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The Navajo Way of Life

A     The classical dwelling of the Navajo is the "Hogan" - both syllables are pronounced and the "a" sounds like the "ae" in aeronautics. Inside of a male HoganThere are actually two types of hogan, the "male" hogan - shown at right - and the "female" hogan, below it. The male hogan, supposedly, got its name because it looks somewhat like an Indian sitting on the ground with his arms wrapped around his knees. Its skeleton, as shown in the photo at left, is made from thin logs which have a fork at the end. Other logs are then leaned to the skeleton and the structure is covered with earth. The structure is somewhat similar to the Teepees of the plains Indians.
Female Hogan at Visitors Center    Much more common is the female hogan. Its lower part is build like an eight-sided log cabin, as shown in the photo at right, which shows a demonstration hogan at the Canyon de Chelly visitors center. I find the design of the roof structure, shown at left, very interesting. It consists of eight-sided layers of logs, like the walls, but the diameter of the layers decreases for successive layers and they form a flat dome. Inside of female Hogan Architects call this a "corbelled dome", and the method, using stones rather than logs, was already in use in ancient Greece. The center of the roof is open and this opening, together with the door (which always faces East) is the only source of light in the hogan. I suppose that originally it also was a vent for an open fire in the center of the hogan. Today the source of heat is a small iron stove with its stove pipe extending through the roof opening. Female Hogan, covered with earth As shown at right the female hogan can also be covered with earth to keep the hogan warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
    Hogans are not just a relic from the Navajo's past, they are still used today. When one sees a Navajo homestead off the road it usually has a modern house and, may be, a mobile home or trailer. However, it always also has a hogan, which, apparently often is the home of the parents while the young people live in the modern dwellings. There usually also is a shade arbor for summer, when it can get very hot. I took the photos of the two earth-covered hogans as well as of their interiors in Monument Valley, where they were, together with a regular little house, the home of Suzy Jazzie, a 93-year old lady who still worked as a weaver.
Navajo Nation Council Chambers    The hogan, apparently, is an important element in Navajo culture. Many modern public buildings in Dinéta echo the shape of the hogan, if not its design. We saw a Catholic church in Chinle which was built that way and at the Diné College in Tsaile (just east of Chinle) the main classroom building as well as the student dorms recall the shape of the hogan. The official visitors guide of the Navajo Nation shows that even the meeting hall of the Tribal Council, shown at left, is build like a hogan, though the roof design is not a corbelled dome.
    The Dinéta is gradually becoming urbanized, however, not to the extend of the United States overall. A large number of Navajo still live in rural areas, often far away from their neighbors. Many Navajo homesteads do not have a spring and one often can see pickup trucks with large plastic drums which are used to haul water to the homestead. All land is owned by the tribe as a whole, and held in trust by the BIA. Land for homesteads as well as for grazing of lifestock is assigned to the families by the tribe.

Clans and Families
    The Diné tribe is made up of a number of Clans. I have found varying data for their number, between 60 and 140. All members of the same clan are considered closely related, and, even if they have never met before, address each other as "brother" and "sister". For this reason a clan member cannot marry any member of the same clan, as it would be incest. Clan membership is inherited from the mother. Anthropologists call this an "exogamous (meaning they married outside of their own group), matrilineal clan system", as opposed to the patrilineal system of Europe. If, for example, a Navajo man, who is from the Towering House Clan, and his wife, who is from the Bitter Water Clan have a child, it will be a member of the Bitter Water Clan. When it grows up, the child will introduce herself or himself as being born for the Towering House Clan and to the Bitter Water Clan. When a young Navajo man is looking for a mate, this information, obviously, is very important. We had heard about this system on two earlier Elderhostel trips, to the Hopi Reservation and to Alaska. The system of the Tlingits in Alaska is even more complicated as each clan belongs to one of two larger groups or "moieties", the ravens and the eagles. A raven cannot marry another raven but must marry an eagle and vice versa.

Navajo Economy
    Until about the end of WW II the Navajo economy was mainly based on animal husbandry, primarily the production of wool. After WW II, during the heyday of the "atomic age" deposits of Uranium were discovered in Dinéta and many mines, usually small, were developed. Later these mines all closed, but they left behind a legacy of dangerous mine shafts and piles of radioactive mine tailings. Oil deposits on Navajo land were discovered as early as 1921 and are still exploited. On Black Mesa coal deposits straddle both Navajo and Hopi land. They are strip mined by the Peabody Corporation and then sent, in the form of a coal-water slurry, through a 273 mile long pipeline to a power plant near Laughlin, Nevada. The royalties from oil and coal form the mayor source of revenue for the Tribal Government.
    Urbanization has been proceeding slowly and the population of the cities, listed below, is not very large, even for Shiprock, the capital of the Navajo Nation.

