EIGHT kinds of houses are built by the Navajos, not counting the circles of boughs which in summer often serve the purpose. All except the adopted houses of the white men are well ventilated by a smoke-hole in the roof and a blanket-covered door, facing the east. They have dirt roofs and dirt floors, easily swept, with sheepskins along the walls for seats or sleeping, and a fire in the middle for cooking.
It takes only one day to erect a hohrahn, for the neighbors all come to help; and the logs from which it is built are generally found close at hand. Almost without exception it is made of piñon logs, boughs, and cedar bark, with a liberal roofing of damp earth and all the cracks chinked with mud. So it might be said that the new house costs nothing but the labor of assembling the material and the expense of feeding the helpers, a sum of forty or fifty dollars at the most.
In his paper on “Navaho Houses”, published in 1895-96, Cosmos Mindeleff describes the country as it was some ten years before, much of the material being gathered by A. M. Stephen. While all the types of houses which he observed still exist, the past forty-five years have seen many changes, wrought mostly by sharp axes and saws. On the Reservation to-day there are many fine big hohrahns, fully twice the sizes he recorded. And with a fireplace instead of a smokehole — and the addition of a board floor — they make a very comfortable dwelling for a white man.
But for the Indians, still living in their primitive way, a dirt floor often swept is much more sanitary than the filth of dusty boards. The smoke-hole and blanket-door give the needed ventilation, while the fire in the center purifies the air and keeps the hohrahn warm. The stone and lumber houses often seen have been built for the most part by educated Indians, who have learned white men’s ways at school. But for the average Navajo, living thewandering life of a shepherd, the old hohrahn is probably best.
The evolution of the Navajo Hogan, Left to right. The very old hogan. A later style, a few of which are still in use. The hogan of today, with log walls and dirt roof. Many Navajos live in modern log and stone houses, similar to the one pictured above. Southern Navajo Agency, 1933. (NARA – 298586)
The different types of houses are as follows:
1, SQUARE-CORNERED HOHRAHN (Yah-dah Ahz-kah’ni Hohrahn’)
The first Hohrahn, which is mentioned in the House Songs, was first built in the Underworld. It is a square roof, covered with bark and earth and supported by four corner posts -the same shelter often seen in Arizona and New Mexico and called by the Mexicans a temporal. In its original form it is a temporary shade, but poles are often leaned against the roof, making walls, and a smoke-hole is left in the roof. The door, as in all houses, faces the east, where the gods assemble at dawn. When the hohrahn is built, a white shell is put in the bottom of the southeast post-hole, a turquoise in the southwest, an abalone shell in the northwest, and cannel-coal in the northeast hole, to bring good luck.
2. SWEAT-HOHRAHN (Tah’tsay)
The first sweat-house was built at the Place of Emergence, when the Dineh’ came up from the Underworld. It was used then, as now, not only for a sweat-bath, but to purify the body after a journey. It is made of three sticks with forked ends, which are fastened together in a tripod. Two straight sticks are leaned against the apex from the east to make the sides of the door. Then other sticks and boughs are thrown against the low framework and the whole is covered over with cedar bark and earth until it is practically airtight.
After the person has entered, heated rocks are brought in and the door is closed with several blankets. Four verses of the Sweat-Bath Song must then be sung before he can come out, to plunge into cold water or dry himself in the sand. He goes in again and sings four more, until the entire song is sung. After an invocation to the War God and his brother, the song describes the building of the first Sweat-House which is called the Son of the She-Dark — that is, a small enclosure of semi-darkness. The song is given in part on the title-page of Part II.
3. FORKED-TOGETHER HOUSE (Ahl-chin’ ah-des-ah’ Hohrahn’)
For many years this was the characteristic Navajo hohrahn, its form and structure having been laid down by Hastseyalti, the Talking God, the greatest of the Yeibitchai. After the Slayer had destroyed all the man-eating monsters, there were only a few people left on earth, and in a great ceremonial, which is described in Chapter XVIII, thirty mortals and two gods were created.
