The Kiva as Sacred Ground

Mesa Verde Kiva

Mesa Verde Kiva

Cov Davis held the hand of her three-year-old son, as she balanced the weight of her two-year-old daughter on her hips, swaying slightly to calm the restless child.  Her beaded moccasins crunched coarse, dry sand as she gazed at the entrance hole to the Hopi kiva at Walpi Mesa, in northern Arizona. Standing here on this mesa seemed like being on a space ship hovering over earth.  The hazy October sun set behind the San Francisco Peaks to the west; rain poured out of a purple hued thundercloud to the south.  Jagged lightening flashed toward earth and the shock wave of thunder frightened the children, as they clung to their protective mother.  Cov sensed an invisible barrier between herself and the kiva, as this sacred space was reserved only for the Eagle Clan’s private ceremonies.

However, that night was different.  Her husband, Father John Davis, Episcopal priest who had ministered to the Navajo and Hopi for the past twelve years, was departing the reservation for a new assignment in California. The night descended upon the mesa. A luminescent glow emanated out of the entrance hole to the kiva.

“Come over here,”  Father John whispered to Cov, as he emerged from the ladder into the Kiva.

“Are you sure this is OK? I don’t think the children will be quiet and they will disrupt whatever is going on down there.”

“It’s OK,” Father John responded. “Remember that the Hopi have a special reverence for children. Tonight they are the special guests.”

Many years later, Cov would recall what happened next.

With John’s help she transported the children down the sturdy cottonwood ladder into the kiva.  A small fire of pinyon pine burned in a corner, and through some ancient engineering the smoke went out somewhere and was not bothersome. Benches carved into the sides of the earthen hole were filled with men from the village. Some faces reflected deep altered states. Others looked to her in greeting, slight smiles, and nods.  No one was speaking, as sound amplified in the enclosed space.  As Cov looked around at the men seated around her, memories of past events connecting her to each person passed through her mind.  Precious friends. Something within her ached with love, affection and the beginning of grief.

Thunder boomed again in the distance. Three men began to beat a drum in alternating cadence.  Soft humming followed.  The humming became words to chants and the sound enfolded Cov and the children.  She looked at the faces of her son and daughter, worried again that they might cry or make other disturbing sounds. But the soft rhythm of the drumming and chanting filled the space with the hint of spicy pinyon smoke and the eyes of the children widened with enchantment and wonder.
As Cov remembers that last night on Walpi mesa, she thinks the family was in the kiva for several hours, and the enchanted state of her children lasted the whole time.  The family left the kiva and the Reservation with blessings from the people as they continued west toward Orange County, California.

kiva interior details

kiva interior details

Mable Dodge Luhan, in “Edge of Taos Desert,” shares another story of a kiva experience.

There was a white man who was brought into the tribal community because the Indians were fond of him, to such an extent that he was allowed to attend their ceremonies if he was blindfolded.  He remembers that once he was taken down into the kiva ceremonial space.

“It was a round, underground chamber with a roof made of seven portions, but tree trunks joined and fitted together, with heavy dirt on the top. In the center of this roof, a round opening to the sky, and below it, resting on the earth, lay a great round stone. There was a stout thong made of hide tied about the stone with its end lying on the ground. The Indians sat in a circle on their haunches, their backs against the earthen wall.”  (Luhan, p. 4)

They again blindfolded him, and as he sat he could hear a low chanting, repeated phrases like a mantra. This went on for a while and being blindfolded it heightened his other senses. The hypnotic humming continues and “at regular intervals a wind passed against his cheeks as though the air was heavily displaced before him. Round and round him something moved, each time faster while the humming sound grew higher pitches. Something rose on the solid body of the chant…rose in the room, fanning him briskly, higher and higher until he no longer felt the air moving on his face and it stirred his hair no more, but the great whine of an enormous rotary motor filled the hollow chamber of earth above him.  For a few second only, and then, apparently, it passed out through the roof and soared away.”

The sound went off into the night air and faded away. The humming and chanting continued in the kiva, and then the man could hear the greater sound returning, hovering over the kiva and then entering the kiva chamber again.  “Once more he felt the air stir across his face as the thing passed and repassed him. It slowed down and its whine, too, sank to a low, deep sound. It came to rest in the center, and the men stopped chanting and began talking in Indian.”

They removed the blindfold from the man, he looked around, and everything in the kiva looked as it was when he first entered.

