In keeping with my historical theme regarding survival and wilderness skills I came across this piece on building Navajo huts, or “Hogans” as they are more properly called. It is actually part of a larger treatise by Cosmos Mindeleff and can be found here: Navajo Houses, by Cosmos Mindeleff. Cold weather will be soon upon us and if we do in fact wind up in a long term bug out situation we may need to build a shelter for the winter months. This article describes just one such structure, but there are many other designs as well. I’ll be posting more designs as time passes along with some other historical information that can be of use to us in an extreme situation. We tend to forget the old ways with all of our technology, and that’s too bad. People were surviving the seasons with much less than what we have available today, and yet they survived and thrived. I think we should step back in time and learn more about the past as we learn to survive the coming times.( I apologize for some of the Navajo writings and the incorrect characters, but I was not able to place the correct characters here with my word processor and upload intact.)

LEGENDARY AND ACTUAL WINTER HOGANS

The Navaho recognize two distinct classes of hogáns—the leqai or winter place, and the kejt’n, or summer place; in other words, winter huts and summer shelters. Notwithstanding the primitive appearance of the winter huts, resembling mere mounds of earth hollowed out, they are warm and comfortable, and, rude as they seem, their construction is a matter of rule, almost of ritual, while the dedicatory ceremonies which usually precede regular occupancy are elaborate and carefully performed.

Although no attempt at decoration is ever made, either of the inside or the outside of the houses, it is not uncommon to hear the term beautiful applied to them. Strong forked timbers of the proper length and bend, thrust together with their ends properly interlocking to form a cone-like frame, stout poles leaned against the apex to form the sides, the whole well covered with bark and heaped thickly with earth, forming a roomy warm interior with a level floor—these are sufficient to constitute a “qogan nijoni,” house beautiful. To the Navaho the house is beautiful to the extent that it is well constructed and to the degree that it adheres to the ancient model.

There are many legends and traditions of wonderful houses made by the gods and by the mythic progenitors of the tribe. In the building of these houses turquoise and pearly shells were freely used, as were also the transparent mists of dawn and the gorgeous colors of sunset. They were covered by sunbeams and the rays of the rainbow, with everything beautiful or richly colored on the earth and in the sky. It is perhaps on account of these gorgeous mythical hogans that no attempt is now made to decorate the everyday dwelling; it would be batsic; tabooed (or sacrilegious). The traditions preserve methods of house building that were imparted to mortals by the gods themselves. These methods, as is usual in such cases, are the simplest and of the most primitive nature, but they are still scrupulously followed.

Early mention of house building occurs in the creation myths: First-man and First-woman are discovered in the first or lowest underworld, living in a hut which was the prototype of the Hogan. There were curious beings located at the cardinal points in that first world, and these also lived in huts of the same style, but constructed of different materials. In the east was Tieholtsodi, who afterward appears as a water monster, but who then lived in the House of Clouds, and Icni’ (Thunder) guarded his doorway. In the south was Teal’ (Frog) in a house of blue fog, and Tiel’jin, who is afterward a water monster, lay at that doorway. Acihi Estsan (Salt-woman) was in the west, and her house was of the substance of a mirage; the youth Co’nenili (Water sprinkler) danced before her door. In the north Cqaltlaqale’ made a house of green duckweed, and Sistyel’ (Tortoise) lay at that door.

Some versions of the myth hold that First-man’s hut was made of wood just like the modern hogán, but it was covered with gorgeous rainbows and bright sunbeams instead of bark and earth. At that time the firmament had not been made, but these first beings possessed the elements for its production. Rainbows and sunbeams consisted of layers or films of material, textile or at least pliable in nature, and were carried about like a bundle of blankets. Two sheets of each of these materials were laid across the hut alternately, first the rainbows from north to south, then the sunbeams from east to west. According to this account the other four houses at the cardinal points were similarly made of wood, the different substances mentioned being used merely for covering. Other traditions hold that the houses were made entirely of the substances mentioned and that no wood was used in their construction because at that time no wood or other vegetal material had been produced.

