In the Navajo creation story, First Man and First Woman come up to the
surface of the earth, the fifth world, from the underworld and create
a young man and woman. This young couple was made from
"the four directions, from the waters, mountains, plants--in fact from
the cosmos" (McAllester 20). The couple was then told by First Man that
they were to be the source of all life, but that they would never be seen
on earth again. He gathered them up in his medicine bundle, concealing
them forever and created the first hogan, or tradition Navajo dwelling.
This structure was then blessed. The earth surface people, the ones who would inhabit the
earth, were taught by First Man that each new hogan that was built, must
The Navajo House Blessing Ceremony is a ritual; a physical
component of their religious system. Rituals in turn, according to
Emile Durkheim, are actions that help to preserve order within the
social sphere. They act as a reaffirmation of the social group; they
strengthen it and hold it together. In the case of the individual, a
ritual or ceremony serves to initiate the outsider into that collective
order; the uninitiated is dangerous and outside of the status quo.
Another sociologist, Arnold Van Gennep saw rites, particularly rites
of passage as transitions within an individuals life that are marked by
specific ceremonies that serve to initiate and make that individual
suited for their new position within their society.
In this paper, I want to focus on the Navajo House Blessing Ceremony
and its place within the Navajo community. To do this it is necessary
to quickly discuss rites and their place within a cultures' religion.
Specifically, I want to look at two sociological theories regarding rites and ceremonies
and how these two doctorines can be applied to the Navajo House Blessing Ceremony. They are
Emile Durkheim's interpretation of rites and ceremonies within a social group
and Arnold Van Gennep's definitions of the rites of passage.
Durkheim divided most everything religious into two categories:
the sacred and the profane. The sacred can be defined as objects and
people who are outside of the sphere of everyday life; they are dangerous
to people and objects within everyday life because of the power that they
possess. The profane is everyday life; a village is profane, a boat is profane, but
is sacred. When a girl is being initiated and she's in the process of
going through puberty rites, she is sacred; at the conclusion of these
rites she must be made then be made profane. A sacred object is too powerful for
everyday life and needs to be made profane before it can be brought into
the realm of everyday life. A person, on the other hand, can be made
sacred so that he or she can enter the world of the sacred. Shamen
will purify themselves by fasting, sweating, performing certain rites so
that they too, are sacred when they enter the world of the sacred to
achieve their vision. When they are to re-enter the world of the profane,
they will again perform certain rites to make themselves akin to this environment;
they are not a danger to anyone within the profane world.
In the case of rituals, Durkheim felt that they were enacted to achieve
order in the social sphere. Rituals acted as a reaffirmation of the
social group; they straightened a society and helped to hold it together.
He felt that the individual was also dangerous because he was outside of
the accepted, collective order. The uninitiated or the outsider goes
against the established order and threatens that order. Rites, then, are
the necessary vehicles to maintain the individuals place within the status
quo. For example:
The above passage is from Emile Durkheim's 1915 book, The Elementary
Forms of the Religious Life. In it, he discusses the function of
commemorative rites of the Warramunga of Australia. This observation
can be just as easily applied to the rites of the Navajo.
The Navajo hogan, when it is first constructed or is to be reinhabited
is sacred; it is dangerous. The House Blessing ritual is performed
to make the hogan suitable for everyday life and at the same time,
reaffirms the Navajo social structure.
Gladys Reichard states that the Navajo religion, "must be considered
as a design in harmony, a striving for rapport between man and every phase
of nature, the earth and the waters under the earth, the sky and the land
beyond the sky, and of course the earth and everything on it"
(Reichard, 1977, 14). This rapport is achieved and retained by the control
that the Earth Surface People have been given by the Holy People. This
control comes through the knowledge of rites and ceremonies that can
serve as protective, preventative, and/or curative agents.
The Navajo House Blessing ceremony is a protective and preventative rite.
It is based upon the original blessing which First Man gave to the first
hogan, which was shaped like an inverted cone, with a covered entry way;
it has been described as a "four-forked-beams-hogan" (McAllester, 13).
The blessing done by First Man was described by Leland C. Wyman in his
1970 account, Blessingway:
Durkheim felt that a rite that is prescribed by a social groups
ancestors is commemorative and carries with it the authority of tradition,
which he saw ultimately as a social dynamic. This tradition was important
to him, not solely for the effects that the rite may produce, but that it
established and reinforced the normal social order of the group. The House
Blessing Ceremony, from a Durkheimian point of view, is first performed to
retain the normal social order, and any preventative or protective benefits
that it may provide for the inhabitants of the hogan is secondary.
