View On Outdoors

by Karen L. Monsen

Cultural historical parks and museums are like time machines enriching our lives and reminding us of how similar we are to our ancestors. Centuries ago in America’s Southwest, people gathered in pit houses and kivas to socialize, worship, and tell stories. Visits to Utah’s Frontier Homestead State Park, New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Aztec Ruins National Monument help us appreciate our common experiences in these gathering places.

Pit Houses

Frontier Homestead State Park in Cedar City, Utah, known primarily for pioneer displays, also includes a Native Heritage section. The park contains a replica of a Fremont pit house that was excavated by the UCLA archaeological field school in 1954 in the nearby Paragonah Mounds, replica Paiute wickiups, a shade shelter, replicated petroglyphs, faux excavation pits, atlatl range, and a Native garden.

The park opened in 1973 as Iron Mission State Park and changed its name to reflect a broader focus on the area’s human history. This small cultural park welcomed 36,000 visitors in 2017 and hosts numerous educational programs, living history demonstrations, and holiday events, making it a favorite educational venue.

Todd Price, Frontier Homestead Park Manager since 1997, integrates Native American culture with pioneer themes drawing from his 28 years of Utah park experiences, having served as Park Manager, archaeologist, and Museum Curator at Anasazi State Park in Boulder, and Park Manager at Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding.

Prince explains, “Pit houses and kivas are both semi-subterranean and subterranean structures, with some differences in construction techniques. Pit houses served as living quarters for both Fremont and early Pueblo peoples, whereas kivas became specialized ceremonial structures among the Ancestral Pueblo people, and are still evident among the Hopi and Pueblo people along the Rio Grande. We really don’t see kivas among the Fremont, except maybe at geographical peripheral sites that overlap with the Ancestral Pueblo.” 

The Four-Corners (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona) hold the largest prehistoric concentration of kivas outside the Hopi Mesas and Zuni Reservations. The archaeological record suggests kiva-building among the Ancestral Pueblo began around A.D. 700 and continued until around A.D. 1300.

What’s a Kiva?

In his Book of the Hopi, Frank Waters defines kivas as generally circular ceremonial rooms, usually below ground level, with an entrance from above through a ladder. Features include a ventilation shaft, central sunken fire pit with a deflector stone, various floor vaults possibly used as drums, a seating ledge along the wall, a small floor hole described in Hopi creation stories as sipapuni or sipapu representing the emergence point from Mother Earth and the prior world into the present world from which one symbolically exits through the roof ladder into the next world.

Chaco and Aztec Great Kivas

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico has an unrivaled concentration of ancient masonry structures, standing walls, and kivas with floor vaults. Constructed by ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and other Pueblos from A.D. 800 through A.D. 1200, Chaco was central in an extensive high desert trading network. Established in 1907 as a National Monument, Chaco Culture became a National Historical Park in 1980.

Chaco Park Ranger Kathy Hensler elaborates on kivas, “The Pueblo people not only have different languages, but also differences in social and religious organization that affect kiva use.” Hensler, a University of Arizona anthropology graduate, worked 25 years as an archaeologist, 9 years as a teacher, and 8 years with the National Park Service at Chaco and Aztec Ruins.

Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito has 32 kivas, 3 great kivas, and over 350 ground-floor rooms. Hensler notes Casa Rinconada is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon measuring 63 feet in diameter. According to Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, Casa Rinconada was the setting for the Hopi Lakon (Women’s Basket) ceremony under the sponsorship of the Parrot Clan. Tribal members continue to practice traditional ceremonies at various locations in the park.

Hensler describes distinctive kiva features, “Chaco-style kivas are known for their placement within square rooms, horizontal wood pilasters, and subfloor vaults. Similar kivas are found in Aztec Ruins.” Visitors to Aztec’s Great Kiva, reconstructed in 1934, can enter and experience the sacred space firsthand. In its prime, the 900-year-old Aztec site located 55 miles north of Chaco had at least 7 kivas and over 500 masonry rooms.

Nowadays, we still gather as our ancestors did, in small family units and in large community spaces, to celebrate, observe seasonal customs, and tell stories. Hensler reminds us, “What we know of past cultures enriches our lives today and may ensure that we continue to survive in the future. Also as we study other people, we start to identify parts of ourselves in what we see and it reminds us that we are all part of the huge continuum of humanity.”

“Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.”

—Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux

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