After mankind had ascended through the three underworlds by means of the magic reed to the present or fourth world, Qastceyalci, the God of Dawn, the benevolent nature god of the south and east, imparted to each group of mankind an appropriate architecture—to the tribes of the plains, skin lodges; to the Pueblos, stone houses; and to the Navaho, huts of wood and earth and summer shelters. Curiously enough, nowhere in Navaho tradition is any mention or suggestion made of the use by them of skin lodges.

In building the Navaho Hogan Qastceyalci was assisted by Qastceqogan, the God of Sunset, the complementary nature god of the north and west, who is not so uniformly benignant as the former. In the ceremonies which follow the erection of a Hogan today the structure is dedicated to both these deities, but the door is invariably placed to face the east, that the house may be directly open to the influences of the more kindly disposed Qastceyalci.

When a movement of a family has been completed, the first care of the qaskin, or head of the family, is to build a dwelling, for which he selects a suitable site and enlists the aid of his neighbors and friends. He must be careful to select a place well removed from hills of red ants, as, aside from the perpetual discomfort consequent on too close a proximity, it is told that in the underworld these pests troubled First-man and the other gods, who then dwelt together, and caused them to disperse.

A suitable site having been found, search is made for trees fit to make the five principal timbers which constitute the qagan tsaci, or house frame. There is no standard of length, as there is no standard of size for the completed dwelling, but commonly pinon trees 8 to 10 inches in diameter and 10 to 12 feet long are selected. Three of the five timbers must terminate in spreading forks, as shown in figure 230, to the left. But this is not necessary for the other two, which are intended for the doorway and are selected for their straightness.

When suitable trees have been found, and sometimes they are a considerable distance from the site selected, they are cut down and trimmed, stripped of bark, and roughly dressed. They are then carried or dragged to the site of the Hogan and there laid on the ground with their forked ends together somewhat in the form of a T, extreme care being taken to have the butt of one log point to the south, one to the west, and one to the north. The two straight timbers are then laid down with the small ends close to the forks of the north and south timbers and with their butt ends pointing to the east. They must be spread apart about the width of the doorway which they will form.

When all the timbers have been laid out on the ground, the position of each one of the five butts is marked by a stone or in some other convenient way, but great care must be exercised to have the doorway timbers point exactly to the east. Sometimes measurements are made without placing the timbers on the site, their positions and lengths being determined by the use of a long sapling. The interior area being thus approximated, all the timbers are removed, and, guided only by the eye, a rough circle is laid out, well within the area previously marked. The ground within this circle is then scraped and dug out until a fairly level floor is obtained, leaving a low bench of earth entirely or partly around the interior. This bench is sometimes as much as a foot and a half high on the high side of a slightly sloping site, but ordinarily it is less than a foot. The object of this excavation is twofold— to make a level floor with a corresponding increase in the height of the structure, and to afford a bench on which the many small articles constituting the domestic paraphernalia can be set aside and thus avoid littering the floor.

The north and south timbers are the first to be placed, and each is handled by a number of men, usually four or five, who set the butt ends firmly in the ground on opposite sides at the points previously marked and lower the timbers to a slanting position until the forks lock together. While some of the men hold these timbers in place others set the west timber on the western side of the circle, placing it in such a position and in such a manner that its fork receives the other two and the whole structure is bound together at the top. The forked apex of the frame is 6 to 8 feet above the ground in ordinary hogans, but on the high plateaus and among the pine forests in the mountain districts hogans of this type, but intended for ceremonial purposes, are sometimes constructed with an interior height of 10 or 11 feet, and enclose an area 25 to 30 feet in diameter.

At this stage in the construction the house shows only the three principal timbers of the frame, securely locked at the apex by the interlacing forks (as shown in figure 231, to the right) and firmly planted in the ground. The two doorway timbers are next placed in position, with their smaller ends resting on the forked apex of the frame, from 1 to 2 feet apart, and with the butt ends resting on the ground about 3 feet apart. The whole frame, comprising five timbers, is known as tsaci, but each timber has its own specific name, as follows: South timber, cacaace naai. West timber, ininance naai. North timber, naqokosce naai. Doorway timbers (two), tcinecince naai. The appearance of the frame as seen from below is shown in figure 231.

