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Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark
Medicine wheels have been identified in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The oldest identified medicine wheel is the 5,500-year-old Majorville Cairn in southern Alberta. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is the best known of those found on the Northern and Northwestern Plains, and was the first structure of its type to be systematically studied by professional anthropologists and archaeologists. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is located at an elevation of 9,642 feet on a high, alpine plateau near the crest of the Bighorn Mountains of north central Wyoming, about 30 miles east of Lovell. Native Americans regard the Medicine Wheel as an essential but secondary component of a much larger spiritual landscape composed of the surrounding alpine forests and mountain peaks, including Medicine Mountain.
The most conspicuous feature of the Medicine Wheel is a circular alignment of limestone boulders that measures about 80 feet in diameter and contains 28 rock “spokes” that radiate from a prominent central cairn. Five smaller stone enclosures are connected to the outer circumference of the wheel. A sixth and westernmost enclosure is located outside the Medicine Wheel but is clearly linked to the central cairn by one of the “spokes.” The enclosures are round, oval, or horseshoe-shaped and closely resemble Northern and Northwestern Plains fasting (vision quest) structures described by early researchers. Though obscured by a century of non-native use by loggers, ranchers, miners, and recreationalists, the surrounding 15,000 acres contain numerous historic and prehistoric sites including tipi rings, lithic scatters, buried archaeological sites, and a system of relict prehistoric Indian trails.
Archaeologists generally believe that the Medicine Wheel was constructed over a period of several hundred years during the Late Prehistoric Period. Ceramic shards recovered from the eastern half of the Medicine Wheel have been associated with the Shoshone and Crow tribes. Early nineteenth century glass beads were found near the central cairn, and a wood sample from one of the cairns was tentatively dated to 1760 by means of dendrochronological techniques. Hearth charcoal and preserved wood fragments recovered from archaeological sites in the area yielded radiocarbon dates ranging from the modern era to nearly 7,000 years ago. Diagnostic artifacts and other archaeological materials found in close association with the Medicine Wheel itself tend to date to the latter half of the Late Prehistoric Period, from about 900 to 1800. Although these diagnostic artifacts and radiocarbon dates fail to decisively explain the construction and use of the Medicine Wheel, the evidence indicates that prehistoric Native Americans used the general area for nearly 7,000 years. Whether this prehistoric occupation was oriented towards ceremonial or spiritual use—with the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain as the central focus—is a speculative issue that archaeological data may not be able to resolve. It is clear, however, that the Medicine Mountain area was known to and used by prehistoric Native Americans long before the Medicine Wheel was constructed.
Archaeological evidence cannot definitively identify which tribes used the Medicine Wheel. However, in addition to the above-referenced ceramics associated with the Shoshone and Crow, researchers have noted substantial archaeological evidence supporting an extensive Crow presence on the western slopes of the Big Horn Mountains beginning in the late sixteenth century (or possibly earlier) as well as evidence of a substantial Shoshone occupation in the nearby western Big Horn Basin. Horseshoe-shaped enclosures like those found at the Medicine Wheel have been associated with the Crow Indian fasting (vision quest) rituals.
Based on exhaustive ethnohistorical research, anthropologist Karl Schlesier has suggested that the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, as well as the Moose Mountain wheel in Saskatchewan, may represent tribal boundary markers as well as Cheyenne ritual lodges that predate sun dance ceremonies. Archaeoastronomer John Eddy demonstrated that the Medicine Wheel likely served as an ancient astronomical observatory, noting several important star alignments involving the central and circumferential cairns.
Along with the ceremonial and/or spiritual prehistoric sites, the Medicine Mountain area contains many contemporary Native American traditional use areas and features, including ceremonial staging areas, plant gathering areas, sweat lodge sites, altars, offering locales, and recent fasting (vision quest) enclosures. Ethnographic evidence demonstrates that the Medicine Wheel and the surrounding landscape is and has been a major ceremonial and traditional use area for many regional Indian tribes, including Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Kootenai-Salish, Plains Cree, Shoshone, and Sioux. These tribes generally venerate the Medicine Wheel because it embodies powerful spiritual principles that figure prominently in tribal and family ceremonial traditions.
Native American oral traditions and ethnohistory are also relevant to the question of the origins and use of the Medicine Wheel. A Crow legend recounts the construction of the Medicine Wheel by Burnt Face, who fasted there in order to heal his disfigurement. According to Blackfeet traditions, Scar Face traveled to the Medicine Wheel in the distant past, where his disfigurement was removed and he was given instructions for building a sweathouse and conducting the sun dance, information, which he carried back to his tribe.
In the 1910s, the Crow Indian Flat-Dog reported to anthropologist Robert Lowie that the Medicine Wheel was the “Sun’s Lodge,” that many Crow went there to fast, and that the structure was very ancient. When interviewed by George Bird Grinnell in 1921, an elderly Cheyenne Indian named Elk River compared the Medicine Wheel to the Cheyenne sun dance lodge. Anthropologist James Howard cited an ethnohistorical transcription in which John Bull, a Ponca chief, testified the Medicine Wheel “represents a sun dance circle.”
Native American oral traditions also clearly affiliate Medicine Mountain and the Medicine Wheel with several historically prominent Indian chiefs. Plenty Coups was the last hereditary chief of the Mountain Crow tribe, as well as the most prominent Crow statesman during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to Crow tribal oral traditions, Plenty Coups fasted at the Medicine Wheel, once with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph is perhaps best known for leading a band of 700 Nez Perce in a desperate, brilliant, and ultimately futile 1877 military campaign to withdraw his tribe to a Canadian sanctuary among the northern Sioux. Chief Joseph twice asked the Crow Chief Spotted Tail to take him to the Wheel to fast and pray—once after he was incarcerated by the military, and later when he became ill with tuberculosis. Chief Washakie, the celebrated head chief of the Eastern Shoshone until his death in 1900, reportedly acquired much of his power at the Medicine Wheel and was sometimes joined in prayer by the Crow.
To many longtime Euro-American residents of the northern Bighorn Basin, the Medicine Wheel represents a popular area for camping, hunting, fishing, and picnicking. The first documentary reference to the Wheel occurred in 1895, when Paul Francke described his hunting exploits in an article published in Forest and Stream. At the turn of the nineteenth century, miners and loggers exploited the natural resources near the Medicine Wheel, contributing significantly to the local economy. Later, the area served as an important summer range for domestic sheep and cattle. Local residents have always expressed a proprietary interest in the Medicine Wheel. Boy scouts from the nearby town of Lovell built a protective rock wall around the Medicine Wheel sometime in the early 1920s, and prominent local politicians were instrumental in the Wheel’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. The Landmark documentation was revised in 2011 to include a rapidly expanding body of ethnographic information regarding Native American traditional cultural knowledge of the Medicine Mountain landscape, and the designation was renamed the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark.
Today, the Medicine Wheel is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Visiting the site requires a 3-mile round trip walk at more than 9,000-foot elevation. Visitors with impaired mobility are permitted to drive to the Medicine Wheel.
Chapman, Fred. “The Bighorn Medicine Wheel: Landscape Wars and Negotiating Native American Spirituality in the New West.” In Preserving Western History, edited by Andrew Gulliford, 159-174. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
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