The Navajo divide their social organization into two categories: the
diyin dine e-- Holy People and nihookaa dine e, --the Earth
Surface People. The Earth Surface People are composed of matrilineal,
exogamous clans with a child born into its mother's
clan. Navajo communities are based upon a residence group which is
organized around a head mother, a sheep or cattle herd, and/or agricultural
fields. Rights of residence within a group are acquired through birth
(through the mother) or the spouse (through the wife). A Navajo can live
where his or her mother lives or where his wife lives. A Navajo residence
group usually consists of more than one household of which almost every
married couple has their own. This house they share with their children.
Witherspoon identifies a household as, " the group that eats and sleeps
together" (Witherspoon, 57). This household is the social unit of daily religious
The Navajo House Blessing Ceremony is called hooghan da ashdlisigil
in the Navajo language and is performed to bless a newly constructed
dwelling or in more recent times, one that is to be reinhabited.
The blessing, as it was given to the Earth Surface People by the Holy
People, is used to promote peace, harmony, good luck, and general
well-being for its inhabitants. The Ceremony also prevents
general misfortune, hardship, wind and fire destruction illness, bad
dreams, visitations from ghosts and evil spirits, and protection from
evil (Frisbee, 1980, 165).
There are two types of House Blessing ceremonies; a private one for an
individual household and a larger, public ceremony that is used to
bless buildings such as schools, hospitals, and stadiums. The
private ceremony is shorter and lasts only one night, while the public
version can last anywhere from one to four nights. Both of these
ceremonies involve the marking of the structure and prayer, while
the public version can also employ song, costumes and props, formal
prayer, dance and sometimes, sandpainting.
The private ceremony, as mentioned earlier, is conducted for the hogan.
This structure is, historically, a very important aspect of Navajo life;
it meant security and well-being for the household. The hogan is most
often treated like a living object by its inhabitants. It needs
to be taken care of and loved to sustain the harmony of the Navajo home
life. "Hogans are personified in ordinary conservation-they are alive;
they need to be fed, cared for, spoken to, and shielded from loneliness"
(Frisbie 1980: 166). The ceremony then, not only serves the needs of its
inhabitants, but it serves the needs of the hogan. The ritual aims to
"feed the house, show proper treatment and respect to it, prevent timber
breakage, and remove the hogan's loneliness" (176).
The hogan's loneliness, before the ceremony is performed, is a
dangerous thing; it can attract evil spirits. The hogan is outside of
the social conforms of the group and is thus unaccepted. It is not
harmonious with the Navajo world. Durkheim states that to, "consecrate
something, is to put it in contact with a source of religious energy..."
(Durkheim 467). The hogan's consecration also serves to lift the hogan's
taboo. Van Gennep, in The Rites of Passage, says that, "every new house is
taboo until, by appropriate rites, it is made noa (secular or profane)"
(Van Gennep 24). The house blessing ceremony of the Navajo does this so
that the hogan may be lived in by it's designated inhabitants.
Although today most Navajo live in houses (which are still blessed),
this change in structure occurred somewhat late. Navajo's did not
start to settle in permanent houses until the late 1890's (Jett and
Spencer 109). One reason that is suggested for this
is a strong belief in ghosts and witchcraft. Originally, when a person
became ill, they were removed from the hogan in which they lived
and taken to a temporary hogan in which to die. After death, "the corpse
is washed and dressed by those who volunteer, and left in the hogan...the
helpers then clean the hogan using juniper boughs to obliterate all
footprints which may have been made by the relatives of the deceased
in the hogan in order to conceal from the spirit the direction in which
they went in case it should return to harm them." (Reichard 1969:141-142).
Then, after one day, the east entrance is closed up, and a hole is cut
in the north wall of the hogan; it is through this opening that they body
is carried out. The hogan and all of its content were then burned (142). A hogan can be more
easily reconstructed than a "modern" house.
When a death occurs in a permanent house today, especially when the death
is due to old age, the structure can be blessed by ceremony and considered
safe to live in (Frisbie 1980: 188).
The fetishism that the Navajo historically placed upon the hogan make
it an object of a 'rite of passage'. These are transitions that are
faced and undergone by the individual to incorporate him or her into
a new level within a social structure. These rites, according to Van
Gennep's model, contain three stages:
The private version of the house blessing ceremony adheres to this
format and can be seen as a rite, "identifying the future inhabitants with
their new residence" (24).
This version is also much simpler and shorter than its public
counterpart. It is not performed by a medicine man or a specialist, but by
the head of the household. The rite of separation, the first step in Van
Gennep's model, is the cleaning of the hogan and the starting of the fire.
