(ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.) — The call for help came at 8:30 a.m. from an especially secluded pocket of the Navajo Nation: A man and woman were unresponsive inside a traditional structure and 14 others were suffering from smoke inhalation after a nighttime ceremony.
Navajo Nation police said Wednesday they are still investigating what happened at the weekend gathering in Alamo, New Mexico, about 83 miles (133 kilometers) southwest of Albuquerque. They have not yet said how the man and woman died or released their identities. Both were found Sunday morning on the floor of the hogan, a dome-roofed home that can have six or eight sides, authorities said.
The traditional Navajo structures often are constructed with log walls and a smoke hole in the center. Mud traditionally fills a hogan’s log gaps and seals it, though in recent decades plywood, clapboard and asphalt roofing also have been used.
It remained unclear how the hogan was constructed. Citing concerns about cultural sensitivity, officials declined to name the type of ceremony, saying only that it involved an open fire pit burning inside the home.
Those hospitalized for smoke inhalation were treated and released Sunday, said Christina Tsosie, a Navajo police spokeswoman.
The reaction to the deaths has been far-reaching and widespread among many Native Americans in recent days.
“Certainly, it’s a true tragedy,” said Sandor Iron Rope, a former president of the Native American Church of North America, a religion shared among people from numerous tribes. “I just had to step back and offer my prayers.”
Iron Rope, who is Oglala Lakota and whose wife is Navajo, said he was struck that so many people suffered from smoke inhalation during a ceremony inside a hogan, given the homes generally are well-ventilated. “They have been holding ceremonies in them for eons,” he said.
Native American Church ceremonies, which last through the night, are held most often in teepees, though on the Navajo Nation they also can be conducted in hogans.
Alamo, bordered by a national wildlife refuge and mountains, is a satellite chapter of the larger Navajo reservation. Interstate, mountains and hundreds of miles of desert separate the chapter from the primary, 27,000 square-mile (69,930 square-kilometer) Navajo Nation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
A woman who answered the phone at the Alamo Chapter House, a local community and government hall, said residents remained shocked. She declined further comment and did not give her name.
The case harkens back to the carbon monoxide poisoning nearly 25 years ago of three friends who died during a healing ceremony. They had been gathered inside the hogan of Garnett Yazzie, a 51-year-old woman who was among the victims. Her hogan in St. Michaels, Arizona, was built with wooden siding, a concrete floor, shingled roof and tight-fitting doors, officials said in 1995.
At the time, Indian Health Service officials issued advisories about the dangers of open flames in enclosed buildings. The agency, which provides primary care to Native Americans, also underscored that tribal ceremonies and traditional hogans are not inherently dangerous.
Tsosie, the police spokeswoman, said the Alamo case had been referred to a criminal investigator as a standard procedure.