Looking Deeper: Kivas

Kivas are underground structures made for ceremonial purposes, including both religious and cultural contexts. “Kiva” stands for “ceremonial room” in Hopi, and it was adopted by archaeologists from the late 1800s and early 1900s (Lekson 1988, p. 215). They evolved from pit houses, semi-subterranean buildings used for warmth during winter, food storage, and occasionally cultural practices such as dancing and storytelling. These underground structures were mainly used by Native American tribes in the Southwest, from the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma tribes to name a few. 

One main use of the kiva is to hold religious ceremonies. The entrance symbolizes the physical world, while the kiva serves as a glimpse into the spiritual world. The sipapu, a small hole in the wall, creates this spiritual environment, as tribes believed it was where ancestors emerged from the underworld into their realm. The fire inside also holds spiritual connotations, and its smoke is believed to hold the prayers and offerings of those participating in the ceremony. Aligned with the ladder, the fire’s smoke ascends to the spirits, while displaying reverence for the community’s beliefs. As each person arrives and leaves, they interact with the smoke as they use the ladder. In the ceremony itself, kiva participants circle around the fire and all are aware of its sacredness.

  • Kiva, Far View Sites Complex, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. 11th-12th century. 

Besides religious ceremonies, kivas provide a sense of community. Simply building the kiva inspired comradery as it required multiple people to build one. The technique passes down to each generation, and it serves as just one of many enduring traditions of the indigenous tribes. Along with the creation of the kiva, other events in the kiva allowed for culture to pass through generations. Many meetings, storytellings, and feasts were held in kivas, which allowed for culture and knowledge to continuously flow through tribes.

Kivas were not plain, barren pits. They held various murals, altars, textiles, and works of art to display their culture and welcome spirits into the sacred space. Murals were important as the indigenous people painted specific spirits, stories from their ancestors, or the tribe’s creation story, painting the most important moments which conveyed important teaching or were believed to bring good fortune. Kachina dolls were also popularly found in kivas, wooden carvings of spirits primarily used in the Pueblo and Hopi tribes. Pottery, sculptures, and costumes round out some of the most common items in a kiva.

  • Kiva and room block from the Puzzle House site in Montezuma County.

Archaeologists have discovered that kivas evolved more than initially realized. Three more types of kivas have been unearthed apart from the original kiva. Two include a small kiva, found after AD 900 in Puebloan sites within each small room block, and a great kiva, a structure for ceremonies that could accommodate great numbers of people (Larkin 2020). Tower kivas were a third adaptation of kivas, a circular structure with two or more stories.

In sum, kivas were an essential part of the culture and history of native people. It allowed for ceremonies, feasts, and most importantly, for these traditions to be passed down generation through generation.

Graham, Don. “KIVA.” Art History Glossary, https://blog.stephens.edu/arh101glossary/?glossary=kiva. Accessed 22 September 2023. 

Larkin, Karin.  “Kivas,” Colorado Encyclopedia, last modified September 09 2020, https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/kivas. Accessed 19 September 2023

Lekson, Stephen H. “The Idea of the Kiva in Anasazi Archaeology.” Kiva 53, no. 3 (1988): 213–34. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30247177.

Puzzle House Aerial, 1993 | Images | Colorado Encyclopedia, https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/image/puzzle-house-aerial-1993. Accessed 20 September 2023. 

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2 thoughts on “Looking Deeper: Kivas

  1. How might the kivas have been influential in the preservation of oral history? What is the archaeological significance of the kiva adaptations, and how might this discovery be helpful to repatriation and decolonization efforts?

  2. Kivas were influential because they offered a place for gatherings and storytelling, encouraging the generational passing down of stories. Physical artifacts found validate the oral history and provide insights into tribal beliefs. These findings support repatriation claims, and indigenous involvement ensures respect to the culture is taken to each artifact.

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