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Big Horn Medicine Wheel
The most studied wheel in America is the Big Horn Medicine wheel on Medicine Mountain in Wyoming. The Big Horn Medicine Wheel is a giant “Wheel” 87 feet in diameter and made of stones. The Wheel has Twenty-eight “spokes,” which fan outward from a central cairn and end at the circumference of the wheel. There are five other spokes which end at cairns on the circumference. The Wheel is almost exactly the same size as the Sarsen Circle, the principal feature at Stonehenge.
Dr. John Addy discovered that the seventh spoke, which extends out past the circumference of the wheel, is aligned with the direction that the Sun rises and sets on the summer solstice. The other four spokes end in cairns on the circumference of the wheel and point to the rising points of the stars Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, and Fomalhaut.
One author writes, “Although the exact date of its construction is unknown, it is believed to be at most a few hundred years old. Nevertheless, though it may not compare in age or grandeur with its more famous European cousin (Stonehenge) , Big Horn Medicine Wheel is no less interesting to archaeoastronomers, and no less mysterious in its origin, history, and purpose. “1
The accuracy of Native Indigenous Medicine Wheels often baffles modern scientist as it appears that the knowledge to construct these wheels was garnered without the use of sophisticated equipment. I am always amazed that scientist find indigenous constructs so mysterious. There is the tendency to extol the knowledge of the builders of Stonehenge and to negate the ancient knowledge of the indigenous people as an impossibility. If they want to know the origin and function of the Big Horn wheel, it would do well to ask the descendants of those who constructed and used this wheel; the Northern Cheyenne, Lakota and Arapaho people.
The Lunar Calendar
Native indigenous people used a 28 day lunar calendar. The spokes on the Big Horn wheel correspond to the 28 days of one lunar month. These spokes were used to track the days in a month.
Superimposed on the wheel are markers for Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, and Fomalhaut. These stars are used to track the lunar year. At the time the Wheel was built, Aldebaran rose in the East, just before the sun. This phenomenon, called a helical rising , is very unique as it signifies a time when a star, usually behind the sun and unseen, flashes above the horizon before the sun, before it is again hidden by the sun’s light. The ” flash” of Aldebaran above the horizon signaled the approach of the summer solstice and the time to return to the Black Hills for Sun dance ceremony. ”Rigel rises almost exactly one lunar month (28 days) after Aldebaran and Sirius one month after Rigel.” 3 Fomalhaut rises one month before the fall equinox.4 The Medicine Wheel of Big Horn is a massive astronomical clock, marked in stone, which guided the daily lives of the Lakota around the Sacred Hoop of life.
Other Astronomical Medicine Wheels
There are approximately 1500 such wheels in continental North America constructed of stone, or mud. Some are newer, like the Big Horn Wheel only estimated to be around 200 years old and others date back 4500 years. This includes the wheel at Turtle Mountain Dakota Reservation and Moose Mountain, Saskatchewan; Canada. Almost All have the central cairns, the markers for summer solstice, and markers for Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, and Fomalhaut.
This suggests a consistent culture of astronomical observance prevalent amongst the inhabitants of this land. It is reasonable to conclude that these wheels were used in similar manner as discussed in this article.
We are related to all things
Spider Who Sings@ Songs for the Lodge
5. Phases chart and legend: http://turtlemountain.org/exhibits/mythandhistory/phases
Please note, this article is not an invitation to visit the Big Horn Wheel. The U.S. Forest Service has made this site a national tourist attraction which draws over 32,000 visitors annually. This has resulted in the degradation of the wheel. While tourist are welcome traditional medicine people need to sneak and hide in the mountains to conduct traditional ceremonies. Please respect the need and right of the People to preserve their spiritual and cultural heritage. If you do go, please do not remove the stones or other sacred items placed by the people.]]>
The Black Hills are a geological wonder. It is a wedge shaped land mass that rises from the prairie in the western corner of South Dakota. It is as though someone cut a piece out of the Northern California forests and dropped them in the center of the western prairie. The Lakota speak of a Great Race of Animals around the Black Hills, the tumult of which caused the Hills to rise from the floor of the earth(1)
Formed by glaciers, the mass consists primarily of bedrock coverered with glacial sediment. The land is fertile and supports giant black pines; from which it gets it name, farming, crops, fruits and berries and a multitude of wildlife and fish. It is in this environment that the Lakota enjoyed an abundant way of living.
The Cangleska Wakan, the Sacred Red Circle of Life is a red clay valley that circles the Black Hills. The Lakota, a nomadic people, migrated around this Hoop on an annual basis for physical survival and spiritual renewal. There were specific camps for winter, spring and summer which corresponded to the best locations for game and foods.
