In previous articles [Medicine Wheels of the Plains Indians and Sacred Geology], I have talked about some of the more popular theories for the Medicine Wheel atop the Bighorn Mountain in northern Wyoming. But there are many other explanations and the following is based on discussions with the local Rangers and other articles on the subject.
The official explanation from the Forest Service is that we know very little for sure about the site. We do know that it has “an undefined religious significance to many tribes mainly in the plains area.” And there have been groups from as far as Guatemala that have come to participate in ceremonies. The main tribes who come to hold sacred ceremonies are the Crow, Shashone, Northern Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Lakota Sioux. The Crow reservation is very close (just over the mountain to the northeast). Ancient Crow legends speak of discovering the Medicine Wheel when they first came, which would place the wheel already there in the late seventeenth century when the Crow moved west to Southwestern Montana and northern Wyoming. The official dating of the site based upon artifacts left by the Crow, Shashone and others is 1200 to 1700.
However, there is an ancient hearth unearthed just a quarter mile from the wheel that has been carbon-dated to be 6,500 years old. So, there is no question that the site has been visited for thousands of years despite the difficulty to reach it–it is high in the Bighorn mountains at an elevation of 9,642 feet–and the relatively short season at that altitude. There is no way to tie the Medicine Wheel to the hearth, of course, but the hearth shows that Native Americans have been going to that area for thousands of years.
The significance of the formation of the stones can be interpreted in many ways. For instance, twenty-eight “spokes” radiate from the center cairn. Some of the sacred interpretations associated with this number include: it is the length of a woman’s menstrual cycle; the number four and seven are sacred numbers for many tribes and four sevens is twenty-eight. Four is sacred primarily because it represents the four cardinal directions. Seven also represents directions: up, down, center, north, south, east, west.
Another significant link to the number twenty-eight might be to the Sun Dance Lodge, which has twenty-eight rafters. The Sun Dance is a very important and sacred ceremony practiced even today by Plains tribes. It occurs around the summer solstice and most probably originated for the purpose of coaxing the sun to stop its northward journey and move back southward again. Perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate their worthiness, the ceremony has come to incorporate soul cleansing, renewal, and rededication to the right ways.
Native Americans in the past have been very secretive about the Sun Dance and for good reason. Going back to George Washington, the U. S. Government has tried to acculturate Native Americans and force them to abandon their ancient ways and adopt the Euro-American culture. So, until recently, the Sun Dance ceremony was banned forcing Native Americans to hold their ceremonies in secret. But, with the lifting of the ban and the government backing off, the Sun Dance can once again be celebrated openly and many Native American tribes are starting to share the ceremony with outsiders and allow filming or pictures of the ceremony.
The first time most non-natives were exposed to the ancient ceremony was in the 1970’s movie “A Man Called Horse”, staring Richard Harris. But today, the interested and appreciative can learn about the Sun Dance. Here are a couple of videos that I think tell the story vey well [click here].
The rock cairns are also evidence that the Medicine Wheel might have been an early site for the Sun Dance. The cairns were possibly 4 to 6 six feet high before vandalized and destroyed by cattle. There is evidence that ax-cut poles were once supported by the cairns suggesting a roof may have once shaded the stones (like a Sun Dance Lodge). Some speculate that the site might have been a place for vision quests or that it may have been inspired by a vision quest. There are areas nearby that are used today for vision quests and modern ceremonies at the wheel often involve placing a bison skull in the center facing east.
What else do we know about the Medicine Wheel?
Despite the very convincing work of John Eddy in the 1970’s suggesting that the Medicine wheel was an archaeoastronomical site. Many doubt that it was ever a calendar system. Nomadic tribes were after the bison and game and followed a trail that passed by the wheel. They were not prone to stay in one place long enough to use the wheel to observe the sky. It was not the normal characteristic of hunter gatherers and they had many simpler ways of determining the seasons and patterns of the game they pursued. A more plausible explanation might be that it was a marker along the trail where big horn sheep, buffalo and elk roamed and also a place for gathering plants for medicine.
Although many are impressed with the fact that the religious ceremonies still go on, old ranchers say that there were no Native Americans visiting the site until it was designated an archaeological site in 1970. In 1988, the Forest Service proposed a viewing platform at the Wheel, upgrading of the dirt road and parking lot near the Medicine Wheel and the construction of a visitor’s center. Two Native American tribal organizations, along with other environmental and historic preservation groups, launched a successful effort to block this proposal and have the area recognized as a Native American religious site to protect the integrity of the site as a sacred site and traditional cultural property.
“This effort culminated in September 1996, when the Forest Service, State Historic Preservation Office, Bighorn County (Wyoming) Commissioners, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Medicine Wheel Coalition, Medicine Wheel Alliance and Federal Aviation Administration signed a Programmatic Agreement implementing an Historic Preservation Plan for the area. This document established an 18,000-acre “Area of Consultation” that would encompass all of Medicine Mountain and the cultural resources associated with the Medicine Wheel, with special emphasis on protecting its sacred values. The plan facilitates traditional cultural use by Indian practitioners by providing for unlimited ceremonial use, including privacy for such ceremonies when requested, and by allowing plant gathering for religious activities. Native American interpreters are present at the site during the tourist season. Vehicular access and resource development are restricted in the area (with limited exceptions). Other activities such as grazing and tourism are permitted but carefully managed and monitored. Except for disabled persons, visitors must now hike a mile and a half to visit the Medicine Wheel.” [quoted from the Manataka website]