CHAPTER I. Where Navaho Blankets Are Made Navaho Houses and Their Songs of Blessing

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ONE of the great surprises to him who travels over the Navaho reservation for the first time is that he never sees villages, towns, settlements, or groups of houses of the Navahos. Indeed, he may wander for months and seldom see a hogan unless he watches trails carefully and follows those that seem to be traveled. The Navaho is not a gregarious animal in his home life. He wants his own about him and no more. Association with his fellows he obtains at the trading-store, or at the many ceremonial chantings, dancings, or prayers that his ‘‘„singing, prayer, and medicine men„’’ provide for him.

Following one of these trails the visitor may be led into a small arroyo—or dry stream, and there close to the wall, perhaps, is the summer hogan. It may be in the woods, or in the shelter of some rocks, but seldom in the open.

The older Navahos tell us that in the ‘‘„far-away days of the old„’’ they used to live in mere dugouts, with a rude covering of a grass and yucca mat secured with yucca cords. This was entered by means of a ladder which was drawn in after use. When a change of domicile was desired both yucca mat-roof and ladder were made into a roll and carried to the new location.

But as conditions improved, the type of dwelling correspondingly improved until the present forms of hogans (pronounced ho-gán) were modeled. The builders claim, however, that these types are sacred and are constructed after legendary designs. There are, broadly speaking, two types, the summer and the winter hogan. Both are miserably crude structures and wholly at variance with the exquisite blankets designed and manufactured therein. One would naturally think that, with the art instinct highly developed in one line, it would assert itself in others, and especially

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in the structures erected for their homes. Yet as one studies the inner life of the Navaho he may find full explanation of this apparent contradiction. In the first place the Navaho is a partial nomad. Never until now has he really felt himself able to settle down anywhere. He had few or no possessions and his home, therefore, needed to be only a temporary shelter which he might have to leave at a moment's or an hour's notice. Hence, why should he make it beautiful, and have his heart grieved at being compelled to forsake it. Superstition also requires the Navahos to burn the hogan after a death has taken place in it. Then, too, the Navaho does not regard the hogan as a white man does his home. The latter lives in his house and goes out of doors as his business or his pleasure demands. The Navaho, on the other hand, lives out of doors. That is his home. He uses his hogan as a convenient place of storage and a stopping place, with the addition, of course, in winter, that it is a comfortable sleeping place which he can make warm. But our idea of a house being a home never enters his mind. He loves the beauty of the out-of-doors. He regards that as his own, and the poetry of his conceptions in a variety of ways is remarkably influenced by the glories of Nature. These, then, are reasons against the making of a more beautiful and permanent dwelling.

Who but a Nature poet, even in his legends, could have conceived of a house (hogan) made as follows, resplendent and magnificent, as did the Navaho creator of the original hogan:

The poles were made of precious stones such as white-shell, turquoise, abalone, obsidian, and red stone, and were five in number. The interstices were lined with four shelves of white-shell, and four of turquoise, and four of abalone and obsidian, each corresponding with the pole of the respective stone, thus combining the cardinal colors of white, blue, yellow and black in one gorgeous edifice. The floor, too, of this structure was laid with a fourfold rug of obsidian, abalone, turquoise, and white shell, each spread over the other in the order mentioned, while the door consisted of a quadruple curtain or screen of dawn, sky-blue, evening twilight, and darkness. As a matter of course the divine builders might increase its size at will, and reduce it to a minimum, whenever it seemed desirable to do so.1

Nor is this the only gorgeous hogan of the poet's imagination. There are others which were the prototypes of other styles in use today, and also for hogans for especial ceremonial use.

While Father Berard states that the present custom does not require special dedicatory ceremonies at the completion of a hogan, Cosmos Mindeleff, in the Seventeenth Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, gives a full account of them, and they are so wonderful, for a wild and barbaric people, that I cannot refrain from extracting largely.

Fig. 1. A Summer Hogan. (Photo by A. C. Vroman.)

Fig. 2. A Winter Hogan.

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Personally I have witnessed some of these ceremonials, have recorded some of the songs in my graphophone, and have felt that I would like to give to the American civilized, Christian world, a ceremony for the dedication of its houses based on what I have seen and learned of the home-dedication rituals of these heathen, uncivilized, unchristian (!) people.

