by Dave Yanko
On top of a wind-swept hill in southeastern Saskatchewan there's
a cairn of boulders connected to a large circle of rocks surrounding
it by five lines of stones resembling spokes in a wheel.
Mountain Medicine Wheel has been a sacred site for Northern Plains
Indians for more than 2,000 years. And yet its origins and purpose
remain hidden amid the fog of pre-history.
courtesy U.S. Forest Service
reconstructed, Bighorn medicine wheel in Wyoming.
Theories, from the scientific to the other-worldly, abound. But
one thing is certain: medicine wheels like the one at Moose Mountain
are disappearing, one stone at a time.
And First Nations peoples
and archaeologists, alike, fear they may be gone by the next generation.
The Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel was first noted by Canadians
of European ancestry in an 1895 report written by land surveyors.
The report described the central cairn of the wheel as being about
14 feet high, says Ian Brace, an archaeologist with the Royal Saskatchewan
Museum in Regina.
"The central rock cairn is now about a foot-and-a-half high," says
Brace. "There've been people from all points on the globe who've
not only visited the site, but taken a rock home with them."
Theft, vandalism and agriculture have reduced to about 170 the
number of medicine wheels on the Northern Plains of North America.
Brace says he can't even guess how many wheels once graced the plains.
But if the destruction of tipi rings is any indication of the degree
of desecration besetting medicine wheels, "in my life time, they
might just disappear".
Though medicine wheels are sacred to all plains Indian groups,
their symbolism and meaning vary from tribe to tribe.
The oldest wheels date back about 4,000 years, to the time of the
Egyptian pyramids and the English megaliths like Stonehenge. (Moose
Mountain has been radio-carbon dated to 800 BC, however, Brace says
it's possible an older boulder alignment exists beneath the exposed
one.) The Blackfoot, first of the current Indian groups on the plains
of what are now Saskatchewan and Alberta, arrived about 800 AD.
When the Blackfoot arrived in the new environment it was already
populated by two groups of people called the "Tunaxa" and the "Tunaha",
according to Blackfoot oral history. Brace and others believe the
three groups assimilated and the Blackfoot carried on the tradition
of building medicine wheel monuments. Alberta and Saskatchewan host
the majority of known medicine wheels. Others are located in North
Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.
Like the Blackfoot before them, Indian groups who migrated to the
Northern Plains adopted the medicine wheel as a cultural and spiritual
Simon Kytwayhat, a Cree elder who lives in Saskatoon, says he learned
his Cree perspective on the meaning of the medicine wheel from elders.
Kytwayhat's interpretation associates the four directions represented
on the wheel with the four races and their attributes -- the circle
and the number four are sacred symbols in First Nations' spirituality.
South, says Kytwayhat, stands for the color yellow, the Asian people,
the Sun, and intellect, while west represents the black race, the
color black, the Thunderbird, and emotion.
North is associated with the color white, the white man, winter
and physicality -- "white people sometimes rush into things without
considering the consequences" -- and east is identified with the
color red, the Indian person, spirituality and the eagle.
"The eagle has great vision, and so do those who follow the spiritual
path in life."
Kytwayhat said he used to blame the white man for all the troubles
experienced by Indians.
"In time, I came to see the real meaning of the medicine wheel
is the brotherhood of man. How you treat others comes back to you
around the circle."
If First Nations' peoples have divergent views on the meaning of
the medicine wheel, members of the non-Native community, including
scientists, are often poles apart.
The Mormon Church believes the wheels were built by the Aztecs,
and Swiss author Erich von Daniken contends they're a link to pre-historic
astronauts. New-Agers, meanwhile, embrace them as spiritual symbols
and construct their own near existing sites.
In the 1970s, Colorado astronomer John Eddy proposed wheels like
Moose Mountain and Bighorn, in Wyoming, were calendars whose cairns
and spokes aligned with celestial markers like Rigel, Aldebaran
and Sirius to forecast events like the return of the buffalo.
"It's all over the map," says Ernie Walker, head of the Department
of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan
"We don't know whether some have astronomical alignments or not
-- if some do, they're very much in the minority. A lot of (archaeologists)
Brace says the astronomical theory is easily debunked by simply
imagining someone trying to carry out celestial alignments over
the 17-foot crest that separates one side of the Moose Mountain
wheel from the other.
"Even standing on a horse, you can't see the other side."
Archaeologists and Blackfoot elders appear to agree on at least
one kind of medicine wheel.
Walker says most archaeologists of the Northern Plains recognize
eight different classes or styles of medicine wheels.
"Lo-and-behold, the Blackfoot elders have routinely referred to
one of these eight styles -- although they don't call it that -- and
they strongly indicate these were monuments to particular people,
or events that happened in the past. I think there's some consensus
Brace points out the most recent wheel was constructed in Alberta
in 1938, as a memorial to a renowned Blackfoot leader.
Brace has come up with a medicine wheel definition that allows
him to categorize the 12 to 14 Saskatchewan wheels, which range
in diameter from 45 to 144 metres (160 yards), into four groups:
burial; surrogate burial; fertility symbol; and "medicine hunting".
courtesy Paula Giese
of some of the major medicine wheels in Canada and the U.S.
Burial and surrogate burial, as the names imply, are grave sites
and memorials. The longest line of boulders in such wheels points
to the direction of the honoree's birth, while shorter ones point
to places of courageous acts or remarkable deeds. Fertility wheels
have the same pattern of radiating lines and circles employed as
fertility symbols on the pottery and birch-bark "bitings" of other
pre-historic, North American cultures, he says. The fertility wheels
contain buried offerings their builders believed would increase
the number of buffalo.
"Medicine hunting", meanwhile, may explain the origin of the Moose
Mountain Medicine Wheel, says Brace.
"If the people went into a particular place and they were without
resources, they'd take the shoulder blade of the animal they wanted
to hunt and put it in the fire. As the bone dried out, it would
crack, and at the end of the crack you'd get blobs of fat.
"They would interpret (the cracks with the blobs of fat) as indicating
the directions they'd have to go to find those food resources, or
people who had food to share. The cracks where fat did not accumulate
would indicate a poor direction to go."
Brace suspects the medicine hunting wheel was created, and likely
amended over time, to serve as a permanent hunting guide to succeeding
generations of nomadic Indians. Permanent, that is, until the white
culture came into contact with the red.
In the 1980s, the land encompassing the Moose Mountain Medicine
Wheel came under the jurisdiction of a First Nation band. Because
visitors wishing to view it must first get permission from the band
council, at least some degree of security is now assured, says Brace.
But most of Saskatchewan's medicine wheels are on Crown, public
and privately-owned land. Although they're "protected" under provincial
legislation that allows for fines of up to $3,000 for anyone caught
desecrating a medicine wheel, enforcement is difficult.
Most of the surviving medicine wheels are situated "off the beaten
path", accessible only to those bent on finding them, says Brace.
The same remoteness that protects the wheels from the ravages of
high foot traffic, however, also protects the unscrupulous from
being caught stealing or vandalizing them.
It's a problem that has no easy solution, but Brace says there
may be hope in the Indian land-claims process. If ownership of the
medicine-wheel sites located on public and Crown land could be transferred
to Indian bands, and if Indian families could be induced to reside
on the sites, security would be greatly enhanced.
In the mean time, people wishing to see a medicine wheel might
consider a visit to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, near Saskatoon. There's
no better place to learn about the people to whom the circles remain
sacred, and the science that seeks to know why.
Readers may also be interested in our story about rock carvings at
St. Victor, in south-central Saskatchewan, and rock paintings in northern Saskatchewan
on the Churchill River.
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