Never Say “Kiva” Fireplace

Puye doorway
This doorway, photographed at Puye in 1974, leads into a tiny room carved in the soft tufa. Inside soot remained on the wall from ancient fires. The hole to the right of the door was the air vent. During the winter the door was probably closed with a hide or reed mat.

By Anita Rodriguez

The iconic adobe fireplace, absolutely required to make any New Mexican-style interior “authentic,” has been called by the wrong name since the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the traditional, colonial-style adobe fireplace to which it refers has nothing to do with kivas and is an example of how commercializing a culture erases authenticity. In this case the misnomer was absurdly off-the-mark and raises the question, does tourism institutionalize ignorance by reinventing history?

For starters, a real kiva fireplace will never be seen by non-Indian eyes. They are hidden in sacred, secret underground chambers in the Pueblos, who understand very well the destructive power of commercialization. They do not allow cameras during dances and close their villages entirely during certain ceremonies. Tourism is an important industry to Native Americans, but they wisely protect their traditions and spiritual privacy from the corrosive effects of the ignorant gaze.

I can’t speak for my Native sisters, brothers and cousins. But I bet they must be tired of seeing people naming their businesses, streets and groups “Kiva” this and “Kiva’ that. But the “kiva fireplace” treads on my heritage too, and so herein, let me officially put “kiva fireplace” at the top of the politically, culturally incorrect list. Until somebody comes up something better, I suggest we just call them “traditional adobe fireplaces.”

To begin with, it’s a disrespectful misuse of a religious term to call them “kivas.” The secrecy and sacredness surrounding the real kiva fireplace is rooted in a history non-Indians would do well to remember. Popay, of the Pueblos of Taos and Ohkay Owingeh, launched a successful rebellion in 1680, and drove the Spanish out of New Mexico. The rebellion was provoked by the cruelty and violence of colonialism, but the last straw was the repression of religious freedom and the desecration of the kivas. The Spanish returned in 1692, but the Pueblos won the right to defend the spiritual privacy of their sacred spaces. The commercialization of the word “kiva” could be considered a micro-desecration, something akin to micro-aggression.

Fireplaces were the only source of heat, light and cooked food in pre-Columbian domestic interiors. There was no chimney as in fireplaces we know today. Excavations reveal that a domestic scene must have looked something like this. 

As shown, the fire was built in a shallow pit on the floor, and smoke exited through a hole in the roof directly above. There were no doors at ground level in the multi-storied pueblos; instead, ladders that could be pulled up in case of attack led up to the terraced roofs. Rooms were entered through openings in the roofs that also served as the source of light, the door and (more-or-less) a smoke exit. Air to combust the fire was provided by holes at the base of the walls and the draft was controlled by fire dogs (andiron) or stones. By moving stones and manipulating firewood it is possible to cook very efficiently in a fire pit, but without a chimney, smoke in these enclosed domestic spaces was unavoidable.

Underground kivas required another solution since the floors were well below ground grade. In order to bring oxygen to the fire, a stone-lined shaft was built outside the chamber walls and opened at floor level. This carried air downwards to combust the fire.

Far away, in Mediterranean Andalucía, the homeland of the coming conquerors, fireplaces without chimneys also existed. Unlike the complicated Russian stoves of northern Europe with zig-zagging chimneys, fireplaces in Spain were built against the wall under a simple hood.  

This fireplace is in El Greco’s house in Toledo, Spain, where he lived from 1577 until he died in 1614. Hidden behind the hood is a circular hole in the wall. As you can see, there is no chimney above the firebox.  

Another interesting fact is that fireplaces were built by women. The role women played in the development and preservation of North America’s oldest architecture was barely mentioned by architectural historians. Bainbridge Bunting (Early New Mexican Architecture, UNM Press) acknowledges that indigenous women were the primary builders and features a photograph of a woman building a fireplace. But until I published an article in Adobe News in 1975, the story of the enjarradorasthe women builders of New Mexicohad never been written.