This first rite serves as a purification for the hogan from its earlier
world and are preliminal in nature. The next rites performed in the ceremony
are liminal and signify a transition; the hogan is marked. This is done
as it was prescribed in the Creation Story, and as the Holy People marked
the very first hogan. The four cardinal directions, starting at the east
and moving counterclockwise, are marked with corn meal. In most Navajo
ceremonies, corn meal symbolizes, "life and success along the road"
(Reichard 1950: 541). Occasionally, though, corn pollen, charcoal, ashes,
or other substances may be used. These marks are made in the highest part
that can be reached on the inside of the hogan, using a upward movement.
The next step in the private ceremony is made up of prayers and sometimes
songs. The prayers are not formal ones but are usually made up by
whomever is marking the hogan; the prayers are specifically said for
that hogan. These prayers are most commonly made up of wishes for
happiness, long life, peace, and immunity from misfortune. Often,
the prayer is addressed to the hogan directly, since hogan blessings:
The marking of the hogan, the prayers, and any songs, as mentioned
earlier, are the liminal rites within the house blessing ceremony. These
rites, according to Van Gennep's views on rites of
passage, serve as a transition for the hogan from something that is taboo,
into something that has a designated place in the Navajo social structure.
These rites, also serve to lift the taboo of the unblessed home and serve
to make it safe and happy for the household to inhabit.
Another theorist, Victor W. Turner, associates liminal rites, or more
specifically the liminal situations that these rites help to counter,
with "magico-religious properties" (Turner 108). This is supported by
the fact that the Navajo treat the hogan as a living entity and feel
that the House Blessing Ceremony protects the inhabitants of the house
from misfortune, but more importantly, protects the house from 'being
lonely'. This loneliness, as mentioned before, is dangerous in that the
house, being outside of the collective order, will attract evil spirits
that are also outside of the collective order; spirits that are liminal as
is the unblessed hogan. Turner characterizes liminal entities as being,
"dangerous, inauspicious, or polluting to persons, objects, events, and
relationships that have not been ritually incorporated into the liminal
context" (108-109). The liminal rites in the ceremony serve to
incorporate the hogan into its correct context and take the hogan
out of the sphere of liminality.
The conclusion of the House Blessing Ceremony is the preparation and
the sharing of the communal meal. This meal, which is often the conclusion
of most Navajo ceremonials, is associated with, "the success of a ceremony,
strength, endurance, and transformation" (Reichard 1950: 557). Van Gennep
places the communal meal as the postliminal rite in his rite of passage
model. It serves to incorporate the neophyte, in this case the hogan,
into its new position within society.
The private ceremony, then, is commemorative of the first hogan
blessing and helps reaffirm the accepted social order within the hogan.
It provides a feeling of well-being for the unit of daily religious
activity, which in turn, radiates out to the whole residence group,
and ultimately, the Navajo as a whole. The public House Blessing
Ceremony is not required in the way that the private version is, rather
it is commonly performed on public buildings as a sort of 'consecration
Where as the emphasis of the private blessing ceremony is on the household,
the public version emphasizes the Navajo people as a whole and is usually
performed in front of a large gathering. On this kind of ritual gathering,
Durkheim states, "the essential thing is that men are assembled, that
sentiments are felt in common and expressed in common acts..."
(Durkheim 431-432). A Navajo community are brought together to
achieve a common end, to ensure the continuation of their way of life.
The public House Blessing Ceremony usually has the same components as
the private version, but the public building is not felt to be a living
being as strongly as the hogan is. Therefore, it's not so much a rite
of passage, as it is a standard commemorative rite.
The decision to hold a blessing ceremony for a public building is made by
the community that the building will serve. Unlike the private ceremony,
the public one is 'performed' rather than 'given'. The community must pick
the singer; this choice is usually made by weighing the list of the
attributes; " a singer who is well-known, respected, qualified,
dependable, and who will thus do the ceremony carefully" (Frisbie 1968:32).
The singer who is chosen makes the decisions as to what prayers will be
said, whether there will be other components such as songs, dance, and
sandpainting, and the length of the ceremony. In the 1930's, the earlier
days of the public ceremonies, the singer was often paid with the feast
that was given after the ceremony, in later years and into the present, the
singer often requires a cash fee for their services. This fee, like the
format of the ceremony, was not set -- "the bigger the building, the more
important it is and the more people you expect, the more impressive your
program. You must dedicate that building in a big way; you
need to add a little more ceremony to it to look more impressive" (1980:175).
One would assume that 'the more ceremony' the more the fee.
Research done by Frisbie in 1970, saw this fee to be anywhere between
$10.00 and $1000.00. (175).
The ceremony begins with a speech by the singer that includes the origins
of the ceremony and its purpose. By relating the mythology of the ritual
to the assembled community, the traditions within the Navajo culture are
enforced. "In saying that the rite is observed because it comes from the
ancestors, it is admitted that its authority is confounded with the
authority of tradition, which is a social affair of the first order...men
celebrate it to remain faithful to the past, to keep for the group its
normal physiognomy..." (Durkheim 415).