Lakota Spirituality was also inherently tied to the Black Hills environment. Within Cangleska Wakan; the Sacred Hoop, are various land masses used by the Lakota for the facilitation of specific rituals at various times of the year.
During the winter, the bands resided at their winter camps in Nebraska and South Dakota. At the time of the spring equinox, the bands would begin the Spring Pipe Ceremonies. The prayers called the people to return to Devil’s Tower for the annual Sundance. The prayers also called for the return of the animals and the renewal of plants. The bands would then begin the trek to Harney Peak ,Nebraska for the ceremonies of renewal. There the Lakota performed the ceremonies called “They are dancing for the Thunders that are theirs”. This was a ceremony to welcome back the Thunder Beings, harbingers of the spring storms which cleansed the earth.
When the bands arrived at Pe Sla, A barren hill in the Black Hills in mid-spring, the bands would perform the ceremony called “Peace at Bare Spot”. This was a ceremony of welcoming back life and included the offering of libation (pouring water), feeding the birds and the offering of meat. This time also included preparation for the annual Sundance; a time which included prayer and purification.4
Once the spring ceremonies were concluded the people would begin the journey to Devil’s Tower to conduct the Sundance at the time of summer solstice. The Sundance was a national religious and social event. Matters of legal importance impacting the tribes were decided then. If the bands could not converge for the spring ceremonies, all endeavored to return for the Sundance.
On the journey to Devil’s Tower, the people would carry with them stones from Inyan Kaga (a hill in the Wyoming Black Hills) to be used in the purification lodges at the Sundance. The spiritual name for Devil’s tower is “Grey Buffalo Horn”. Inyan Kaga is called “Black Buffalo Horn” and Bear Butte was called the “Buffalo’s Nose”. This triangular configuration of mountains was called, “The Buffalo’s Head” and between spring equinox and summer solstice was a cauldron of spiritual energy and activity. 4
To the Lakota, The Buffalo represented a traditional way of life; a way of living. They were not just referring to the wooly animal of the plains, but rather to the spiritual “Buffalo”, whose head was formed by three sacred mountains, which was the core of their spiritual and physical and renewal. The journey for the Lakota was, in actuality quite circuitous, however this was Their sacred and literal Red Circle of Life
Cangleska Wakan, the first Medicine Wheel, encompassed the physical context for Lakota spiritual beliefs. This was their home. Saying that the Sacred Circle was broken is a literal description of the desecration of the physical homeland of the Lakota people. Bear Butte, the place where the Lakota said they emerged from within the earth, is now a national park. The people now need special arrangements to facilitate the Vision Quest ceremonies to prepare to dance. The Hot Springs, used for spring purification are now a tourist attraction from which the people are barred and chased away. When the Lakota said they were no longer able to follow the Sacred Hoop, they spoke literally as well as symbolically.
The physical world of the Lakota was mirrored in the heavens. What they did on the earth was a replica of what occurred in the heavens; as the saying goes, As above, so below…From a practical perspective How did the Lakota know when to move camp? We will explore these concepts and questions in our next articles, “The Significance of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel.”
Spider who Sings
Black Elk spoke of a time in the Seventh Generation of people that the Sacred Hoop would begin to be mended. This mending has taken many forms including political and social revolution, litigation, and the reclaiming of traditional cultural andspiritual practices. There are many who have been able blend traditinal teachings and American institutions to build lives of courage with purpose.
The journey for the individual can be treacherous as lack of employment opportunities, poverty, substance abuse and disease are rampant on the reservation. The reservation on Pine Ridge has been described as a third world environment and many struggle to find meaning in the barren land into which they were deposited.
If you are interested in providing assistance there are many credible organizations which help to provide propane, medicines and education on the Lakota reservations. If you desire to provide assitance please contact the Black Hills Salvation Army http://www.usc.salvationarmy.org/usc/www_usc_blackhills.nsf/ to find credible ways to help these communities. The Lakota Country Times http://www.lakotacountrytimes.com/ is good online resource reporting on events involving the Lakotanation. The Native American Rights Fund http://www.narf.org/ provides articles and information on the efforts of native tribes to unravel the legal entaglements of the treaties which took away their lands and rights. NARF is the place to go if you can’t find other resources. They will tell you how to help.
1. Lakota Creation Stories
2. map from: http://www.ndsu.edu/nd_geology/nd_maps/nd_map4.htm
4. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakot Stellar Theology: Ronald Goodman, Sinte Gleska University press, 1992.