Brotherly helpfulness is the rule in the erection of a Navaho hogan, and the assistance of friends generally makes it possible to complete the structure in one, or at most two or three days. The wife then sweeps out the interior with a grass broom, and she or her husband lights a fire under the smoke-hole. Then, taking a saucer or bowl-shaped basket she fills it with white corn meal which she hands over to the head of the household. He proceeds to rub a handful of meal on each of the five principal timbers of which the hogan frame is formed, beginning always with the south doorway timber. He rubs the meal on one place, as high up as he can easily reach, and always in the following order: south doorway, south, west, north timbers, and the north doorway timber. All keep reverent silence while this is being done. Next, with a sweeping motion of his hand, sunwise, he sprinkles the meal to the outer circumference of the room, at the same time in a low, measured, chanting tone saying:

Then, flinging a little meal into the fire he continues:

Tossing a handful or two of meal up and through the smoke-hole:

Now, sprinkling two or three handfuls out of the doorway he says:

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The woman of the house now advances, makes a meal-offering to the fire, and says, in a quiet and subdued voice:

Let me quote Cosmos Mindeleff for the remainder of the description:

Night will have fallen . . . all now gather inside, the blanket is suspended over the door-frame, all the possessions of the family are brought in, sheepskins are spread on the floor, the fire is brightened, and the men all squat around it. The women bring in food in earthen cooking pots and basins, and, having set them down among the men, they huddle together by themselves to enjoy the occasion as spectators. Everyone helps himself from the pots by dipping in with his fingers, the meat is broken into pieces, and the bones are gnawed upon and sociably passed from hand to hand. When the feast is finished tobacco and corn husks are produced, cigarettes are made, everyone smokes, and convivial gossipy talk prevails. This continues for two or three hours, when the people who live near by get up their horses and ride home. Those from a long distance either find places to sleep in the hogan or wrap themselves in their blankets and sleep at the foot of a tree. This ceremony is known as the qogán aiila, a kind of salutation to the house.

But the house devotions have not yet been observed. Occasionally these take place as soon as the house is finished, but usually there is an interval of several days to permit the house builders to invite all their friends and to provide the necessary food for their entertainment. Although analogous to the Anglo-Saxon ‘‘„house-warming,„’’ the house devotions, besides being a merrymaking for the young people, have a much more solemn significance for the elders. If they be not observed soon after the house is built bad dreams will plague the dwellers therein, toothache (dreaded for mystic reasons) will torture them, and the evil influence from the north will cause them all kinds of bodily ill; the flocks will dwindle, ill luck will come, ghosts will haunt the place, and the house will become batsic, tabooed.

A few days after the house is finished an arrangement is made with some shaman (devotional singer) to come and sing the ceremonial house songs. For this service he always receives a fee from those who engage him, perhaps a few sheep or their value, sometimes three or four horses or their equivalent, according to the circumstances of the house-builders. The social gathering at the house-devotion is much the same as that of the salutation to the house, when the house is built, except that more people are usually invited to the former. They feast and smoke, interchange scandal, and talk of other topics of interest, for some hours. Presently the shaman seats himself under the main west timber so as to face the east, and the singing begins.

In this ceremony no rattle is used. The songs are begun by the shaman in a drawling tone and all the men join in. The shaman acts only as leader and director. Each one, and there are many of them in the tribe, has his own particular songs, fetiches, and accompanying ceremonies, and after he has pitched a song he listens closely to

Fig. 3. Mohave Indian Wearing Rabbit-Skin Blanket. (Photo by George Wharton James.)

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hear whether the correct words are sung. This is a matter of great importance, as the omission of a part of the song or the incorrect rendering of any word would entail evil consequences to the house and its inmates. All the house songs of the numerous shamans are of similar import, but differ in minor details.

The first song is addressed to the east, and is as follows:

Immediately following this song, but in a much livelier measure, the following benedictory chant is sung:

After a short interval the following is sung to the west:

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The song to the west is also followed by the benedictory chant, as above, and after this the song which was sung to the east is repeated; but this time it is addressed to the south. The song to the west is then repeated, but addressed to the north, and the two songs are repeated alternately until each one has been sung three times to each cardinal point. The benedictory chant is sung between each repetition.

All the men present join in the singing under the leadership of the shaman, who does not himself sing, but only starts each song. The women never sing at these gatherings, although on other occasions, when they get together by themselves, they sing very sweetly. It is quite common to hear a primitive kind of part singing, some piping in a curious falsetto, others droning a deep bass.