In 1974-75 I took a camera and tape recorder into the villages in Taos County, found and interviewed the last living enjarradoras, took out a contractor’s license, brought traditional techniques up to code, and worked in the construction industry for 25 years. Before I retired at 47 and became a fulltime painter, I built dozens of “kiva” fireplaces, plastered square miles of wall, laid waterproof mud floors and built my own house. The enjarradora’s techniques are now standard practice in the adobe industry.

Oral tradition makes it clear that women of both Native and Hispanic cultures have a specific building technology that, among other things, originated the unique New Mexican adobe fireplace. Not only thatwomen kept over a thousand years of architecture standing because the entire interior and exterior surfaces of the architecture (all the embellishments, bancos to sit on, niches to store things, clay slips to color walls and sometimes even murals painted in earth colors, plus all the maintenance and remodeling) continued to be the exclusive specialty of women until well into this century.

Until corporate construction wiped out vernacular architectures of the world, 80 percent of religious and secular buildings were adobe. In an infinite variety of strikingly different styles, each earth-building culture developed its own unique architecture, adapted to local climates and available materials, created to accommodate the patterns of that culture’s lifestyle. From subtropical China, to Egypt, to Africa and the Americas ,plain dirta free, universally available, non-polluting and climatologically adaptable materialhas housed mankind more generously, longer and with more creative originality (because of its infinite plasticity) than any other material.  

Corporate construction discouraged the use of adobe on the grounds that without constant maintenance it melts, and labor costs are high. True, when no longer needed, adobe buildings melt into the earth from whence they came and do not leave behind a huge disposal problem. These seem to me to be energy-saving features.

In the overwhelming majority of earth-building cultures women are the embellishers and the maintenance experts. In New Mexico men cut and haul the heavy roof beams, or vigas, mix the tons of mud needed to make adobes and plaster. Among the Pueblos women also owned and inherited their houses in the maternal line. When the Native population was conquered and coerced into the labor force that built the Catholic churches and housed the colonizers, Indian women continued to practice their traditional adobe craft. Indian men could not and would not do that work. Of necessity the Spanish absorbed the custom and today the adobe finishing techniques of Native and Hispanic women are identical.  

As for the adobe fireplace that all New Mexican hotels, architects, contractors, interior decorators, amenity migrants and “diversity” lovers absolutely must have—the one you can’t call “kiva”was invented by enjarradoras. Like its builders, the adobe fireplace is a Mestiza hybrid and a symbol of the creativity that women can resurrect from the ashes of catastrophe, conquest and cultural collision; we just keep on cooking.

Another architectural hybrid is the adobe horno, that looks so at home in modern pueblos. Its origin is Arabic; it came with the Spanish along with the practice of making bricks in wooden forms, which replaced the indigenous puddled walls. In fact, the word “adobe” comes from the Arabic atub for brick. Spanish innovations were adopted where they were practical, even in the more conservative pueblos. There are photographs of hooded fireplaces at Zuni in 1879, hornos built on the roof terraces, and chimneys made from very thin specially-made adobes. Above the rooftops, pots with the bottoms burned out stacked one upon the other make good chimneys, since fired material is more resistant to weathering than adobe.

The enjarradora’s story is told in the silent but eloquent voices of our beautiful churches, villages and pueblos. These forgotten women have left us an architectural legacy that is second only to our magnificent landscape in making this land so powerfully enchanting.

Anita Rodriguez was born in Taos, New Mexico, in 1941 and grew up on Taos’ plaza. Her father was a Mexican druggist. Her Anglo mother was a painter. Rodriguez won several awards for reviving and bringing up to code the adobe finishing techniques of the enjarradora. She is also a recognized and established painter and author of Coyota in the Kitchen (UNM Press), which won five awards. Her work can be seen at three Taos galleries: Optimysm, Magpie and Studio 107B.

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