Kiva are the traditional places of worship for the Pueblo people. They are traditionally constructed underground, but because the hard Acoma mesa discourages excavation, the people built the kiva above ground and made the only entrance from the roof to appear as if they were built with the traditional kiva construction. This is why the only part of a kiva that a visitor will see is a ladder climbing up a relatively blank facade. What makes the kiva even more mysterious is the fact that no visitors are allowed inside, and no one is allowed to talk about what goes on inside. Even the tour guides are not allowed to reveal the events that take place inside.
Contemporary Acoma architecture is very well preserved. This has a lot to due with its construction and maintenance that has been done and, in the case of the San Estevan del Rey mission church, it is protected as a historic building. In addition, the buildings are now receiving less wear and tear. This is largely due to the fact that most of the Acoma people no longer live on the mesa. Those who do live on the mesa full time are almost exclusively religious leaders. The rest of the Acoma people mostly live in the small towns in the valley below the mesa. They retain ownership of their property atop the mesa as a second home. Around 90 percent of the contemporary Acoma people practice the religion of Catholicism with pieces of their own traditional religion mixed in. They have essentially created their own hybrid religion.
Since the construction of San Estevan del Rey Mission in the early 1600s, the kivas of the Acoma Pueblo people, which were their traditional structures used for religious purposed have largely been restored. That being said, the San Estevan Church is still utilized for religious purposes at festival time and special occasions. When it is not being used for religious purposes it is used as a tourist attraction and an admission fee is charged to enter the church and take photographs. According to my more contemporary secondary sources, these functions remain the same to this day.
Being over 250 years old at the time, enduring the rebellion of 1680, and also withstanding the reclamation by Spain in 1699, it is a wonder that San Estevan del Rey Mission Church has not been destroyed. Actually, the church suffered very little damage from the rebellion and has, since then, been repaired three times. The repairs took place in 1799-1800, 1902, and 1924. The church is well maintained and, now that it is considered a historic site, it should remain this way for some time.
The church has a fortress-like battered aesthetic. This is do somewhat to its age, but also due to its slanting exterior silhouette, the two bell towers flanking the entrance, and the projecting vigas from the roof. The large plain walls and the parapet wall also aid in this aesthetic. The dimensions of the church are 150 feet by 40 feet, with the main entrance facing east, a typical orientation for a Catholic church. Inside, the space has been described as, “cool, dim, and spacious, the walls whitened with gypsum”. The entrance is underneath a choir loft, and the end wall has a large carved and painted reredos over the altar. The ceiling has large transverse beams over 40 feet long and 14 inches square which rest on brackets inset in the adobe in the walls. Much of the interior atmosphere is due to the large adobe walls which the church consists of. These large thermal masses should provide adequate shielding from the intense summer sun, insulation during the winter, and contribute even further to the fortress-like feel of the church.
The construction of San Estevan del Rey Mission Church was no easy task. The feat was much too large for the friars to take on themselves, so they enlisted the help of the Acoma People. Many of the materials they used on the church were collected from down in the valley and carried on the Indians’ backs up the 350 foot ascent to the top of the flat-topped mesa. Any soil for the burial grounds and gardens had to have been brought up from the valley. The timbers, which spanned over 40 feet long, had to have been brought from the San Mateo mountains which were located 30 miles away. The construction implemented a simple post-and-lintel structural system. The friars were probably designing these mission churches similarly to how they remembered the baroque architecture from back in Spain, but baroque churches were full of domes, arches, and vaults. The reason these architectural features were not attempted in the San Estevan del Rey Mission Church is most likely because of the lack of skilled workers the construction materials at hand. So the friars adapted to the resources available to them, but incorporated the new construction methods into the general plan and form of the Spanish churches that they were used to.
One Important difference that resulted from the adobe construction of the church rather than the stone construction of the churches in Spain is that the walls were very thick at the bottom and tapered as they rose. The two main walls of San Estevan were 7 feet and 5 feet and tapered 30 in by the time they rose to their full height of 35 feet. The reason one wall is thicker than the other corresponds to how it was originally constructed. It is believed the large roof beams, which are called vigas, were levered into place using the thicker wall as a fulcrum. These roof beams and walls had to be large to hold up the tons of weight from the roof, which consisted of adobe resting on ceiling boards. It is believed that the Indian men did the carpentry and woodwork while the women and children did most of the adobe work.
Juan Remirez left Santa Fe in 1629 to found the mission at Acoma, a tribe of the Pueblo Indians who were notoriously rebellious. Looking at some of the points in David Weber's What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680?, the friar may have sought out a dangerous position such as this with thoughts of courageous martydom. Either way, he managed to make his way into the Acoma village and rebuilds the sky city in 10 to 15 years, establishing the San Estevan del Rey mission church in the process.
How Ramirez was able to peacefully enter the Acoma village and have the people build the church is an interesting story. Some of my secondary sources tell the story of Juan Ramirez entering the Acoma village saying he was initially greeted with a shower of arrows to deter him from entering the village. The sheer cliff shielded him as he ascended the mesa. A young girl was believed to have fell off the mesa during the event to what seemed like certain death. Ramirez made it to the top with the girl still alive, which was perceived to be a miracle, and the Acoma people were much more willing to let the friar talk to them about Catholicism after the incident. They worked with him relatively peacefully during his time as friar of the Acoma, and many Acoma people became legitimate converts to Catholicism, although many of them retained many of their former religious traditions.
One major incident in Acoma history was the Acoma massacre. Although the massacre itself happened in 1599, its roots can be traced back to 1598 when Acoma people had a minor revolt against Capt. Juan Zaldivar where they killed him and a dozen of his men. They claimed he ordered them to give his men excessive provisions, stole from them, and violated an Acoma woman. Juan's brother, Vicente de Zaldivar returns in 1599 with tremendous force, and in a three day battle fights his way up to the top of the mesa, burns the city, killing a significant number of Acoma people. Onate soon punished the Acoma men over 25 years old by sentencing them to 20 year of servitude and cutting off one foot to set an example to the rest of the Pueblos.
Juan de Onate returns to the village of Acoma in 1598, accompanied by his two nephews, the Zaldivar brothers, and Captain Gaspar de Villagra. He came with the intention to save souls through Catholicism and to get Acoma to promise loyalty to the crown. Unlike Coronado, Onate saw Acoma a place to be colonized and therefor established the first permanent European settlement in the village. The Acoma people were not very thrilled at this new arrangement he proposed initially as on of the stories about Onate's visit involves the Acoma chief attempting to lure Onate into a kiva to murder him.