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What is a Kiva?

A Kiva is a sacred space, deeply rooted in the traditions of Puebloan peoples. These subterranean chambers serve as spiritual sanctuaries for ceremonies and communal gatherings, embodying a profound connection to ancestral customs. Their circular design symbolizes the unity and continuity of life. Discover how Kivas bridge the past and present, inviting us to explore their enduring legacy.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

A kiva is a room used for religious purposes by Pueblo and Hopi peoples. Although most modern kivas are built above ground, ancient tribes of today’s American Southwest kept some subterranean kivas. Most of these underground rooms were round, instead of square like their aboveground counterparts. It is believed that some of these spaces were used for communal purposes as well as sacred rites.

Many of the peoples who are known to have used kivas participated in the katchina belief system. Historians have found that this belief system emerged in the American Southwest sometime between 1300 AD and 1200 AD. However, archaeologists have found kivas that were built before that time period. Therefore, kivas may have been designed for reasons other than spiritual practice, but were later employed for these purposes.

Woman posing
Woman posing

A kiva is entered through a hole in the roof of the structure. Within the structure, there are benches built in along the inside wall. Depending on the placement and design of a kiva, it may also include interior supports and beams. One very characteristic element of kivas is a hole, or depression in the floor. This hole is called a sipapu, and is meant to symbolize an important event within the katchina creation story. Followers of this spiritual path believe that the very first inhabitants of the world came out of hole in the earth, from a lower world. A kiva is also likely to include a fire pit and a ventilation shaft.

As time progressed and kivas were used by the peoples of the American Southwest for dozens of generations, the design of the structure became more elaborate. Furthermore, while many early kivas were built to accommodate rather small groups of people, later kivas were much larger. It is clear that kivas became important for large groups, hence the change in their design and capacity. This change in the kivas may also mark a change in the way the peoples worshiped.

Struggle in the American Southwest and conflict between the peoples is evident by the ruins of many kivas. Based on archaeological study, it is known that many kivas were burned. The ruins of kivas can still be seen today in many national parks. Reconstructed kivas can be visited at the Mesa Verde National Park and the Bandelier National Monument. There are also ruins of a very large kiva at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a Kiva?

A Kiva is a traditional ceremonial structure used by the Puebloan peoples of the American Southwest. It is typically a subterranean, circular room with a distinctive architecture that includes a sipapu (a small hole in the floor symbolizing the portal through which their ancestors first emerged to enter the world), a fire pit, and often a ladder protruding from the center of the roof to allow entry and exit. Kivas serve as sacred spaces for rituals and religious ceremonies, reflecting the cultural and spiritual practices of the indigenous communities.

How old are Kivas, and where can they be found?

Kivas have been a part of Puebloan culture for centuries, with some dating back to at least the Pueblo I period, around 700-850 AD. They are predominantly found in the American Southwest, particularly in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, where Puebloan tribes have historically resided. The most famous examples can be seen in archaeological sites such as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.

Can anyone visit a Kiva?

While some Kivas, especially those in archaeological sites, can be visited by the public, it is important to remember that they are sacred spaces for the Puebloan people. Visitors should approach with respect and follow any guidelines provided by the site or tribe. Active Kivas on tribal lands are generally not open to the public, as they are still used for religious ceremonies and are considered private.

What is the significance of the Kiva's design?

The design of a Kiva is deeply symbolic, reflecting the Puebloan people's cosmology and religious beliefs. The circular shape represents the world, while the sipapu symbolizes the place of emergence of the ancestors. The ladder signifies the connection between the spiritual world above and the earthly world below. The fire pit is central to many ceremonies, serving as a focal point for gatherings and rituals within the Kiva.

Are Kivas used in modern times?

Yes, Kivas continue to be an integral part of Puebloan culture and are actively used by modern Pueblo peoples for religious ceremonies and community gatherings. They are not relics of the past but living structures that maintain their significance and function within Puebloan society. The traditions and rituals performed in Kivas are often closely guarded and are a vital aspect of the cultural heritage of the indigenous communities that build and maintain them.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for UnitedStatesNow, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for UnitedStatesNow, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon134365

Since they changed their capacity and design what exactly are the height variations of kivas?

anon46076

hello! im 10 and im looking up the meaning of a kiva and this was a very good website for me! so use it if you need to know about a kiva! p.s. by the time anyone reads this, i will probably be dead! that is how no famous i am! Elizabeth

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