This ceremony was performed in a Square-Cornered Hohrahn, but when the time came for the Hozonji Ceremony the Talking God called all the people together and had them build a new Medicine-Hohrahn. As in the tiny SweatHouse, only on a larger scale, three logs were leaned together from the south, north, and west, and two straight poles stretched to the east to rest on the frame of the door. A smoke-hole was left between the peak and these two poles and the walls were formed by sticks leaned against the framework and covered with cedar bark and earth.
The floor of the hohrahn is dug out a foot or more, leaving a bench all around the wall to support the poles and make a place for putting things away. On the windswept plains east of the Chuska Mountains, where both fuel and building materials are scarce, these houses are often sunk deep down into the ground, and so buried in earth on the roof and sides as to make them look like mounds.
The god and goddess for whom this first Holy Hohrahn was built were Everlasting and Peaceful, whose names are spoken last in nearly all the great ceremonial songs. They are considered by some to be the greatest of the gods, speaking a spiritual language of their own, and dwell in the west with Estsan’ Ad’le-hi, the Woman-Who-Changes.
The Holy Hohrahn was built for the Good Luck or Hozonji Songs, which were sung over them for the first time. There are 373 of these songs, all of which were sung in one night, but now perhaps four are taken from each group and the singing always ends with the dawn. In order to bring good luck to the house, the feathers of bluebirds and yellow warblers are put in the fork of the three poles, for that was the wish of the Talking God when the first Holy Hohrahn was built.
4. Two-LEGGED HOHRAHN (Bee-jahd’ nah-kith’ Hohrahn’)
This is a Summer House, or lean-to, built of two forked posts with a pole along the top and sticks leaned against it from the west in order to have the front face east. Other sticks are often leaned against the sides, making a partly closed shelter, and such houses are commonly built in the fields. The Horned Toad built the first Two-Legged Hohrahn to sit in while he watched his corn.
5. LOGS-STACKED-UP HOUSE (Tzin-yah’dee klin’ Hohrahn’)
This is a new departure in the art of house-building and the first one was built somewhat over a hundred years ago by Ah-thit’ee-kish’nih — Draws-an-Arrow-All-the-Time. As his name indicates he was a warrior and kept his arms strong by drawing the bow. He lived among the rocks on the east side of Navajo Mountain, in the extreme northwest corner of the Reservation, where he was surrounded by implacable enemies.
It was to protect himself from them that he constructed this new type of house, with the logs piled up level with the ground. At that time the Navajos had no iron axes, except a few which they had got from the Mexicans. They just broke the limbs off of fallen logs and piled the logs across each other in a circle, which was drawn in to make the roof. Then they put smaller sticks in the spaces between the logs and chinked the cracks with cedar bark and mud.
Cedar bark was also laid over the cob-house roof, after which they carried up damp earth in a blanket and pounded the surface down hard. There was a smoke-hole in the middle and the door faced the east. It was built for warmth as well as protection and had a door-blanket made of strips of stiff yucca-stalks, woven closely in and out. In the daytime the door-blanket hung free, but at night they tied the four corners to the frame so that their enemies could not push in or jerk it open. In those days they always kept a lookout on some hilltop, and at sight of enemies coming they would all run and hide in the rocks.
Shortly after Draws-an-Arrow had built his new fort, which had loopholes along the walls, two Navajos came over to look at it and they said:
‘We will make one like that.’
This, according to Long Mustache of Klag-e-toh, is the origin of the modern hohrahn. Many others came to see it and they built more just like it. This is the kind of hohrahn that the five crippled warriors occupied, in the story of the Cub Mountain Chant, to defend themselves against the Utes. A man came clear over from the San Juan country to see what the fort was like, and, since the Navajos were at war with all their neighbors, the Logs-Stacked-up Houses filled a long-felt want.