After the speech, the singer proceeds to mark the structure. This
is done in the same manner as the private ceremony; the four cardinal
directions are marked with corn meal. In the case of a very large building,
the biggest, or most central room is all that needs to be marked.
Sometimes, for a hotel or a place of business, the singer may also
choose to mark the cash register (Frisbie 1968:33).
The prayers for the public ceremony can be individual ones that
were composed specifically for that ceremony, but more often they tend
to be formal prayers taken from a Navajo ceremonial; usually the Blessingway.
These prayers usually ask the Holy People to watch over the Earth
Surface People and to provide them with harmony in their lives.
Below is an example of an individual prayer given by a medicine man
for a chapter house blessing in 1965:
Notice how this passage is site-specific to the chapter house. It
asks that the Holy
Beings give guidance to the Navajo people and the decisions that they
will make at the chapter house and the Holy Beings give guidance to
'Washington' -- the U.S. Government, in its dealings with the Navajo people.
The next example is an excerpt from the other kind of prayer said
at the public blessing ceremony. It is a formal prayer, taken from the
Blessingway ceremony and was recorded by Gladys Reichard in 1940, at the
dedication of the Gallup Stadium:
The formal prayer relates specific elements of the Navajo religion in
the prayer; White Shell Woman, Changing Woman, Talking God; these deities
are called upon specifically to bless the stadium as they would bless
any structure where the Blessingway was performed.
The marking of the public building commemorates the actions of the
Holy People at the Emergence Rim -- the place where First Man and First Woman
entered the earth's surface from the underworld -- and the prayers vocalize
desire for well-being and the help and guidance of the Holy People in the
Navajo's lives. The formal prayer, recited in front of a large gathering,
focus the social groups' collective consciousness on the ideal social order
as prescribed by the ancestors.
The use of songs is optional in the private as well as the public
ceremonies but is more common in the public version. One song is
usually felt to be sufficient by the singer and can also, like the
prayer, be taken from the Blessingway ceremony. The song can be sung
while the structure is being marked or after the prayers have been said. The
exact format, as stated earlier, is at the discretion of each individual
singer. The song according to some singers, can make the ceremony,
"more holy, more substantial" (189). The following is an example of
a song recorded in 1967 by Frisbie. It is identified simply as a
The other rites that may be employed in the public ceremonies are
dance and sandpainting. Frisbie surmises that the dancing is probably
more often an example of secular entertainment for the audience than an
integral ritual component (192). Sandpaintings are created on the ground
and depict scenes from Navajo Mythology. This usually illustrates the
Earth Surface People receiving help from the Holy
People in overcoming a problem. Sandpaintings are normally created by a Navajo
singer, during a curing ceremony to help a patient recover from
an ailment. After they complete the ceremony, the
paintings are destroyed. In the House Blessing Ceremony, any sandpaintings
would be small and would most likely depict
Changing Woman's house or a related house subject (1968:30). It seems
probable that these extra components are used more for show than for a
religious significance; which would probably fall under the heading,
'the bigger the building, the more show was needed.'
The last part of the public version of the House Blessing Ceremony,
as with the private one, is the communal meal. This is done on the last
night of the ceremony and serves the biological need of feeding the
community, as well as bringing them all together and closing the ceremony.
Such as Van Gennep identified the communal meal as postliminal and
a way of incorporation into society; Durkheim identified this feast with
the strengthened social order:
Radcliffe-Brown stated that, "in the case of both ritual and myth, the
sentiments expressed are those that are essential to the existence of
society", (Kluckhohn 56). In the case of the Navajo House Blessing
Ceremony, the sentiments that are expressed; wishes for harmony, order,
and sa'ah naaghei bik'eh hozhoo, are those that are essential to the Navajo.
This, once again, goes back to the sentiment by Durkheim that, "everything
leads us back to the same idea: before all, rite are the means by which
the social group reaffirms itself periodically" (Durkheim 432).
The Navajo House Blessing Ceremony is a commemorative ceremony which
upholds the Navajo social order by replaying the tradition of the original
rite which is prescribed by Navajo mythology. The private ceremony,
in its humanizing of the Navajo hogan, can be seen as a rite of passage
which lifts the taboo of a newly constructed house or one that is to be
reinhabited. The private ceremony also serves to reinforce the social
structure within household and strengthens the social ties of those
The public ceremony, in contrast, is done on a larger scale with
several components used more for show than religious reasons. It, too,
reinforces the social structure of the community based upon the rapport
and harmony between the Navajo and their physical surroundings.
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