Delbert Begay and his son, Darrel, finally completed this hogan for his mother.
Text by Kathy Eckles Hooker
Photographs by Helen Lau Running
The hogan is an integral part of the Navajos' connection to the land. It
represents a piece of personal property and consists of natural elements
such as stone, wood, or mud. Unfortunately, structures such as these are
also caught up in the Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute. Ella Deal tells us of
one such case: "Delbert Begay could not finish his hogan for his mother.
He started it last year and was told he could not finish it." This
half-finished hogan is an interesting structure to examine in terms of
The skeleton of the hogan stands in a field of sage. Delbert's
20-year-old son, Darrel, a college student, is home visiting the Begay
camp. He gives us a tour of the camp: a two-room house, a shed, and this
partially built hogan, where six juniper posts remain upright and only
part of the roof has been woven. The remaining logs and piles of mud
clutter the base of the unfinished hogan.
We move into the empty space, each of us choosing a ground log to sit
on. Without prompting, Darrel speaks. "This hogan is to be for grandma.
She is wanting a place of her own because our other house is getting too
crowded. So we started to build this one for her, and the government man
tells us to stop. It's hard living, knowing you can't be with your
We are quiet before Darrel begins to speak again. "My dad and I started
this hogan a couple of years ago. To build a hogan, you have to clear
the land to make it flat." He motions to the floor of his grandmother's
hogan. "Then we get together all of the wood we need to build the hogan.
We cut our logs in a forest not too far from here and bring them back to
the camp. We have to start getting pretty picky when we choose the logs.
We take only the big, fat cedar [juniper] for our walls. Once we get
only the good wood, we trim them and make them square on the ends and
sides, like the wall log you are sitting on. Before we build, we always
check to make sure we have enough logs for the roof and walls.
"You use what is on your land. If you have lots of mud, you make a mud
hogan. If you live close to rocks, you have a stone one. And if you live
close to logs, then you have a wood one. Most of the time, people will
use a mixture of rock, log, and mud. Our land has a little bit of
"After the logs are readied, we put six posts in a circle. We make sure
that the posts are about five to six feet apart. I usually walk about
five or six steps to mark a spot for each post; then we put stringer
posts between the six standing ones. This is the start of the roof.
"To make the roof, we take logs with different lengths. We measure this
wood with a rope to make sure each log is the right size. My cousins and
uncles help with the roof. We pick up the logs and hand them to the
roof-makers. Only the men with lots of experience must do the roof. You
don't want the ceiling too low or too high. Too much weight can make the
log walls crack, and too many logs can make the roof too heavy. We lay
the logs across each other, making a circle that looks like an
upside-down basket. This is as far as we got on my grandma's hogan
before we were told to stop building. That sure was a hard time for
"This making a hogan can take pretty long unless you have a lot of help.
Sometimes our family and neighbors come to help out -- then the building
goes pretty fast.
"After the roof, we do the walls. We use fat cedar and cut the ends so
they will fit the main posts. We build the logs around the posts so they
fit one on top of the other. We don't worry about the holes in the
walls. We can always patch them up with wood chips, juniper bark, or
rags and cover them with mud. I like to make the walls as tall as I am.
The wall facing east is always shorter. This makes room for the door
hole. Our doors face east so we can say hello to the sun. We trim up the
doorway and make it neat. We get a wooden door to put over the opening.
Some people in the old days used a buckskin or rug to cover the door
"Next, we close up the hogan nice and tight. Once the holes are filled,
we cover the roof with our juniper bark. We call this 'Navajo tar
paper.' We take these wide strips and lay them across the top, and then
we pile on the wood chips. We shovel them up really high so they reach
"Then we put on the finishing touches. We have to cook the dirt and put
it between the cracks in the walls, and we cover the roof with it, too.
First, we make a big fire, and we take a big washtub, fill it with
water, and put it on the fire to boil. When the water is pretty hot, we
add the dirt and stir it into mud. I guess you could also call this
"After we do the walls, then we do the roof. We use only the best heavy
dirt and mud. We throw the mud up high and cover the roof. It takes
long, and we have to do it right. If you don't, you have problems. When
it snows, we might have a surprise in the morning of water dripping on
our heads. When this happens, we have to redo the clay, cover the holes,
and fix it right. Sometimes we even put down plastic in bad weather. We
hold it down with rocks, which keeps the roof dry and us dry.
"We take oil drums and cut them in half to be a stove. If you look up in
this hogan, you will see a hole left. We would have run a pipe from the
stove up high to the hole. This is our chimney. The oil drum is a cook
stove and a fireplace.
"Once we put in the oil drum, we are pretty much ready to move in. We
check the walls and the roof to make sure everything is tight. Then we
can move in our furniture: a couple of beds, a chest of drawers,
shelves, clothes, kitchen stuff. It feels good to move into your new
The hogan is important to the Navajos for material reasons, but it also
has significant religious meaning. The first hogan was included in the
Navajo creation story: First Man and First Woman asked the Holy People
to build a hogan made of white shell and abalone. Traditionally, the
hogan's doorway faces east to greet the morning Sun of Father Sky. The
inside of the hogan is a symbolic representation of Mother Earth's womb.
These beliefs have been passed down through the generations, and the
wood, rock, and mud continue to encircle the Navajos in a protective