50 Years Ago: Students around the world ask about teepees, hogans

For a number of reasons, students in America, France and Germany became fascinated with the Navajo and their way of life in the late 1960s.

Dick Hardwick, the Navajo Times’ manager, wrote frequently about the fact that the Times would get several letters a week from elementary, junior high and high school students from all over the world wanting to know more about the Navajos, usually for some kind of homework assignment.

He said he was sure the chairman’s office as well as the museum also got their share of requests as well. The requests came in such major numbers that the chairman’s office and the museum printed up generic replies for most of the questions to send back to the letter writers. At the end of 1968, Hardwick said the most common question he received during the year was from students wanting to know about teepees and hogans. For those writing about teepees, he usually responded they had the wrong tribe and suggested they write to the Plains Indian Museum. For for those who asked about hogans, this is what he had to say: “The Swiss are reputed to be the best watchmakers in the world and the Italians are the best sculptors.

But the best hogan builders in the world are the Navajos. “No one can build a hogan like the Navajo, cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” he said. Yes, non-Indians have tried repeatedly and failed to build a hogan. In almost every case, the non-Navajo built hogan had a flaw and is not cool in the summer and warm in the winter, he said. It’s no fault of theirs – they just do not have the skills that Navajos have in building the hogan.

“It will indeed be a sad day when the hogan finally disappears from the face of our country and, as sure as we are living today, it will be gone and all there will be will be written accounts of what a hogan looked like,” he said. Hardwick said he would be sorry when that day came. He didn’t predict when that would occur but people like Navajo Tribal. Chairman Raymond Nakai were continually saying their goal was to replace the hogan with affordable homes.

So here it is 50 years later and there are still thousands of hogans in use all across the reservation, some for living quarters and other for ceremonial purposes.

The hogan structures are still being built and some, built a century or more ago, still keep a person cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The big story the week or two before Christmas 50 years ago continued to center on gifts, for the estimated 50,000 Navajo children on the reservation were expected to come home from boarding schools for the holidays.

They were arriving on the reservation by the thousands daily. An Air Force C-124 arrived in Window Rock on Wednesday bringing 14 tons of gifts, including toys, clothing and furniture and appliances for Navajo families.

The merchandise was collected by the Utah Air Force Association. Nakai called on tribal departments from the police to transportation to help distribute the goods throughout the days before Christmas. Every district would be treated equally, he said. He ordered officials to place the items in five and a half piles – the half pile for Alamo, Canoncito and Ramah.

The other five piles were to be covered by tarps and a representative from each of the five districts would then select a pile unseen and take it back to his district for distribution in whatever way they felt would be fair.

The California Air National Guard also contributed another 13 tons and, since this was primarily for children, the decision was to distribute this to schools throughout the reservation before they went on winter break. Navajo officials said they were also expecting more than 10 tons from other organizations and, depending on when they arrived, those would be distributed by Navajo police to the chapters, which would be responsible for distributing them during their holiday dinners.

A handful of trading posts were also planning to hold their own Christmas parties for their customers the weekend before the holiday. Families would be fed and children given toys as a way for the trading post operators to show appreciation for their business throughout the year. The number of these get-togethers had been decreasing rapidly over the years.

Twenty years before, there were dozens of such celebrations but in the previous decade trading posts had shut down or their profits had dwindled so much that there was no money left to host a year-end party.


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Categories: News

About Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.