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 gr

Medicine Wheel Garden – Tips For Creating Sacred Space in Your Own Backyard

The Circle – lacking a beginning or end, represents infinity, perfection and the eternal. Often a symbol in our lives and our various cultures, the circle is articulated in many symbolic ways:

The universal symbol of the wedding band as a sacred link of protection and unity.
Hindus represent the great Wheel of Existence within a circle.
The Yin Yang symbol in eastern philosophies is based on the interconnectedness of the balance of energies represented within a circle.
Tibetan Buddhism represents many of its paths to enlightenment within the symbolic artistry of mandalas represented as artwork and in the form of sand paintings.
Ancient Labyrinths were based on the circle with the center representing the Universe, or the “Creator-God” that the culture revered, with the paths leading towards the center representing a form of pilgrimage to God (Christian Labyrinths).
Native American culture was mindful of the sacred hoop and circle as explaining their relationship with the cosmos and the Creator.

For Native Americans and tribes of Lower Canada, the circle of the Universe provided the sacred model for all human activities. All of life was given ritual meaning by incorporating the circle into everyday tasks and behavior. Gatherings for ceremonies, eating, dancing and their living quarters in the form of a tipi (Plains Indians) were circular.

Native Americans believed the circle to be a symbol for not just a representation of the cosmos, but to represent the cycles of growth, death, and rebirth in the suns and moon’s rising and setting, the planting and harvesting of the crops, and the birth and death of each individual.

Thus, the medicine wheel became a tool to focus the honoring and celebration of the cycles of nature through ritual, song, dance, and the making of offerings.

Native American culture was imbued with ceremony in all aspects of life. The ordinary acts of daily living were in some ways, performed in a ritualized fashion, to honor the cycles of nature.

Everyday living became a sacred act as each inhabitant of Mother Earth cherished that which it was provided by plentiful food, crops, water and co-existence with Nature.

Their connection to the Earth was that of a human being having a spiritual experience with the Earth itself and therefore, everywhere they walked, ate and slept, became sacred space for which they developed ceremonies and ritual to honor and respect.

The sacred circle was used as a stylized template to illustrate the cosmos and how various components were interrelated including the four cardinal directions and the corresponding elements. Animal totems serve as guardians for each of the four directions.

Since the ancient medicine wheels left no clear purpose of their use, archaeologists and historians have speculated widely as to the ritualistic and ceremonial use of medicine wheels, especially the designated locations of the animal totems.

This illuminating guide to the Native American ritual of the Medicine Wheel makes an ancient spiritual practice available to everyone.

Roy Wilson, Cowlitz Chief and Spiritual Leader in Washington, combines Sun Bear’s Zodiac system (outer circle) and his own vision:

The Four Pathways are used to experience the God within. It is important to note that all Pathways go through the Creator, which includes the Creator in the center, surrounded by seven Spirit Messengers: Cougar, Hawk, Coyote, Wolf, Bear, Raven, and Owl; the four Gatekeepers: Buffalo in the East, Bear in the South; Eagle in the West; and Cougar in the North; the twelve Spirit Helpers: Turkey, Turtle, and Owl on the East Pathway; Beaver, Ant, and Squirrel on the South Pathway; Butterfly, Bat, and Grouse on the West Pathway; and, Hawk, Goose, and Wolf on the North Pathway.”

In the Medicine Wheel of the Hopi prophecy of the four peoples of the Earth, the cardinal direction North represents the body, plants and animals, the color white and ‘white skinned peoples, and Childhood. The East was held to represent the mind, air, the color yellow and ‘yellow skinned peoples’, and Adolescence. The South holds the heart, fire, the color red and ‘red skinned’ people, and Adulthood. Finally West holds the spirit, water, the color blue or black, and ‘black-skinned peoples’, and Elder hood.

West also represents the final life stage in the wheel, being an elder and passing on knowledge to the next generation so that the wheel may start again just like the circle it takes after.

The circle with its four directions, corresponding to four elements of nature and the Four Original Tribes were all given by the Creator to all peoples originating from the four different directions.

Each culture developed their own rituals and methods for representing the circle as an expression of how they viewed their relationship with the Universe. They used Medicine Wheels, Mandalas, Sacred Circle Teachings, Labyrinths, stone megaliths, etc. to learn about and express their relationship and connect them with the cosmos or their Creator.

Gardening relates to this concept of the sacred circle beyond the physical shape. The circle represents a cycle of life. Just as the directions correspond with birth, adolescence, adulthood and death, plants and flowers experience the same cycle.

From the seeds come germination, then growth, blooming/flowering, seed development and eventually plant mortality. Of course, some plants live very long lives, but the cycle of nature is seen more apparent in annual flowers which last only a season.

The Medicine Wheel can be adapted for garden use without all the traditional and sacred ritual and ceremony. To call your garden a “Medicine Wheel Garden” implies you are adhering to sacred traditions. Doing so can only make the process of design and utilization much more complicated.

A garden that is designed with a strong circular shape so that the cardinal directions can be honored, so that animal totems in the form of stones or boulders resembling animals can be used and that has four basic spokes intersecting through the center to reinforce movement of the spirit of that which you are embodying can serve to create a unique, personal sacred garden space.

Customizing it to fit your needs and belief systems will make it sacred. Sharing the vision of the sacred form of the circle and incorporating the four quadrants will form the basic structure upon which you can add other elements that make it powerful.

So I am suggesting that we try not to emulate or recreate traditional medicine wheels and call them so, but rather, take the Universal Sacred Form of the circle and embellish it with meaning using the earth, the elements of nature and other symbols to design a sacred spot.

This can be done by accessorizing your sacred circle by using such items as crystals, feathers, flowers, spheres, garden art, etc. Further, you can design a sacred circle so that it fits the space of your garden, thus you don’t have to walk through it or across it, violating its sacredness. You create the rules!

John Stuart Leslie is creator and founder of My Sacred Garden. A website that blends the mind, body & spiritual lifestyle of the conscious consumer with the pursuit of gardens, gardening, design and art. He holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture and has been a landscape designer and contractor since 1982.

Sacred (or spiritual) gardens encompass a design style that focuses on a particular theme such as Meditation Garden, Feng Shui Garden, Tranquility Garden, Zen Garden, Healing Garden, etc. in a way that makes each type of garden purposeful and practical in daily use.

As a designer and contractor, Mr. Leslie can bring such design concepts and ideas to fruition through his website services or just provide the visitor with design insights and new ideas.