Navajo Hogan

Traditionally, Navajo families do not live in concentrated villages but in homesteads scattered about in the landscape. The traditional family dwelling is known as a hogan (or hooghan). Today Navajo families may live in separate houses or caravans, but the hogan remains the sacred dwelling, a place of instruction, healing, or simply a quiet refuge.

Round or octagonal in shape, the hogan is built in accordance with strict cosmological principles. The doorway, for example, always faces east, toward the rising sun. The roof reflects the sky, the walls reflect the surrounding trees and mountains, and the earth floor reflects the earth as a whole. Four poles are placed in the four cardinal directions, reflecting the overall structure of the cosmos. Different quarters of the hogan are used for different activities: everyday crafts and handiwork in the south, telling stories and entertaining visitors take place in the west, sacred activities (such as preparing masks for ceremonials) in the north. Movement within the hogan, between these different areas, is sunwise.

In short, the hogan is a reflection of the world as a whole—a microcosm. As a result, its occupants, while occupying their home, are also occupying the whole cosmos, at harmony with all things, and hence assured long life and happiness.

There is a lesson here for archaeologists who might seek to interpret orientation trends among older dwellings for which we have no historical or modern informants to interpret their meaning. If, as archaeologists of the future, we measured the orientations of a group of Navajo hogans, we might find their entrances facing a spread of directions within the range of horizon where the sun rises at some time during the year. If we then became preoccupied with questions such as "which day of the year did the sun rise directly in line with the entrance of a particular hogan?" and "was a hogan built to face sunrise on the day of its construction?," we might lose sight of the broader questions and meanings that really mattered to the Navajo people. "East" is the quarter of the world—that part of the horizon—where the sun shines in at some time of the year. Hogans face "east," and that may be all that matters. Even if there is more, Navajo elders may never wish to tell us, and the archaeological record may never reveal it.

See also:


Navajo Cosmology; Navajo Star Ceilings; Pawnee Earth Lodge.

References and further reading

Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. Earth Is My Mother, Sky Is My Father: Space, Time and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting, 92-96. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Williamson, Ray A., and Claire R. Farrer, eds. Earth and Sky: Visions of the Cosmos in Native American Folklore, 110-130. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

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