The Navajo House Blessing Ceremony
Written for Final Paper: Ritual, University of Minnesota, 1992.

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 be blessed.

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 a church 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; so that 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 activity.

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:

  • separation
  • transition
  • incooration.
    which contain three different types of rites:

    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 ceremony'.

    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 following 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 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 "Hogan Song":

    haiye ne yana

    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 creatyed 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:

    This meal then, ends the ceremony and serves a physical and social need. This act also serves to incorporate the participants back into an everyday act, a profane act, while promoting non-everyday ritual practices.

    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 inhabitants.

    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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