It took 25 years of negotiations by various Native American tribes with federal officials. But when they joined forces, the Medicine Wheel, designated a national historic landmark in 1970 with 110 acres, became Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark, now with 4,080 acres.
Now the site incorporates the stone altar and the entire mountain rising above the cairn.
“It’s a living place for many people that have dedicated their lives to it,” said Larry Keown, former Bighorn National Forest supervisor.
Keown said he worked with many tribal leaders to enlarge the landmark, and 25 of those leaders died before they could see their efforts come to fruition.
“To those departed,” said Linwood Tallbull, a Northern Cheyenne, “you are here with us today.”
Later, at the wheel, Bill Matthews, west zone archaeologist for Bighorn National Forest, said natives have come to mine chert and quartz and to pray for thousands of years.
Matthews found a 5,000-year-old projectile point near the cairn, he said. “There are noticeable chert quarries all over the Basin.”
Nobody knows who constructed the altar; perhaps it was the Little People, a sprite-sized malevolent/benevolent bunch known by the Crow and other tribes.
“Who built it is of no consequence,” said Dallas Ross, a Dakota from Minnesota and member of the Medicine Wheel Coalition.
Native Americans don’t require scientific evidence like their white brothers to believe, Tallbull said.
“Medicine Wheel, Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark is for the whole world to enjoy,” Tallbull added.
“We all had to follow a path given to us by the Creator,” Ross said. “Today, I stand at the center of this world to give honor to this sacred place.”
Medicine Wheel was already a historic landmark, but the Medicine Wheel Coalition wanted an area of concentration. In July, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar designated the full 4,080 acres, said Steve Brady, Northern Cheyenne coalition member.
The journey with Native Americans to reach their destination began with suspicion and conflict, but ended with mutual respect shared by all involved. The expanded acreage today is celebrated because of its cultural value, said Jack Trope, of the Association of American Indian Affairs.
“It is a good day and we came a long way,” Trope said.
There are many sacred spots in the United States, but not all are protected.
“What happened here can happen in other places,” Trope said.
The Medicine Wheel has been in use for more than 6,000 years.
“Medicine Mountain is the spirit lodge,” said Jerry Case, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area superintendent.
“Honor Song” was performed by the drum group that includes Native Americans and couple of white drummer/singers. They sing in a native tongue and a member of the audience accompanies with his own incidental music: “Aaaa-yaa-aaii-yaa-aaa.”
The sky is a brilliant blue of gentle clouds floating like soft strokes of pastel and near the podium, a few butterflies of fuzzy orange linger to celebrate a major coup of cross-cultural cooperation and dedication.
Later, at the wheel, lightning like sizzling bullwhips snap at ridges to the south, but neither lightning nor the violet sky deter folks from paying their respects.
Last year, 86 separate Native American tribes and people from around the globe visited the wheel, Matthews said.
A huge buffalo skull commands center stage within the wheel. From it, spokes of stone spread outward. Bandannas, medicine bags and twists of tobacco — sacred to the Crow people — are a attached to the rope fence surrounding the wheel.
The offerings are from folks troubled because their loved ones are ill or petitioning that family or friends return safely from wars in distant lands, Tallbull said.
Being a native is not requisite to leave an offering or to pray. “I see a lot of people here, praying and crying for help,” Tallbull said.
Tallbull walks to the edge of the ridge. Rising above him, Medicine Mountain is like a stony omnipotent sentinel. Encircling Tallbull are the Big Horn Mountains and a few feet away is the wheel.
“Different tribes do their ceremonies here,” Tallbull says, his gesture all-encompassing, “everywhere.”