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History: The Medicine Wheel

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Medicine Wheel, in the Bighorn Mountains above Sheridan, was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 16, 1969.

The Medicine Wheel is a huge rock structure atop Medicine Mountain between Sheridan and Lovell. It is of unknown origin, and has been the subject of much curiosity. Why is it there? Who built it and why? No one really knows, but here is an interesting article about the wheel in 1923.

The Riverton Review, April 4 – The Mystery Of Medicine Wheel Near Sheridan – A great deal of attention has been attracted during the past half dozen years to the wheel shaped stone monument on Medicine Mountain, known to white men as the “Medicine Wheel.”

The point of greatest interest concerning it is that absolutely nothing is known of its origin. Up to the summer of 1902 the existence of the monument was not known to scientific men. During the summer of that year Mr. S. C. Simms, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, visited the place and told of what he found in a short descriptive article published early in 1908 by the American Anthropologist.

No further work of investigation was done until seven years ago, when W. M. Camp of Chicago, made his first visit to the place. Since then Mr Camp has made other trips there and has made a thorough examination of the monument and the surrounding territory. In the summer of 1921 Dr. George Bird Grinnell, of New York City, carefully inspected the monument and its surroundings, and the result of his work was an article just published in the American Anthropologist.

Other scientific men have become interested in the subject and we shall, in time, have their opinions. The physical aspect of the “Medicine Wheel” itself is not imposing. It lies on the highest point of the western peak of Medicine Mountain, near the edge of where the summit breaks away precipitously to the Big Horn Basin. It form is marked by loose, irregular shaped flat stones laid upon the ground in the form of a wheel. Its rim averages seventy-four feet in diameter and presents a remarkably accurate circle, considering the general crudeness of the work.

Twenty-eight spokes radiate from a central hub to the rim and one of them is extended nine feet beyond the rim to a slightly oblong cairn of stones large enuff (sic) for one man to lie down in. There are five more stone cairns joining the rim, one of them inside the circle. These cairns now stand about two and one-half feet high, all are open at one side and none of them covered. The central cairn, or hub, is the largest of them all, being about twelve feet in diameter, outside measurement

On the cast side of the monument is a small break in the rim, which, if the structure was built to represent a teepee or medicine lodge, served as entrance. At irregular intervals and at distants varying from 70 feet to two hundred and seventy-seven feet from the center of the wheel, are six more stone cairns similar in else and shape to those near or joining the rim.

At various places, always on a high point or at the edge of a high rim, and to be found other of these stone cairns, some of them as much as twelve or fifteen miles from the main monument. Further than these bare physical details there is nothing upon which to form an opinion as to the origin or purpose of the “Medicine Wheel.”

A slight acquaintance with the form of the monument and the usages of the first peoples, will, however, establish the fact that the structure was built for purposes of worship. The Great Spirit, by the sun, it has been the God of all the ancient peoples. They built their temples on high places nearer to the Great Spirit and where the rays of the sun shone upon them from earliest morn till latest eve. An average idea, perhaps, but what civilized man does not feel in closer touch with his God on a mountain top than in a low place?

If the “Medicine Wheel” was built as a place of worship then it was a House of God,” or, in less modem language, the “Great Spirit’s Lodge,” or the “Sun’s Teepee.” If it was a Sun’s Tepee,” its resemblance to the form of the modern medicine lodge gives ground for the opinion of those who believe the origin of the structure to be comparatively modern, but it does not give proof. It seems probable that the conical form of teepee or lodge is of comparatively recent adoption by present day Indians.

Nor is it known that those races which knew this country centuries before the day of the present Indians did not use a conical form of shelter. In general, the climatic conditions prevailing in this country a couple of thousand years ago were the same as we have now. At that time then was an advanced state of civilization in Central America and Southern Mexico. There Is no reason to believe that the tribes occupying the outlying districts were not as advanced in their ideas as the present day Indians, and if the conical form of shelter is best today it was. no doubt, best then. The Crows say that the “Medicine Wheel” was here when they came. They say “The sun built it to show us how to build a teepee.”

There is nothing to connect the ‘Medicine Wheel” with the present day Indians except its resemblance to the form of their medicine lodge. These Indians have not been builders of anything permanent. They do not know who laid up the piles of stones along some of the ancient trails. The ancient dweller in this country were builders As they progressed southward in their wanderings, finding easier living conditions and more time for advancement, they became great builders In the north of Mexico are found crude structures called “Houses of the Dawn.” unquestionably built by sun worshipers.

Their structure is typical of more advanced stage of civilization than that of the “Medicine Wheel” but there are marked similarities in form. So are there marked similarities in form between these “Houses of Light,” the Aztec, the Druid temples land the subterranean structures near the Mediterranean sea. Who shall say that they are not all distantly related?

It is true that certain fundamental passions, ideas, conventions have been common to all peoples throughout their progress from ancient man to civilizations. No one can say just where the point of contact lies.

Where did the present day Indian get the form of their medicine lodge? Was it founded upon those same primal ideas common to all peoples or was it borrowed from the form of the structures they found when they entered this county, to which, being unexplained, they attached supernatural associations? Or are the present day Indians really descendants from the earlier residents with inherited Ideas and customs, the meaning of which they have, in many cases, forgotten?

Who built the “Medicine Wheel?” For the correct answer to this question we must wait till anthropologists and archaeologists have had much more time to ferret out facts of the past space permitting, much could be told of the Indian legends connected with the “Medicine Wheel.” But you know as much about it as they do.”

When you visit it, stand awhile in serious contemplation of the structure and its surroundings, together with its possible history, and association. Listen, and you will hear the faint whisper of countless thousands of moccasined feet. Look. and you will vision the shadowy forms of naked, sinewy bodies raised, arms extended, saluting the rising sun, visible emblem of the Giver of Life. —Herbert H. Thompson tn Sheridan Post. Herbert H. Thompson in Sheridan Post.

The Medicine Wheel, according to the Crow Indian Legends, was one of the homes of the “Little People” a race of ferocious dwarfs who were very strong, and could either be enemies or helpers who could impart spiritual wisdom. The Pryor Mountain Little People figured in the Crow Chief Plenty Coups vision that changed the fate of his tribe. Many other tribes had legends of these “Little People” as well.

It has also been used for vision quests and is considered a sacred site to the Native American Tribes. Many times, when one goes to the Medicine Wheel one can see gifts left for the spirits, tied to the outer fence or left at the wheel.

There are other medicine wheels throughout the western United States as well as in Canada, but the one in the Bighorn Mountains is the best known.

But wherever it came from, whoever built it, it remains an intriguing mystery to this day. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places 55 years ago this week and designated a National Historic Landmark on August 29, 1970.



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1 Comment

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    Tom Becket

    April 20, 2024 at 9:47 am

    Didn’t take long to have this site looking like a garbage dump.

    Oh let me guess, this is “sacred garbage”…….

    Don’t see a game tag on those dead heads, Game and Fish can confiscate that too.

    No excuse for letting this site look like this.

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