Medicine Wheels of the Plains Indians

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 portability, 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 the “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.

Warrior Wheels and Tools

The definition of a warrior is an awakened human, fighting for peace, harmony, and individual, autonomous freedom to bring the Gold Horse to victory. The Gold Horse represents our enlightened potential as scared humans.

The Goal of the enlightened warrior is to use their tools to fight ignorance, slavery, bigotry and to bring about a world of individual freedom and autonomy. Wheels are a tool used to learn bodies of information in the Native American spiritual path.

In the Sweet Medicine Sundance Path there are a lot of wheels. Our mind learns easily in circles so things are overlaid in that way to help us integrate the teachings and compare them to other wheels for multiple overlays of information.

When I began to train in martial arts, I learned about The Warrior Wheel. As I was moving up the belt ranks and starting to compete in State and National competitions, I had the opportunity to put the wheel into use. For me, seeing is believing. I am a show-me girl, I always like to see something work before I really give it much merit or thought. If I hadn’t started coming up with issues in my training, I might not have tried the wheel. One of my good friends, who is in the medicine path, suggested I learn the wheel and put it in to action.

You can use this same wheel in a lot of your own day-to-day life situations. That is why I am sharing it here. This is also a good way for me to empty my cup symbolically. The cup cannot be filled again until it is emptied. By sharing what has worked for you, you are emptying your cup. The universe responds by giving you more to learn.

My first issue: I was having a hard time judging my space and distance. When you are preparing an attack, it is crucial that you be able to know where you are and what is your opponent’s kicking distance as well. The idea is to get into their space and score your point without them seeing it coming. It is like you are on the edge, creep on in, then boom you are in and you score. I was having challenges knowing how close I could get and when I was at my distance to score.

Space and Distance is a South West issue on the wheel. The cure to that issue is to do personal ceremony and give your self WTA’s to push your edge on all levels.

A WTA is a warrior task assignment. My interest in martial arts was the result of being given a WTA from the man I apprenticed to. He challenged me to study martial art to help me gain a better sense of self in the physical body. So I did, starting in 1999.

The WTA suggested finding ways to push your personal edge or personal comfort zone. What I did to push my edge was to sign up and take black belt classes that were training for State Competitions and Nationals. I was the only colored belt in the class – everyone else was already a black belt. Every class I took was over my head and really hard.

When you train over your head for a project, you gain from a higher level. When I was actually with someone my own belt level, I was more than ready to compete with them. They were easy compared to what I trained with every day. It also helped me that I was one of two women in the class, so the intensity of training was really high. This level then became my natural level. I thought every woman across the country was training for Nationals the same way I was. They weren’t. My natural level was hands down more intense than any one I competed against.

To counter my problem gauging space and distance, I gave myself the job of training with better and higher ranked martial artist. I also did personal ceremonies to stay connected with spirit. Sometimes, I would just light some incense and sit under a tree outside and pray.

In the S.W., the symbolical idea to be gained here is my willingness to engage with the unknown. I was afraid of the unknown in a match: Would I get kicked really hard? If I lost, how would I feel? Did I have the stamina to go three rounds? These unanswered questions were causing me to loose my ability to judge. As I began to train and really push my personal edge by training above my belt rank, I gained solid strength and understanding about my abilities and limits. This gave me confidence. I did my personal ceremonies to gain a sense of inner strength. This gave me that calm and understanding of (it is a good day to die). When you are really ready to bring it on, that energy and power is so awesome. It really helps support your play.

I was getting better at gauging my space and distance within a few weeks of implementing the new approach. What I think is weird is that as soon as that challenge cleared up, I began to have another problem.

My second issue was my timing – it was off. I was missing opportunities and starting to attack too late. I looked it up on the wheel and discovered the cure was to keep and plot the naturals. What is that? It is the moon phases, cycles, the tides. Where are the planets now? What is going on in the heavens? So I bought myself an almanac and read it every morning – where is the moon, what are the times for sunrise and sunset, are any planets in retrograde? I began to get up in the morning to go watch the sunrise; I made sure I watched the sun go down at night. I kept track of when the moon would rise and would watch that. By getting in harmony with the heavens and nature, I was in better harmony with myself and all that is. This allowed me to see better and know when to move, when to wait. You can also affect one place of the wheel by working across the wheel. So when I was trying to build my strength and power, I not only did the exercise in the west but the east also. In the east it says to pursue knowledge, so I studied the great martial artists – especially Bruce Lee, who I think is a Master energy incarnated. I also studied other spiritual teachings from other schools in the Eight Great Powers. This helped me have a good attitude and approach to my training, and to develop my power and sense of self, and connectedness to all that is.

There are a lot of ways of to use this teaching to empower your own life. I used all of this for martial arts. You could use the wheel to rejuvenate a business, re- build your own physical body, etc. I took my martial arts to two state competitions and won two gold medals, then to Nationals and won two more golf medals sparring, then to earn my first-degree black belt and my second degree. If you need a blue print for success, this would be useful!

When we learn to live within sacred law, we can step into our power and shine in a beauty way.

Here is the warrior wheel starting in the North:

In the North: Intent and Coordination

In the North East: Relaxation and Focus

In the East: Self Development & Speed

In the South East: Attitude & Approach

In the South: Balance & Control

In the South West: Space & Distance

In the West: Power and Strength

In the North West: Pattern and Timing

For more information on wheels and keys see the resource box below.

Thank you for spending some time here with me! May you walk in beauty!