A hogan, also spelled “hoghan,” is a traditional residential structure of the Navajo people. Although Navajo people also build and, at times, reside in sweat houses, underground homes, and summer shelters, the hogan is the most frequently used structure. In the Navajo religion, it is considered to be a sacred space.
There are two types of hogans: the “forked stick” and the “circular” hogan. The forked stick version is also known referred to as the “male” hogan. These structures resemble pyramids in shape, but with five faces instead of four. The shape of the pyramid, which is created with wood and sticks, is sometimes obscured by the earth that is mounded up on top of the wood. The earth creates strong walls that can stand up through winter and insulate the interior. Forked stick hogans have small vestibules. They are traditionally used for religious ceremonies rather than everyday living.
Circular hogans are known as the “female” hogan. It differs from the forked stick variety because it does not contain a vestibule and it much larger in size. These structures are used as the primary homes for the Navajo people. Inside, cooking, domestic craft work, and friendly entertainment takes place, and there are also spaces for children to play.
The circular hogan was reinvented to be more of a hexagonal shape in the 1900s when the railroad came through Navajo territory. The availability of wooden railroad ties allowed Navajos to enlarge the traditional structures. As they were working with straight lumber, however, the smooth roundness of the traditional home gave way to the sharper corners of the hexagonal hogan. They were still referred to as the “female” hogans, however, and were used for the same purposes.
In Navajo tradition, if a member of the community dies within a hogan, the structure is abandoned and none of the building materials are reclaimed for new structures. Either the body is buried inside, or the entrance is blocked and the body is taken through a hole that is broken into a north wall. Hogans that are abandoned for such reasons may be burned. One can also become taboo if lightning strikes nearby or a bear rubs up against one of the walls of the structure.
Although hogans are still used for ceremony today, they are rarely built for residential purposes.