The songs are addressed to each of the cardinal points, because in the Navaho system different groups of deities are assigned to each of these points. The Navaho also makes a distinction between heavy rain and light rain. The heavy rain, such as accompanies thunder storms, is regarded as the ‘‘„male rain,„’’ while the gentle showers, or ‘‘„young rains,„’’ coming directly from the house of Estsanatlehi, are regarded as especially beneficent; but both are deemed necessary to fertilize. A distinction is also made between ‘‘„hard possessions,„’’ such as turquois and coral beads, shell ornaments, and all articles made from hard substances, and ‘‘„soft possessions,„’’ which comprise blankets and all textile substances, skins, etc. The Navaho prays that his house may cover many of both hard and soft possessions.

The songs given above are known as the twelve house songs, although there are only two songs, each repeated twelve times. These are sung with many variations by the different shamans, and while the builders are preparing for this ceremony they discuss which shaman has the best and most beautiful words before they decide which one to engage. But the songs are invariably addressed to the deities named, Quastceyalci, the God of Dawn, and Qastceqogan, the God of Twilight; and they always have the same general significance.

After the ‘‘„twelve songs„’’ are finished many others are sung: to Estsanatlehi, a benignant Goddess of the West, and to Yol'kai Estsan, the complementary Goddess of the East; to the sun, the 'dawn, and twilight; to the light and to the darkness; to the six sacred mountains, and to many other members of a very numerous theogony. Other song-prayers are chanted directly to malign influences, beseeching them to remain far off; to evil in general; to coughs and lung evils, and to sorcerers, praying them not to come near the dwelling. The singing of the songs is so timed that the last one is delivered just as the gray streaks of dawn appear, when the visitors round up their horses and ride home.2

Father Berard, whose knowledge is profound, and whose care in making assertions is equal to his knowledge, contends that these songs are only incidentally connected with a ceremony of house dedication, but are essential to the Vigil or Rite of Blessing which is performed frequently in the same hogan, in order that the blessing may be renewed upon the members of the family and all their possessions. He goes further and states:

Moreover, it is in accordance with good custom to have other ceremonies performed in a new hogan previous to the invocation of the house songs. In fact, this

FIG. 4. Rare Old Bayeta Blanket. (Author's Collection.) [PAGE 20]

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custom suggests that at times the new hogan is built for the purpose of having a desirable ceremony performed, For, while greater convenience makes a summer and winter home desirable at different points, and such natural causes as scarcity of range and water frequently decide a change in location, this change is at times due to an evil spell which may haunt a vicinity. Should this continue, despite all efforts to dispel such influence, a new dwelling is erected in some other locality, and its occupation inaugurated with some effective and purifying ceremony.3

In Fig. 1 we have a good representation of a summer hogan. This is invariably near the cornfields or other farming place, and as convenient as possible to the sheep range. Suitable corrals are constructed for the care of the sheep during the night time, and where possible the close proximity of a spring, running stream, or pool of water is desired.

It is in the selection of the site and the erection of the winter hogan (Fig. 2) that the Navaho shows the greatest care. He must see that there are no red ant hills near by, as, aside from the perpetual discomfort of too close proximity to these pests, his legendary lore has taught him that it was these small but annoying creatures that separated First Man from the Gods. There must be an unobstructed view to the east from the doorway, as the beneficial influences of the God of Sunrise are much appreciated by the devout Navaho.

Now the five chief timbers must be found, three of these to terminate in a spreading fork, the other two, for the doorway, being selected for their straightness. As there is no standard of size, the poles need not be any set size, but they are generally from ten to twelve feet long.

Few white men would call the Navaho hogan beautiful, for there is seldom, if ever, the slightest attempt made to adorn it, yet to the Indian it is beautiful in accordance with his myths and the closeness to which he adheres to the ancient model in its construction. Strength of timber, dryness, warmth, and smoothness of floor, good bark and other material to allow the piling over it of the earth covering, these make the hogan nijoni—the house beautiful—of the Navaho. And surely when he recalls the stories of the first hogans made by the gods, if he sees in his own rude and primitive dwelling any of the charm and glory associated with those early houses he must see great and wonderful beauty in them.


1. Father Berard in An Ethnologic Dictionary. The Franciscan Fathers, St. Michels, Ariz.

2. Cosmos Mindeleff. Navaho Houses, pp. 504-509, in Seventeenth Annual Report Bureau of Ethnology.

3. From An Ethnologic Dictionary.

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