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Medicine Wheel expansion celebrated

Larry Ironhand (left) and Troy Fast Horse, circle the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains. Native Americans and many others consider the wheel a sacred place. Recently the national historic landmark was expanded to 4,080 acres to include Medicine Mountain roughly to the east of the wheel. Larry Ironhand (left) and Troy Fast Horse, circle the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains. Native Americans and many others consider the wheel a sacred place. Recently the national historic landmark was expanded to 4,080 acres to include Medicine Mountain roughly to the east of the wheel. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers

The newly expanded Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark in the Big Horn Mountains was celebrated by Native Americans and other well-wishers on Friday.

At a rough count, 130 were in attendance at Porcupine Ranger Station, just a few miles — as the crow flies — from the wheel.

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.”


  • posted by Kate

    September 20, 2011 5:39 pm

    Dewey- I'm curious, do you have any other info or websites I could reference to verify your statements? I am studying astronomy and my professor is really into Archeoastronomy I'm a little dubious about the use of the medicine wheel for astronomical purposes by native peoples. I am from Montana and part Assiniboine and though I was familiar with the Big Horn Medicine wheel before my professor brought it up I had never heard of any practical purposes of the wheel, only spiritual.

    I would appreciate it if you could point me in the direction of any site to make the argument against his claims.

    Thank you!

  • posted by Dewey

    September 06, 2011 1:55 pm

    As to your question about Squatter's Rights, the answer is yes. No apologies. I didn't do it. None of my people set foot on North America till after the Civil War, or possibly 1859.

    But we're not talking my ancestors here or my ancestor's own megaliths. Those are still in Ireland and Wales. Cease with the blame displacement, OK ? Stay on topic.

    Just pointing out the hypocrisy and the revisionist history which has become official state sanctioned policy.

  • posted by Just Me

    September 03, 2011 12:03 pm

    "Squatters rights"? That is funny coming from a white person. Isn't that what you and yours did when you came to America?

  • posted by Dewey

    September 02, 2011 12:57 pm

    The claim that the Medicine Wheel has been in use for 6,000 years is more than a little dubious. The site itself; yes. The Wheel . Nope.

    Funny thing about Native American's "using" the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. For a couple decades or more, 60's-early 80's they really didn't use the place. You never saw them up there, near the Solstice or any other time of year. It was only after professor John Eddy of U-Colorado publicized the place as a solstice indicator and rising star pointers in the new field of Archaeoastronomy that interest was reborn. New Age hippie types started visiting the Wheel and making their own stone circles and such. It was only after the American Indian Movement (Russell Means' AIM: the Tea Party for Natives) becgan their asstertive activism in the 70's that Native interest in the medicine Wheel was rekindled from all those years of neglect. Still, it was not widely used by them. In 1986 when I camped at the Medicine Wheel for a week over the Solstice when you could still drive there , about 150 folks came and went. John Eddy had a big college class there on a field trip the solstice morning. Only four Natives showed up a beat up old truck wearing red satin jackets that all had " Mint Bar - Hardin Montana emblazoned across the back. They stayed five minutes, had no ceremonies, and drove off. But lots of deeply spiritual Anglos came and went. Dancers, singers, drummers, even a solo trumpet player who played a memorial song to a departed acquaintance at sunset ( and he was very good...almost the best piece of outdoor music I have ever heard). Mostly it was tourists.

    The move to " take back" the Medicine Wheel from these usurpers was instigated by elitist Anglos on behalf of Natives. They were successful at getting the Forest Service to close the immediate site to all wheeled vehicles except for the handicapped , and the site downsized back to primitive. The offshoot of that is the new expansion of the site for greater protections , back from the abyss of neglect by the same sector of folks now usurping it in their own way .

    None of the Plains Indian people alive today had anything whatsoever to do with or were remotely related to the builders of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. The Cheyenne and Sioux and Crow have only been in the country for maybe 350 years at most. The Wheel is much much older than that. They, too , " appropriated" it.

    Some archaeologists speculate---and it's just that , speculation --- that the Wheel site was being used 6,000 years ago, during the Altithermal period when the Big Born Basin valley floor was mostly uninhabitable and parched due to climate conditions. The top of the Big Horns were the only habitable place around, and were accessible in winter. The 28-spoke megalith and cairns came at some later date... maybe 2,000 years ago, maybe 600 years ago. Quien sabe ?

    The Northern Cheyenne and Crow are just the latest to appropriate this special place. But it's really not theirs either, except to claim squatter's rights.

    This article, like virtually every article that came before it on the contemporary use of the Big Horn medicine Wheel , is revisionist history.

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