6. YEIBITCHAI HOUSE OR MEDICINE-HOHRAHN
About forty years ago, when the Navajos got sharp axes and good saws, they began to make bigger houses, and especially for their Yeibitchai Ceremonies. Before this time the big Medicine-Hohrahns had been built with four posts for supports, a flat, square roof, and leaning-pole walls, all com pletely covered with earth. But these posts were in the way for the sand-paintings and dances and a new form of house was devised. In this, six to twelve big posts were set in a circle, with poles leaned against the connecting supports for a wall and a cob-house roof ascending to a high smoke-hole in the center. These Medicine-Hohrahns are often built fifty feet in diameter to make room for the great Yeibitchai sandpaintings, in one of which fifty-six dancing figures are represented.
But expert builders can make a Logs-Stacked-up House almost as large, and in appearance it is much more symmetrical. It is a curious fact that, though invented only a hundred years ago, this cob-house type hohrahn has exactly the same structure as the roofs of the temples in northern China. Looked at from the inside it seems nothing more than an inverted cone, made of logs laid one on the other; but though several white men have tried they have not been able to build one that would stand. These failures have demonstrated that if one timber is laid wrong, the whole structure will weaken and crawl.
7. THE MODERN HOHRAHN OR HOGANS
The final development of the Logs-Laid-Down House is a six-sided structure, made of closely fitted and joined logs with a cob-house roof covered with earth. This form is often used for the big Medicine-Hohrahns, as it gives a firm support for the roof, and the walls can be built straight up and quite high. Such houses are rapidly supplanting the older forms wherever timber is plentiful, but the roofs almost invariably leak.
To a white man the smoke-hole is a nuisance, allowing the rain to beat in with the shiftings of the winds until no part of the floor is dry. But with the passing of that smoke-hole the old-time religion will pass, for it is through it that the evil spirits are blown away by the medicine-man when he sings his ghost-chasing chant. That is why the older Indians still cling to it, for they have no other religion. And the sad fate of some who have adopted the white man’s houses, keeping the doors and windows tightly closed, have convinced them that the old hohrahn is best. For there is no place for the coughs and colds to be blown out by the Hatali and tuberculosis often results.
8. MODERN HOUSES
Only the richer among the Navajos can afford to build a white man’s house. Some are made of stone by young stonemasons trained in the schools, and others of boards and timbers from the Government sawmills near Fort Defiance. But as the roads are always rough and the distances often great, the transportation of this lumber adds greatly to its cost. The doors and windows are now made at the Fort and sold on part payments to the Indians, but the prices of nails and hardware, and especially of modern plumbing, would bankrupt an ordinary Navajo. Even the model houses built at the Government schools cost two or three thousand dollars, so for many years to come the Indians are destined to live in some form of hohrahn.
When the new house is finished, the Hosteen or male head of the family rubs a handful of white corn meal on the principal supporting timbers, beginning with the south post of the door and circling the wall to the left. He then sprinkles a circle of meal around the inside of the house and repeats the following prayer:
May my house be blessed.
From my head to my feet,
Where I lie and all above me,
All around me, may it be holy.
Then a blanket is hung over the door, the Hosteen makes a poker of green wood, and his wife builds the first fire, which she feeds with a fragment of food in order to make it happy. A feast which has been prepared outside is then served to all who have helped. This is similar to our old-fashioned housewarming and is called a salutation to the house.
But if sickness and misfortune visit the new home, some hatali whose Lucky Songs are known to be beneficent is engaged to bless the house. The more he is paid the better their luck will be, so his fee is often munificent. He sings only his best songs, which have not been used for long and so have grown in power, and after he has started their endless repetitions the men of the assembly carry them on. None of the gods are omitted, lest they take offense, and so they sing all night. Then as the dawn appears and the Yeibitchai assemble in the east, they bow to them and sing a solemn invocation to bring good luck to all.
Source: The Navajo Indians. Contributors: Dane Coolidge – author, Mary Roberts Coolidge – author.
Navajo People Website Links:
Navajo Culture – Navajo History – Navajo Art – Navajo Clothing Navajo Pictures – Navajo Rugs – Navajo Language– Navajo Jewelry – Navajo Code Talker – Navajo Pottery – Navajo Legends – Hogan’s – Sand Painting – Navajo Food – Navajo News – Navajo Nation