Medicine wheels, known also as sacred circles or sacred hoops, are monuments constructed by certain Native American cultures by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. The most basic pattern, which is followed by the majority of medicine wheels, consists of a center of stones, which is connected to an outer ring by ‘spokes’. Medicine wheels were, and still are, constructed for healing purposes. It may be mentioned that this ‘healing’ should be understood within the context of inner spiritual energy and enlightenment, rather than the taking of drugs or herbal remedies. Apart for that, such wheels are speculated to have been made for astronomical, ritual and teaching purposes as well.
The term ‘medicine wheel’ was not originally used by the Native Americans who made these monuments. Instead, this term was first used during the late 1800s / early 1900s by Americans of European descent to refer to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, which is located near Sheridan, Wyoming. Similar monuments were later discovered, and the term ‘medicine wheel’ was used to describe them as well.
The Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming, USA ( Public Domain )
Medicine wheels can generally be found in the southern part of Canada and the northern United States. Of the 46 known medicine wheels built by the ancient Native Americans, 66% of them may be found in Alberta, Canada. Another source claims that there are a few hundred of these medicine wheels in existence. These medicine wheels are believed to have been built by the ancient Plains Indians, including the Cree, Comanche, Pawnee and Sioux (Lakota, Dakota, Nakota). These were nomads, who were on the move for most of the year, as they followed the herds of buffalo and deer.
The ancient medicine wheels were built at different points in time. Some are believed to be hundreds of years old, whilst others are thought to have been made thousands of years ago. For example, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming is thought to be 800 years old, though some believe that the wheel is much older than that. The Moose Mountain Wheel in Saskatchewan is estimated to be 2000 years old, and, due to the similarities between this wheel and the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, some have suggested that the former was used as a model for the latter. The oldest known medicine wheel can be found in Majorville, Canada, and is said to be 5000 years old.
The Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming ( Public Domain )
There is no consensus as to the exact purpose of medicine wheels. Medicine wheels are commonly believed to have served a healing purpose, in the sense of improving one’s inner spiritual energy. One way of achieving this aim is to use the medicine wheel for meditation and reflection. Some wheels, for example, are divided into four sections, and represent a number of quartets that may be used for reflection. Amongst these are the Four Stages of Life (Birth, Youth, Adult, Death), and the Four Trials of Man (Success, Defeat, Peace, War). Medicine wheels have been appropriated by New Age spiritualists, and that these groups had attached their own syncretic meanings to these structures.
Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The medicine wheels had originally served some sort of astronomical function. It has been proposed, for example, that some medicine wheels reflect certain celestial alignments, such as the sunrise and sunset of the summer solstice, as well as the rising places of certain stars associated with the summer solstice. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel, the Majorville Medicine Wheel and the Moose Mountain Wheel have been found to support the astronomical alignment theory. Some have also suggested that medicine wheel was used for important ritual ceremonies. Whilst the original use of the medicine wheels is unclear, it is more certain that they served different functions, depending on the tribe that was making them, and that it is entirely possible that these functions were experienced changes over the centuries.
Top image: Medicine Wheel Park, Valley City State University, Valley City, ND
By Wu Mingren