The first snow marks the beginning of the shoe game, or Keshjee’, for the Navajo (Diné). It goes like this: Two teams, which represent day and night animals in the Diné universe, have balls made from yucca root that they hide in moccasins behind a sheet representing the sky.
When the sheet comes down, the other team walks or dances across the space to guess where the yucca balls are. When a team correctly guesses, they are given some yucca strands. The team that gets all 102 yucca strands, which equates to a life span in Diné culture, wins. Participants take on the identities of animals and sing songs about them during the ceremony.
The Keshjee’ happens in a hogan and recalls the time in creation when day and night animals were planning the natural cycles of life. Traditionally, the game has been a teaching tool for young Diné to learn about their culture.
For Diné college students who are away from home, it’s hard to find space and community for ceremonies like Keshjee’.
Now Diné students at the Utah State University Blanding campus will have a place to play the game and to meet: a hogan. Made of dirt and cedar, the hogan is built in a traditional manner and faces the eastern light, the first light a family sees in the morning.
Around 68% of the USU’s Blanding campus is Native American students, and about 90% of those are Diné.
“Having the hogan on campus just brings the feeling of being back home,” said Riana James, a Diné sophomore student studying elementary education. “So that’s one of the things that is unique is that we get to show parts of the Navajo culture or ... religion that is a part of the hogan.”
The new hogan is a female structure. Hogans can be built either as a female or male in design. Female hogans are generally built as homes or shelters, and male structures are used for private ceremonies. Both are representative of the duality of female and male identities.
Benedict Daniels and Rena Daniels, both of Monument Valley, built the hogan, while medicine man Andre Haycock, also of Monumental Valley, blessed the structure. The project was paid for through fundraising by faculty, including Jim Dandy, program coordinator for USU’s Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions Program.
Dandy says that the hogan will serve as a refuge for students to keep them focused. He’s taught Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, for years and hopes the hogan will make students feel resilient and that they belong on campus.
“The whole atmosphere of the campus wasn’t very conducive to some of the students that came off the reservation,” Dandy said. “So I just felt like we needed something that they could see and feel.”
“It’s just gorgeous. You look on the outside it doesn’t look like a whole lot because it’s just covered in mud,” said Kristian Olsen, associate vice president of USU Blanding. “And then you walked inside, and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, this thing is just beautiful.’ I think what’s important at a university is that you create a place where students feel welcomed, and they feel like hey, this is a place that is for me.”
Heather Atene’s daughter, a middle schooler from Red Mesa Junior High, has been working to attend a college like USU Blanding by attending enrichment programs at the campus. For Atene, knowing the campus now has a hogan is a relief because it means her daughter will keep a piece of her culture close by, even when she’s away from home.
Olsen says students will use the hogan for many purposes, including as a place for ceremonies, meditation, studying and classroom teaching.
They can even connect to the internet on the hogan’s Wi-Fi, adds Dandy.