Notice that the colors are in different directions on the wheel. Is there a correct placement of the colors on the wheel and what do they mean? Is there such a things as “ The right or wrong Medicine Wheel?” One internet author wrote:
“So which is correct? How can you tell bogus interpretations from time honored ones? Well, you can’t. The metaphysics and religion of the Lakota are as subjective as those of any religion; maybe even more so because of the emphasis on individualism, i.e. one’s own vision. Nowhere is this more true than among the Lakota holy people and interpreters. The variations in the colours for the directions can easily and readily differ from individual to individual, as each is guided specifically by their own visions.”2.
I find there is some truth to this perspective, however much confusion with respect to the wheels comes from non-Indians not understanding some fundamental principles about the types of medicine people and the representation of these medicines and colors on the wheel. There are medicine people who work with herbs and roots. These medicine people, called Pejuta Wakan, have a core wheel with a core set of four colors.The placement of the colors on the wheel may vary from individual to individual however the core colors remain the same. The Heyoka, the Sacred Contraries also have a different set of colors indicative of their medicine. Similarly the Wicasa Wakan, the Holy People, have a different wheel with a core set of colors. The lay person also uses particular wheels whose colors and placement on the wheel are determined by band and by clan then personal vision.
There are wheels which represent the higher powers and knowledge obtained only by the Medicine people ; those trained to approach that energy. There are wheels for the layperson which represent knowledge that can be obtained by anyone willing to learn how to access that information. An individual may use one medicine wheel for finding guidance in day to day living. The same individual may approach a Pejuta Wakan ( herbalist- family doctor) who uses a different core. The Pejuta Wakan may refer the individual to a Wicasa Wakan ( holy man, medium, surgeon). When one understands the core colors one knows what type of medicine person, that one is working with. When one understands this concept the issue of right and wrong medicine wheels disappears.3
If one grew up in the culture one would learn many variations of the wheel and their meanings by virtue of living in the environment. This is akin to a student learning the colors of the various schools, their mascots and slogans, group personalities and values as they matriculated through the education system. It is important when studying these icons and teachings to study and learn one system well, then learn others. These iconic wheels represent and define reltionships within a culture and within communities. The spiritual teachings can generalize if one takes the time to learn the symbols and teachings.
In our next article, Cangleska Wakan: the Sacred Hoop of Life, we will discuss the relationship between the Black Hills and various constellations in the sky. This relationship formed the basis of Lakota spiritual thought and guided their daily living. These earthen and stellar wheels give birth to all other possible wheels and possible relationships. In the interim we invite you visit the link on reference 4 for one particular interpretation of a medicine wheel.
3. For those familiar with Ifa the difference is akin to the use of obi abata, dilogun and Ikinfor divination. Anyone can use obi and obi abata to talk to their ancestors to inquire about the daily activities and affairs. The priest use dilogun to approach the deities with regard to information on the worldly plan. The awo’s approach Ifa for understanding of one’s destiny and how forces are impacting the individual.
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The Ancients believe that we visit each Direction, each Corner, as we traverse through life. We remain in each direction approximately seven years absorbing the lessons of that Direction.
It is said that one can attain enlightenment in one twenty-eight year cycle of life. Ideally an individual will live long enough to traverse the wheel four times in an incarnation. This is why we pray for long life; to complete our lessons so we do not have to repeat the cycle.
Here is a Native American perspective on the meaning of the straight and narrow; not that one walks a linear path that never jumps the curb, but that one stays focused and passionate enough to complete their cycles regardless of the road that needs to be traveled. Windows of opportunity are presented to us and we either leap, to grab the ring off the turnstile, or remain on the path we’re on. If we are not careful, we get stuck in old beliefs and behaviors that keep us stuck on the Sacred Wheel. Healing is recreating opportunities to learn our lessons and clear our Karmic responsibilities.
We acknowledge the Four Corners which create the world and begin our series on the Medicine Wheel; the Sacred Hoop of Life. We share from the Lakota perspective for we have direct experience with this culture and tribe. We know that the spiritual metaphysical concepts of the Lakota “Medicine Wheels” are based upon a literal “Wheel” in the physical environment of the Black Hills and Western Plains. The Lakota way of Life focused on this Sacred Red Road of Life.
We invite you to browse our series, learn more about the Lakota perspective and universal truths inherent in these teachings. We welcome your comments and thoughts at the site. In sharing our thoughts and feelings, we will find that we all carry a piece of the truth and truly are all related.
Spider Who Sings
Songs for the Lodge.com
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