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.
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.