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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.