Aug 272015
 
 
 
Bighorn Medicine Wheel
Thanks in large part to the movie industry and “wild west” novels, when most people around the world think of American Indians, they most likely picture the Plains Indians — the Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche, Kiowa, Blackfoot, Pawnee just to mention some of the tribes.  We imagine skillful riders charging on horses; hunting buffalo; or colorfully dressed people sitting and dancing around large campfires with majestic tipi’s in the background.  We are impressed with their efficiency and  highly portable and useful objects, but don’t usually associate them with building permanent dwellings like their Anasazi and Pueblo neighbors.  But there is one distinctive, permanently built structure that is characteristic of the Plains Indians – the medicine wheel.
Throughout the plains, the area from the Rocky Mountains to Missouri, Texas to Canada, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of stone circles 6 to 18 feet in diameter that were left behind by the Plains Indians.  These are now called tipi rings.  These stones were placed against the poles of their tipi for stability.  But in addition to these small rings, they also laid out large, mysterious stone patterns that archaeologists have named “medicine wheels”.  Distinctive from tipi rings, medicine wheels can be 60 yards in diameter.  The usual archaeological studies have done little to explain the function of these structures, but, in 1972, the astronomer John Eddy heard about the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and was intrigued with the challenge.  Thanks to his research, we now know that the Bighorn Medicine Wheel was probably used to determine the summer solstice and other major appearances of significant astronomical objects including the stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius.
 
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel sits at an altitude of 10,000 feet, almost at the summit of Medicine Mountain in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming.  It is the perfect location for star gazing since it is above the timberline with a clear horizon.  Stones were gathered from the valley and carried to the site where they were piled in a wheel-like pattern.  When Eddy was researching the site in June, more than a foot of snow fell covering the wheel.  It was then that he realized the wisdom of the builders placing the structure not only in a place with a clear view of the heavens, but also the open windswept area was quickly cleared by the wind.  The next morning, Eddy was able to observe the sun rise in direct alignment with one of “spokes” of the wheel; a spoke clearly marked by a circle of stones outside the perimeter circle of stones.  Then, that evening, he was elated to watch the sun set in alignment with another spoke of the wheel.  Eddy was surprised to find that the moon and planets were not tracked by the wheel just the solstice and many of the brighter stars.  This despite the fact that there are 28 spokes which is the number of days the Native Americans generally counted for the lunar cycle.  You are probably thinking that they must have been poor at arithmetic since the lunar cycle is 29.5 days.  However, they did not count the day-and-one-half when the moon is not visible.

Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux described the construction of a Sun Dance Lodge, possibly explaining some of the symbolism in the medicine wheels, as follows:
“… in setting up the sun dance lodge, we are really making the universe in a likeness; for, you see, each of the posts around the lodge represents some particular object of creation, so that the whole circle is the entire creation, and the one tree at the center, upon which the twenty-eight poles rest, is Wakan-Tanka, who is the center of everything.  Everything comes from Him, and sooner or later returns to Him.  And I should also tell you why it is that we use twenty-eight poles.  I have already explained … the number four and seven are sacred; then if you add four sevens you get twenty-eight.  Also the moon lives twenty-eight days, and this is our month; …”
The wheels range in date from 4500 years old to only 200 years old.  The wheels vary in their construction, but John Brumley, an archaeologist from Medicine Hat, notes that a medicine wheel consists of at least two of the following three traits: (1) a central stone cairn, (2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or (3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point.  It is probable that the huge structures were used for more than just astronomy.  They most likely were used in cleansing ceremonies and in conjunction with rituals and spiritual teaching.
But they remain one of the lasting remnants of the great Plains Indian culture.
 
[This article first appeared in Native American Antiquity, November 2012, but is being reposted because of its relevance to last week’s subject]
 
 
Mar 052015
 

Earth-Moon declinationsIn any given month, the rising moon swings between two extremes on the eastern horizon, similar to the oscillation of the rising sun during the year.  When the moon reaches its maximum northern or southern declination, it has a “standstill” similar to the sun at summer and winter solstices.  The standstills could be said to be the moon’s equivalence to the Solar Solstices.  [for details on lunar standstills, refer to Native American Skies: Lunar Standstills]

Feb 262015
 

Lunar_standstill diagramDuring the month, the moon rises at different points across the eastern horizon.  When it reaches the farthest point north it pauses, or rises in the same spot for a couple of days, and then reverses course.  This pause is called a “Lunar Standstill”.  The same thing happens two weeks later at its farthest point south.   You may have noticed that the sun does the same thing, but it takes the sun a year to move from its farthest point north (Summer Solstice) to its farthest point south (Winter Solstice) and back again.  At each solstice, the sun pauses before reversing course and this is called a Solar Standstill.  [refer to last week’s article: Native American Skies: Lunar Standstill]

Dec 252014
 

The sky has been an important indicator of what is happening and what will happen on earth for ancient peoples all over the world for as long as man has possessed the curiosity to look up.  The movement of the sun across the horizon and back throughout the year, has been especially important as an indicator and predictor of the seasons.  On December 21st, 2014 the sun travelled as far south as it would go, rose for three days in the same place and then started its journey north again.  That day marked the “Winter Solstice” (“Solstice” means “sun standstill”), the day with the longest night and shortest day of the year.    The cultures of the Americas observed this very special day in many different ways, but for all, it was time of great portents.  For what if the sun decided to continue its journey south?

Feb 202014
 
Chinook Wind

Chinook Wind

My wife and I lived in Denver, Colorado for many years and occasionally experienced a phenomenon called the “Chinook Wind”.   These winds,  blowing over the Rocky Mountain Front Range, could actually raise the temperature from below freezing to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few hours.  Chinook winds can occur in many areas of western North America and certainly are not unique to Colorado.  In fact, the term and the original Chinook winds originated in the northwestern coastal area.

The term “Chinook” comes from the Pacific Coast Chinook tribe that lived along the lower

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