Virtual Saskatchewan Home Navigation Bar

Get Around Virtual Saskatchewan!


  Endangered Stones

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.
- courtesy U.S. Forest Service
The reconstructed, Bighorn medicine wheel in Wyoming.
The Moose 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.

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 icon.

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 in Saskatoon.

"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) doubt it."

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 on that."

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
Location 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.

Contact Us | Contents | Advertising | Archives | Maps | Events | Search |
Prints 'n Posters | Lodging Assistance | Golf | Fishing | Parks | Privacy |

© Copyright (1997-2012) Virtual Saskatchewan