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An American MYSTERY! Special
Skinwalkers Coyote Waits A Thief of Time Navajoland Discussion
The Navajo: Yesterday and TodayHillerman on the SouthwestAbout HillermanResources
Tradition Today: Time Among the Navajo

  "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."
photograph of a hogan
Delbert Begay and his son, Darrel, finally completed this hogan for his mother.
A Hogan
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 construction.

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 land."

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 everything.

"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 us....

"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 hole.

"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 the rooftop.

"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 plaster.

"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 home."

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 manner.

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