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A Sacred Circle
The Medicine Wheel, or Sacred Circle, known to generations of Native Americans, has always been a source for astronomical and healing purposes. It is believed to be a sacred portal for the ancient spirits to communicate and guide. The wheel, or sacred hoop, embodies the four directions as well as symbolizing Mother Earth, Father Sky and the spirit Tree of Life, symbolic for healing and the Circle of Life. The most notable wheel is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, located in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming.
Let's take a journey back in time, maybe some ten thousand years ago, and about this time of year. The Ancient Ones we know as the Grandcestors slowly made their way along a steep, winding track high up into the mountains, their destination a very special place to do ancient sacred ceremonies, vision quests, and to track and record specific stars and observe the summer solstice sunrise and sunset. They would be here for only approximately 2 to 3 months, when it was free of snow.
There are only 10 places in the world that can be called the 'nuclei of continents'. These are widely separated places of relatively small patches of ancient rocks, first cooled to the molten earths crust 2 to 3 billion years ago. The particular place the Grandcestors were journeying to is one of these rare ancient continental roots, and the Medicine Wheel looks out from the shoulder of this most ancient of places, down surrounding precipices to slopes that get progressively younger in age, until in the valleys, on either side are the younger sedimentary rocks, deposited in merely the last million to few hundred thousand years. Along the range's spine, this special sector of aged rocks is not found very far north or south of the wheel; although the physical appearance of the mountains is the same.
Thus, this medicine wheel floats high on an island encapsulated in time, the world's oldest rocks layered in reverse order of the epochs of geological history. A cutaway profile would show layers of rock color-coded by age, the youngest lying in the valleys where the Bighorn and Powder Rivers run, and the oldest peaking against the sky, with their ancient roots running down into the deepest earth. Indeed, a very special place.
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is found at an elevation of: 9,462 feet. (9+4 =13 and 6+2= 8; 8 imperial is 13 metric) Latitude: 44 degrees 49' 32" N. 4+4= 8; 4+9 =13 or 4+4+3+2 = 13). Longitude: 107 degrees 55' 15" W. (1+7= 8; 8 imperial is 13 metric) (1+7+5 =13 - 3 times) The wheel itself measures 80 feet ( 8 imperial = 13 metric) in diameter and consists of 28 alignments of limestone boulders radiating out from a central cairn, Cairn O, and is about 10 ft. in diameter. This would leave the length of the spokes 35 feet, (again, 3 + 5 = 8 and 8 imperial = 13 m). Six more cairns (A-F) are arranged around the wheel at or near the outer rim and are much smaller. Also, adding the outer circle and inner circle plus the 6 stone cairn circles gives us another 8 (8 imperial = 13 metric). Then 28 spokes + those 8 circles = 36 and 36 = 39 metric, which is 3 more 13's.
Upon close examination of the ancient wheel it reveals that if a person sits on, or at, one cairn looking towards another, then he or she will be looking toward certain places on the distant horizon. These points indicate where the Sun rises or sets on summer solstice and where certain important stars first heliacally rise at dawn. The dawn stars helped foretell when the Sun's ceremonial days would be coming.
An interesting thought arises here: ...the wheel has 28 spokes, which is the same number used in the roofs of ceremonial buildings such as the Lakota Sun Dance lodge. These always include an entrance to the east, facing the rising Sun, and include 28 rafters for the 28 days in the lunar cycle. The number 28 is also sacred to the Native Americans because of its significance as the lunar month. In this case, could it possibly be that the special number 28 also refers to the helical, or dawn, rising of Rigel 28 days past the Solstice, and Sirius another 28 days past that? In the 1970s, archaeoastronomer John Eddy noticed that some of the wheel’s spokes pinpoint the direction of the sunrise on different solstices, and other spokes mark the rising point of other stars, suggesting the site was also used as an observatory, more proof of our Grandcestors’ knowledge and interest in astronomy. He became intrigued with this very special place and discovered the wheel’s arrangements point to the rising and setting places of the Sun at summer solstice, as well as the heliacal rising places of Aldebaran (Taurus), Rigel (Orion), and Sirius (Canis Major). These bright, important stars have always been associated with the Solstice. Later, another astronomer, Jack Robinson, found a cairn pair that marked the bright star Fomalhaut’s rising point with the Sun, 28 days before the solstice.
While its exact age, and the true identity of the wheels' builders are unknown, oral histories provided by Native Americans indicate the Big Horn Medicine Wheel is indeed very old, extending back in time through many, many generations. Age estimates for this ancient wheel is more than 7,000 years, and the cultural history of the Bighorn Mountains dates back well over 10,000 years. Oral history from several indigenous nations including Crow, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and others, sets the Big Horn Medicine Wheel as already existing, having been built by “ancient ancestors”. A Crow Chief stated that Big Horn Medicine Wheel was built "before the light came". Other Crow stories say the Sun God dropped it from the sky. A contemporary Cheyenne cultural leader stated, "the tribes traditionally went and do still go to the sacred mountain. The people sought the high mountain for prayer. They sought spiritual harmony with the powerful spirits there. Many offerings have been left on this mountain. The center cairn, once occupied by a large buffalo skull, was a place to make prayer offerings. Those doing Vision Quests would also have offered prayers for thanks for plant and animal life that had, and would, sustain them in the future.
The astronomical dating done by Robinson, giving a date of AD 1100 stands as the most credible scientific date for the last physical alteration of cairns for astronomy purposes. This is not an origin date for the Wheel but a "last altered" date. Artifacts and other important archaeological evidence clearly indicate that the Medicine Wheel has been visited by Native Americans for over 10,000 years. The only reliable scientific data gleaned from the Bighorn Medicine Wheel thus far is one tree-dating sample derived from wood incorporated into the structure of the western cairn. This sample’s latest growth ring dates to 1760 CE and is also considered a 'last altered' date.
As the sun sinks in the west, the view from the Big Horn Medicine Wheel....
Note: We have used the ancient name of Big Horn Medicine Wheel for this article, but this site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and was renamed as the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark in 2011.
Credit to artist Marina Reye for the Cover art.
Researched and written by Kathy Popa, JD Jeffrey, and Joani Jiannine
The Medicine Wheel
Early cultures throughout the world built rock structures which joined the landscape to the sky, some serving as calendars. Stonehenge in England is an example. Over 100 Medicine Wheels constructed by Native Americans have been found in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada. Their complete story is lost in the vastness of time.
The Medicine Wheel's large circle measures 213 feet around. The 28 spokes radiating from its center represent the number of days in the lunar cycle. Six spokes extending well beyond the Wheel are aligned to the horizon positions of sunrises and sunsets on the first days of the four seasons.
The design of this rock sculpture was inspired by the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming and reflects the beauty of the Earth's journey around the Sun and the grand cycle of the seasons. The Park's Medicine Wheel is a multicultural symbol celebrating the calendar discovery process by our intelligent human ancestors around the globe and honoring the presence of the Native American burial mounds in the center of the Park.
Medicine Wheel Park
In 1992 at Valley City State University, Professor Joe Stickler and his students began work on Medicine Wheel Park. The project soon expanded beyond the walls of the classroom to involve the community. The Park features two solar calendars: A horizon calendar (the medicine wheel) and a meridian or noontime calendar. Other aspects of this unique 30-acre Park include Native American burial mounds, solar system model, the North Country National Scenic Trail and other woodland nature trials, several scenic overlooks of the Sheyenne River valley and Valley City, and a 3000 square foot perennial flower garden.
researched and written by Jon Gilbert