These names afford a good illustration of the involved nomenclature which characterizes Indian languages. Naai means a long, straight object, like a piece of timber. The first word in each of the terms above is the name of the cardinal point, the place it occupies (south, west, and north), with the suffix ce, meaning “here” or “brought here.” The same words are used with the suffix dje, instead of ce, as cacaadje naai for the north timber, dje meaning “there” or “set there.” The west timber is also specially designated as bigidje nabkad, “brought together into it,” an allusion to its functions as the main support of the frame, as the two other timbers rest within its spreading fork. The two doorway timbers are also designated as north timber and south timber, according to the position each occupies, and they are sometimes called tcinecin binini’li, “those in place at the doorway passage.” A full nomenclature of Hogan construction will be found in another section.

When the tsaci, or frame of five timbers, is completed the sides are filled with smaller timbers and limbs of pinon and cedar, the butt ends being set together as closely as possible on the ground and from 0 to 12 inches outside of the excavated area previously described. The timbers and branches are laid on as flat as possible, with the upper ends leaning on the apex or on each other. The intervening ledge thus formed in the interior is the bench previously mentioned, and aside from its convenience it adds materially to the strength of the structure.

While the sides are being enclosed by some of the workers a doorframe is constructed by others. This consists simply of two straight poles with forked tops driven into the ground at the base of and close inside of the doorway timbers, as shown in figure 232, to the left. When in place these poles are about 4 feet high, set upright, with a straight stick resting in the forks. Another short stick is placed horizontally across the doorway timbers at a point about 3 feet below the apex, at the level of and parallel with the cross stick of the door-frame. The space between this cross-stick and the apex is left open to form an exit for the smoke. Sometimes when the hogán is unbearably smoky a rough chimney-like structure, consisting of a rude cribwork, is placed about this smoke hole.

The doorway always has a flat roof formed of straight limbs or split poles laid closely together, with one end resting on the crosspiece which forms the base of the smoke hole and the other end on the crosspiece of the door-frame. The whole doorway structure projects from the sloping side of the hogán, much like a dormer window. Sometimes the doorway roof is formed by a straight pole on each side of the smoke hole crosspiece to the crosspiece of the door-frame, supporting short sticks laid across and closely together with their ends resting on the two poles.

The sides of the projecting doorway—that is, the spaces between the roof and the sloping doorway timbers—are filled in with small sticks of the required length. Sometimes the ends of these sticks are bound in place with twigs of yucca, being made fast to the door-frame, but generally they are merely set in or made to rest against the outer roof covering. Usually the larger timbers are roughly dressed on the sides toward the interior of the hut, and the smaller poles also are stripped of bark and rough hewn.

The entire structure is next covered with cedar bark; all the interstices are filled with it, and an upper or final layer is spread with some regularity and smoothness. Earth is then thrown on from base to apex to a thickness of about six inches, but enough is put on to make the hut perfectly wind and water proof. This operation finishes the house, and usually there are enough volunteers to complete the work in a day.

It is customary to make a kind of recess on the western side of the hut by setting out the base of the poles next to the west timber some 8 to 15 inches beyond the line. This arrangement is usually placed next to and on the south side of the west timber, and all the poles for a distance of 3 or 4 feet are set out. The offset thus formed is called the “mask recess,” and when a religious ceremony is performed in the hogán, the shaman or medicine man hangs a skin or cloth before it and deposits there his masks and fetishes. This recess, of greater or less dimensions, is made in every large hogán, but in many of the smaller ones it is omitted. In the construction of a hogán all the proceedings are conducted on a definite, predetermined plan, and the order sketched above is that ordinarily followed, but nothing of a ceremonial nature is introduced until after the conclusion of the work of construction.

 

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