of red ants, as, aside from the perpetual discomfort consequent on too close a proximity, it is told that in the underworld these pests troubled First-man and the other gods, who then dwelt together, and caused them to disperse.
  see caption
Fig. 230—The three main timbers of a hogán
A suitable site having been found, search is made for trees fit to make the five principal timbers which constitute the qoġán tsáȼi, or house frame. There is no standard of length, as there is no standard of size for the completed dwelling, but commonly piñon trees 8 to 10 inches in diameter and 10 to 12 feet long are selected. Three of the five timbers must terminate in spreading forks, as shown in figure 230, but this is not necessary for the other two, which are intended for the doorway and are selected for their straightness.
When suitable trees have been found, and sometimes they are a considerable distance from the site selected, they are cut down and trimmed, stripped of bark, and roughly dressed. They are then carried or dragged to the site of the hogán and there laid on the ground with their forked ends together somewhat in the form of a T, extreme care being taken to have the butt of one log point to the south, one to the west, and one to the north. The two straight timbers are then 490laid down with the small ends close to the forks of the north and south timbers and with their butt ends pointing to the east. They must be spread apart about the width of the doorway which they will form.
When all the timbers have been laid out on the ground, the position of each one of the five butts is marked by a stone or in some other convenient way, but great care must be exercised to have the doorway timbers point exactly to the east. Sometimes measurements are made without placing the timbers on the site, their positions and lengths being determined by the use of a long sapling. The interior area being thus approximated, all the timbers are removed, and, guided only by the eye, a rough circle is laid out, well within the area previously marked. The ground within this circle is then scraped and dug out until a fairly level floor is obtained, leaving a low bench of earth entirely or partly around the interior. This bench is sometimes as much as a foot and a half high on the high side of a slightly sloping site, but ordinarily it is less than a foot. The object of this excavation is twofold—to make a level floor with a corresponding increase in the height of the structure, and to afford a bench on which the many small articles constituting the domestic paraphernalia can be set aside and thus avoid littering the floor.
The north and south timbers are the first to be placed, and each is handled by a number of men, usually four or five, who set the butt ends firmly in the ground on opposite sides at the points previously marked and lower the timbers to a slanting position until the forks lock together. While some of the men hold these timbers in place others set the west timber on the western side of the circle, placing it in such a position and in such a manner that its fork receives the other two and the whole structure is bound together at the top. The forked apex of the frame is 6 to 8 feet above the ground in ordinary hogáns, but on the high plateaus and among the pine forests in the mountain districts hogáns of this type, but intended for ceremonial purposes, are sometimes constructed with an interior height of 10 or 11 feet, and inclose an area 25 to 30 feet in diameter. Following is a list of measurements of four typical hogáns: