The Medicine Wheel of the Bighorn Mountains
Rupert Weeks, Shoshone Elder
The Medicine Wheel of the Big Horn Mountains
The Medicine Wheel
High in the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming there rests an ancient medicine wheel made of rocks and stones in the form of an outer circle (with a thirty or forty-foot diameter) with a much smaller inner circle that once housed a large cottonwood pole. Within the large circle are twenty-eight spokes going from the outer rim to the edge of the inner circle. These twenty-eight spokes, presumably, represent the twenty-eight days of the lunar month. The whole circle lies at a twenty-degree angle facing west in the Big Horn Mountains.
On the autumnal equinox (September 22nd) perhaps thirty years ago, my friend Victor Flach and I visited this sacred site in the late afternoon. The day remained crystal clear; we could see across the Bighorn Basin all the way to the distant Wind River Mountains. Perhaps a puffy cumulus cloud or two lingered on the horizon as the sun began to set. Then, an amazing thing happened. The moon rose to the east as the sun set to the west, and they both formed a perfect right angle across the center of this medicine wheel.
My old Shoshone friend, Rupert Weeks, who was then in his mid-sixties, later explained to me that his tribe used this medicine wheel as a time calendar when it once had a high cottonwood trunk placed at the center of the medicine wheel so that its shadow would be transected by the rising moon at a right angle during the equinox. When this happened, their shaman warned hunters to gather their bighorn sheep meat and descend to the buffalo-valleys below because extreme cold and snowy weather was not that far away. Of course the shadow the cottonwood pole made on a given spoke would also them the people what day it was of the moon-month. Rupert told me that there are a number of medicine wheels stretching from northern Wyoming into southern Montana and that hunters could smoke signal messages about the location of buffalo (bison) herds (down in the valleys) from one mountain top to another. Medicine wheels, then, truly served as important message centers, and in that sense they did possess "medicine" for the people of three to four hundred years ago. I close with a poem of mine about the shaman of the medicine wheel:
I can see a bare-chested
Shoshone shaman dancing
high in the Big Horns at
the Medicine Wheel in
late September when the
setting sun and rising moon
form a perfect right angle
across the stone-spoked
wheel to give the shaman
a signal that it is time to
tell his people to end their
hunt for bighorn sheep
high in the mountains lest
early snow entraps them.
Life Above 7000 Feet in Wyoming
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