The Magic of Bighorn Medicine Wheel
Visiting Medicine Mountain
I discovered Bighorn Medicine Wheel when I was reading a book called Sacred Places Around the World. The medicine wheel was only one of a few sacred places listed in North America. It's over 10,000 years old and no one knows why or by whom it was created.
Native American Indians call the medicine wheel "The Place Where the Eagle Lands."
On a recent road trip, I knew I had to incorporate this place into my travels.
We approached Medicine Mountain from the east driving west. Just a couple miles from the sacred place, there is a stop where you can get a view of Medicine Mountain.
There are granite rock formations that sit high on these mountains. We were probably about 8,000 feet in elevation just as we got to the entrance.
Medicine Mountain has an observatory near its summit, as well. It's no wonder: there is no urban development in this area at all. The skies are completely clear and free of any light pollution at night.
Walking to the Medicine Wheel
When you turn to go to Medicine Mountain, the road isn't paved. It's another quick ascent up the side of the mountain, as well.
If you have a fear of heights, just be prepared.
But once you arrive at the parking lot, you still have a mile and a half to walk toward the wheel itself.
It becomes sort of a pilgrimage: you take in the natural scenery and beauty, you notice wildflowers, and even tiny animals called pikas.
Something starts to happen while you're walking, too. An electric, yet humble feeling comes over you as you enter sacred ground.
The Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains
The Book that Inspired My Voyage to the Medicine Wheel
High Altitude Tips
- Be sure the air in your tires is NOT at maximum pressure as you ascend into the mountains. It is a quick ascent. Their pressure will increase as you go up and can cause a blowout.
- If you have food in the car (like I did), be sure to have it contained in bags. What I mean is that we had a watermelon wrapped in a grocery bag. It cracked and effectively exploded its contents as we made our ascent!
- Bags of chips will also burst open if you're coming from much lower altitude.
- If you go into high altitude from low altitude (less than 3,500 ft), your best bet is not to stay there overnight. Acclimation is important to stave off headaches and altitude sickness.
- Make sure you drink enough water that your urine is clear, but not so much you need to stop multiple times on the side of the road. There are limited restroom facilities.
About the Medicine Wheel
When you arrive after your walk, something happens. You start to feel a sense of awe for what is 10,000 years old.
In fact, the road people walk to get there is the same trail that Native American Indian tribes have been using for as many years!
When you walk up to the wheel, there is a path to walk around it that goes clockwise. You can't enter beyond the fence itself unless you're an American Indian participating in a religious ceremony.
It's quite the meditative experience: you're just down the summit of Medicine Mountain, named for the medicine wheel. The summit is about 10,000 feet. The trees and plants that grow there are hardy and the land itself is rocky.
The medicine wheel, however, is the focal point. The stones that make up the wheel form a pattern that looks a little like a wagon wheel. No one can tell you why tribes of another era created this wheel at this exact spot, but once you've walked it, you begin to understand that there is something - a buzzing, awed feeling - you get at this place.
This place, as well as the surrounding Bighorn Mountains had been a traditional scared place for many tribes throughout history. Tribal members would come to these mountains for religious purposes or for ceremonial purposes.
Other medicine wheels exist in the Bighorn Mountains. However, this one is the most well-known and considered the most sacred.
In fact, all over the Bighorn Mountain range, other wheels, caves and sites exist that natives consider very sacred.
The rocks of the medicine wheel create a circle about 80 feet in diameter. There are twenty eight spokes. There are certain spokes that line up with the sun's path during seasonal equinoxes.
The small circles to the outside of the circle probably held teepees and other objects in place.
Around the fence of the wheel, American Indians leave flags, scarves, amulets, and other personal items. Non-native visitors may not leave physical items out of respect for the native folks who do.
Folks have even left deer, bison, or bear bones and skulls.
These items are a token of remembrance, or they can represent a prayer. Bones from animals often represent a totem or even a power animal.
Over time, many people have left a number of artifacts.
I know when I approached all these beautiful items, I couldn't help but gaze in awe at the memories, thoughts, and ideas that all make up the sanctity of the medicine wheel.
"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round. The earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves."— -Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux
This is an an abbreviated quote found on an information plaque on the path up to the medicine wheel.
Interesting Little Known Fact About the Wheel
In the early 1900s, people studying the wheel found a set of beads that "just didn't belong." They sent the beads to New York for testing.
They found that the beads were at least 300 years old and that they had originated in Venice.
Though it's not impossible that Venetian beads would appear in such a remote area, it's still remarkable. That means in the early 1600s, someone that had connections to Venice was up at the Medicine Wheel!
It's fun to speculate. Did the beads get there through trade? Or did a Venetian resident sail at sea and make a thousands of miles trek to the remote wilderness by chance?
More About the Medicine Wheel
Many throughout history have speculated why the medicine wheel exists.
Some have thought it was a destination for vision quests, that it is a place for inspiration, or that it commemorates the solstice. Still, others say it is a reproduction of the Sun Dance Lodge of the Crow.
More than 80 tribes use the wheel for religious purposes to this day.
In the 1970s and 80s, these tribes had been in contention as to whom had true rights to the wheel. The US government intervened and held talks with the leaders and chiefs of these tribes. They came to a consensus that the wheel could be used by all these tribes at different times.
Now, there is no contention, just thoughts of peace.
As you walk along the trail toward the Medicine Wheel, you can see names on golden plaques of the leaders who participated in that process.
All visitors are welcome. However, native tribes and park rangers ask for utmost respect as people visit. It is a matter of respecting others' beliefs, just as someone would respect a church or other place of worship.
© 2016 Cynthia Calhoun