A Sacred Circle:
High atop a windswept plateau, miles from the nearest town, a circle of stones sits silently, waiting for visitors as it has done for hundreds of years. No one is certain how long it’s been there, or what its actual purpose is. All that is known for sure is that the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is a sacred place.
Approximately 90 feet across, the Wheel is made of an outer circle of stones, 28 “spokes” radiating out from a large central cairn, five peripheral cairns, and an outer cairn about ten feet away from the rim of the circle itself. Visitors must stay outside the rope fence that encircles the Wheel.
Off the Beaten Path:
What is special about this site? For starters, it’s 9,642 feet above sea level, and a mile and a half uphill from the nearest parking lot – which means it’s quite a bit of work to get there. You have to really WANT to see the Wheel to go there. No one just stops in at random. The trek up from the parking lot takes a while, and if you're lucky -- and quiet -- you'll encounter various forms of Wyoming wildlife on the way. Elk and antelope are easily visible from the walkway, and they too seem to know that this place is special.
Red Plume's Gift:
One of the stories surrounding the Medicine Wheel is that of a Crow Chief from the time of the Lewis and Clark explorations. The chief, Red Plume, went to the mountaintop and spent seven days without food or water. While there, he was visited by the spirits who lived on the mountain, and they took him into the earth and told him that the red eagle was his protector. They gave him a feather as a gift, and told him to always wear it. Upon his deathbed, he told the Crow people that his spirit would live on at the Medicine Wheel and that they could speak to him there.
A modern Cheyenne elder says that the tribes traditionally went on a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain. They went there for prayer, as part of a vision quest, because the spirits on the mountain are very powerful. There is harmony with the spirits there, and many offerings have been left on this mountain. The center cairn was once occupied by the skull of a large buffalo, and was a place to make prayer offerings. Prayers of thanks were offered, as were prayers for wisdom and strength, guidance, for loved ones who are ill, and for the well being of the earth and the people.
The Words of Black Elk:
Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux elder, said the following about the Medicine Wheel circle:
“Everything the power of the world does, is done in a circle. The sky is round, the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls... the sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same… even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were before. The life of a man is a circle… and it is in everything where power moves.”
(from Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neibardt, Univ. of Nebraska Press)
Offerings to the Spirits of the Mountain:
This is an area of incredible beauty – there is no development for literally hundreds of miles in most directions, and the plants in this mountain range are the same ones which have been here for centuries. Although archeologists have dated the Bighorn Wheel to some point between 1200 – 1700 CE, the plateau upon which it sits has shown evidence of use going back nearly 7,000 years. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. There is no evidence as to who its builders were, but a well-traveled trail which parallels the public access road has been identified as being several hundred years old.
The local Native Americans, mostly Cheyenne, Shoshone and Crow tribes, have a number of legends and stories about the Wheel and its purpose and origin. Some believe that the spoke-like structure resembled a Sun Dance Lodge, or Medicine Lodge. The Sun Dance is a ceremony which is part of Native American spirituality. A few researchers have suggested that the Medicine Wheel is some sort of aboriginal observatory – the cairns are almost completely in alignment with the rising and setting of the sun on the Summer Solstice, as well as with the path of several other celestial bodies.
The Shoshone believe that the Wheel was built by a now-extinct band of their tribe called the Sheepeaters. These people hunted mountain sheep and were experts at high-altitude survival.
A gate, facing East, is blocked off and only open to authorized parties – specifically, the Native American tribes who still use it today for rituals and ceremonies. Members of the Shoshone, Crow and Cheyenne tribes gather here for celebrations each year.
Today, offerings are still made by those who come to the Medicine Wheel. Colored ribbons, necklaces, stones, and other gifts are left by those asking for the favor of the spirits of the mountain. It is a holy place, high above the world and looking out upon the Bighorn Basin, which stretches for a hundred miles into the distance. When you walk the circle around the Wheel, you can literally hear the voices in the wind, the chanting of the Old Ones, and feel the pulse of those who came before us.