        City Population
        Shiprock 15,000
Tuba City 8,000
Kayenta 6,310
Chinle 5,366
Fort Defiance    4,061
Window Rock 3,306

(The numbers shown are from the Internet and most of them are for the year 2000)

    I have read that with tribal permits and land leases required it is relatively difficult for outside marketing corporations to establish outlets in Navajo Land, and that for this reason cities just outside of the reservation show a faster growth. Supposedly the prices in these cities are also often better, and many Navajo families make regular shopping trips to cities such as Gallup, NM, Farmington, NM and Winslow, AZ.
    Outside of oil fields, coal mines, and the growing tourist business there are not really many job opportunities in Dinéta, which explains the high rate of unemployment shown in the statistics. I have read that these figures may be somewhat misleading, however. Many Navajo men, while they do not have a 9-5 job, work part time making and selling silver jewelry or doing other part time work. The tribal government makes strong efforts to provide a better education for the Navajo and operates two community colleges, Diné College in Tsaile, AZ and Crownpoint Institute of Technology in Crownpoint, NM, East of Gallup and just outside of the reservation.

Religious Ceremonies of the Diné
    One of our lectures was about the religious ceremonies of the Diné. Actually, I had had an introduction to the Navajo religion from an unusual source: the suspense novels of Toni Hillerman (more about this author in the section "Information Sources"). There are many Christian churches - Catholic, various Protestant denominations and Mormon - in the Navajo Nation and many Navajo are members, though I have not been able to find numbers or percentages. Our lecturer told us that, nevertheless, most of them also follow the traditional believes of the Diné. The way I understand it - and I have to make this disclaimer - the Diné believe that there are two classes of beings: the Earth People or humans and the Holy People or Yei. The Earth People must try to live in harmony with mother earth and father sky. When this harmony is broken, which can manifest itself by illness, an appeal to the holy people can bring their assistance for restoring harmony. These appeals consist of religious ceremonies or "ways" which can go on for several days.Navajo ceremonial Sand PaintingThey are conducted by a professional Hataali or "singer". During the ceremony the ritual must be followed exactly to be effective. The rituals include chants by the Hataali and the preparation of sand paintings. These paintings, one of which is shown at right, are done on the floor of the Hogan using colored sand. They include figures of the holy people shown with exsaturated long bodies - the U-shaped figure framing the sand painting is actually a holy person. The figures are destroyed at the end of the ceremony. Copies of the actual paintings for sale to tourists, like the one shown, which I found on the Internet, are purposely changed in subtle ways, not to interfere with their religious purpose. I find it interesting that the Navajo sand paintings are similar to the Mandalas made by the Tibetan monks, which are also destroyed after they have been created.
    The Diné also have an extensive and detailed creation myth. What puzzles me, is that this myth parallels very much the creation myth of the Hopi. Both say that the tribe passed through several earlier worlds and now lives in the fourth world. Even the way in which they got from the third to the fourth world, namely by climbing through a long stalk, is almost the same. If both tribes would be of a common ancestry, the similarity would be understandable. However, the Hopi are from a completely different language family, the Uto-Aztecan.

Marjorie Thomas
Marjorie Thomas with Kathleen    On Friday, our last day with the Diné, we had the privilege of listening to Dr. Marjorie Thomas, a resident of Chinle and a most remarkable elder of the tribe (a search with Google for "´Marjorie Thomas´ Navajo" yields not fewer than 42 references). She was born in Ganado 72 years ago, and as a child was sent to Indian boarding school, which she hated. So she quit school and got married. "She raised eight children and lots of sheep", as an article about her in the Gallup Independent reports. At age 29, upon the urging of her husband, she went back to school for her General Education Diploma. This time she liked school better: she went on to get a Baccalaureate, then a Masters degree in education, and became a teacher, then a school principal in Chinle. She felt very strongly about the Navajo language and culture and developed a curriculum for all grade levels to introduce the Navajo language and customs into the schools. In recognition of her efforts she received an honorary doctorate from the University of New Mexico.
    Now retired, Marjorie Thomas wrote two children's books, printed in both, Navajo and English: "Bidii", the story of an eight-year-old Navajo boy and "White Nose the Sheep Dog". Kathleen found copies of the books at the gift shop of the Holiday Inn, but they are also available from She also founded and continues to raise funds for the Central Navajo Youth Opportunity Coalition, which is planning to build a center for the young people of Central Dinéta in Chinle to congregate, fraternize, play, and learn in a safe environment.

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