Great kiva at Mesa Verde

Great kiva at Mesa Verde

October 2014, Janice, I, and our adult disabled son Erik walk a winding paved road from a parking lot at Mesa Verde National Park down steep inclines toward Spruce Tree House. Residual raindrops from a passing thunderstorm drip on us from juniper and pinyon pine.  At a wide turn on this path, we pause to view a huge rocky alcove within which are set the ruins of this Ancestral Pueblo village, occupied between CE 1200 and 1280.  We continue walking toward the sound of a waterfall and find the ancient seep water source which sustained the settlement in this desert mountain landscape.

We come close enough to touch the walls of the impressive ruins. Two kiva courtyards spread out to the left and right, each with a ladder inviting visits to reconstructed kiva sacred space.  As the early inhabitants once did, I climbed down a cottonwood ladder and stepped back to the recessed walls.

Using a National Park Service booklet for orientation, I could see that above me, cribbed wooden roof beams rested on six supporting pillars/pilasters.  Traditionally, at the center of the kiva is a fire pit next to a stone deflector. I can see a ventilator opening in the wall and something that looks like a chimney that must have pulled in outside air. Smoke escaped through the ladder entrance hole. A small circular hole is the sipapu, believed by Pueblo people to be a vestigage into the former world.  There are niches in the walls for storage and space for a sacred altar, where ceremonial masks and sacred corn could be placed. As I sat on one of the inset stone benches within this kiva, I was alone. However, my mind went quickly back to my memory of Cov’s visit to the Hopi kiva with her children.

I sit on a recessed stone bench in the kiva. It is late afternoon, near closing time. I am alone. Janice and Erik wait for me in the ruins above.  Soft orange beams of sunlight shine down the ladder entrance hole.  This is not an historic ruin, this is ancient holy ground, a well prayed in place.  The prayer people who lived here died one-thousand years ago, but pueblo people today would honor their presence.

I contemplate the three narratives I have shared with you.  One is a memory from an Anglo woman who had a powerful experience as a spiritual guest with her family in the Walpi Hopi kiva.  One is a story told by Mabel Luhan, as transplanted Eastern artist, who became enchanted with the people at Taos Pueblo. Her narrative sounds like a sensational event to add to a collection of spiritual experiences. The third narrative comes from the National Park Service, technical information gleaned from archaeologists to help the visitor understand the physical layout of the kiva.

However, this is still holy ground, mysterious space where the ancient ones communed with the Holy.

Phillip Sheldrake reminds us in Spaces for the Sacred (p. 19)

“Narrative is critical to our identity, for we all need a story to live by in order to make sense of the otherwise unrelated events of life and to find a sense of dignity. It is only by enabling alternative stories to be heard that an elitist ‘history’ may be pried open to offer an entry point for the oppressed who have otherwise been excluded from the history of public places.”

Whose narrative is being told in this place? Anecdotes from Anglo friends, anthropologists, government caretakers, or vestiges of the people who once lived here?  French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur contends that the narrative of this holy ground kiva includes history but also “fiction,” what we may call “myths,” because in traditional cultures myth is actualized story.


“We need to become aware of what might be called ‘a longer narrative’ in which ‘the others’ who have been made absent by those who control public or institutional histories are now being restored as people who are fully present. They are no longer a presumed and distant ‘them’ removed from a vague and tacit us (p. 21).”

Here is the narrative of the ancient ones who lived here. The Creator made the First World.  Spider Woman and Sotuknang instructed the people to honor with gratitude the Creator. Fire laid waste to this First World, because the people forgot the creator. However, there was a remnant of the people who remembered the creator and they went underground to seek refuge with the Ant People.  In time, the creator permitted the people to come up from the underworld into a beautiful new world. However, connection between the animals and the people had been lost and again the people forgot the Creator.  Ice and snow destroyed this world. Another cycle of reemergence and creation of a Third World, and forgetting the creator resulted in destruction by flood. Finally, the gods guided the people to emerge into a recreated Fourth World.  The kiva represents the memory of this narrative with the sipapuni, the portal through which the ancestors entered and reentered the four worlds.

To what narrative have you given your heart? Sitting in quiet contemplation in the kiva, standing in the desert as morning light breaks out of Monument Valley to the east, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament at my parish, I embrace the narrative of my life, which includes remembering the Creator in gratitude for all the gifts and graces in those times when I was at the end of my resources and running on empty. Being in sacred space evokes deep gratitude from me.


Spruce Tree House, Ray Barnett and Linda Martin, Mesa Verde Museum Association, 2014.

Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, Belden Lane. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2002.

Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity, Phillip Sheldrake. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001.

Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, Richard V. Francaviglia. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003.

Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality, Mabel Dodge Luhan. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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1 Response to The Kiva as Sacred Ground

  1. Sandy G. says:

    Thank you for the reminder; prayers for gratitude and guidance are important.

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