The Medicine Wheel Conflict
The Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming, is sacred to multiple Plains Indian tribes, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Dakota, Shoshone, Cree, Salish, Kootenai and Blackfeet (Manataka American Indian Council). These tribes all use the historic Medicine Wheel for religious purposes. When Indigenous religious practice was outlawed in the 19th century, these tribes were forbidden to visit the sacred Medicine Wheel (punishment included time in federal prison). Medicine Wheel was not reopened to tribal ceremonial use until the 1950s (Geist). While lands surrounding the Medicine Wheel are now reserved for Indigenous people’s religious use, the struggle leading up to this decision was far from simple.
The origin of this Medicine Wheel is a mystery, though archaeological evidence shows that Native American tribes have used the area for 7,000 years (Manataka American Indian Council). The 23,000-acre area surrounding the medicine wheel holds approximately 44 historic sites including “tipi rings, lithic scatters, buried archeological sites, and a system of relict prehistoric Indian trails” (Chapman 5). There should be no question as to why the Plains Indians tribes find this area sacred, and why tribes of many nations travel to this site to seek visions and offer prayer.
Almost every Indigenous tribe uses a Medicine Wheel, though most traditions differ slightly. For the Lakota tribe, the center of the wheel is the “heart.” This is the place where the people give back to Mother Earth (Kaelin, Celinda; teaching; January 27, 2011). During buffalo hunts the Lakota people would place the tongue of the buffalo, the most important part, under the rock to show their appreciation to Mother Earth, the Creator (Kaelin, Celinda; teaching; January 27, 2011). In ceremonies today, they place the sacred tobacco that is smoked in pipe ceremony under the “heart” stone (Kaelin, Celinda; teaching; January 27, 2011). In his article, Learning Styles and Lessons from the Medicine Wheel: A Native American Philosophy, Peter Murk gives an example of the specific meaning of the four points of a medicine wheel:
The gift of the east is illumination, the color is yellow, and the animal symbol is the eagle. The gift of the south is innocence, the color is green, and the animal symbol is the mouse. The gift of the west is introspection, the color is black, and the animal symbol is the bear. Finally, the gift of the north, the color is white, and the animal symbol is the buffalo (Murk 5-6).
While Murk mentions the specifics of the medicine wheel of just one (unspecified) tribe, the significance of the medicine wheel differs between tribes. For the Lakota tribe, the colors signified are red, black, yellow, and white (Kaelin, Celinda; teaching; January 27, 2011). Colors and symbols can often differ between tribes, but they all agree on the significance of the four directions in the medicine wheel.
While it holds religious and spiritual significance for native people, it also has a historical and curious appeal for tourists. In fact, the Secretary of the Interior declared it a National Historic Landmark in 1970 (MAIC). In 1988, the Forest Service attempted to build a viewing platform, parking lot, and visitor center near the Medicine Wheel. However, this was appealed by two Native American organizations that joined together with an environmental and historical group to prevent the action (MAIC). Instead, they had the land recognized as a religious site. In 1996, several Wyoming organizations signed a Programmatic Agreement employing a Historic Preservation Plan (HPP), which encompassed all of Medicine Mountain, an 18,000-acre area. This gave unlimited ceremonial use to Native Americans and privacy for these ceremonies when requested. Wyoming Sawmills of Sheridan filed an appeal in 1999 because they felt that the ruling for the Native American tribes in the Medicine Wheel conflict violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Chapman). Judges ruled that they had no standing to challenge the HPP. The Forest Service suspended a timber sale with Wyoming Sawmills of Sheridan because the noise would have disrupted the ceremonies held at Medicine Wheel.
A Cheyenne cultural leader explains, “The tribes traditionally went and still go to the sacred mountain. The people sought the high mountain for prayer” (Gulliford). Many different native tribes still use the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming to seek visions, make prayer offerings, fast, conduct the Sun Dance ceremony, and seek spiritual renewal and healing (Geist). This site has definite religious significance for these tribes, which environmental, historical, and native groups have worked to protect. While controversy still surrounds the Bighorn Medicine Wheel on Medicine Mountain, as of right now, the HPP still stands. Although tourists still sometimes have access to the Medicine Wheel, access is restricted, and when requested by the Native Americans, access is denied to tourists during ceremony (MAIC).
- Katherine Whalen