The walk was only a mile and a half, taking about half an hour, but it felt as though I were walking back in time ten thousand years.
It was the end of a western United States journey–mostly be car–in which I retraced a 1939 journey taken by my grandparents. I had visited the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone and other natural wonders, and decided that a 10,000-foot mountain plateau that had a recognized human history spanning thousands of years, one that denoted a special sacredness for Native American people, was a fitting conclusion.
Wyoming’s flat-topped Medicine Mountain, part of the Bighorn National Forest, hosts one of the largest prehistoric medicine wheels in North America. The eighty-foot wide stone circle, with twenty-eight spokes around a central rock mound and six rock piles or cairns situated at different outer points, is estimated to have been in use for millennia by various Plains and mountain tribes. Today, the wheel is still frequented by several tribes, the most common practice being the vision quest where individuals seek spiritual direction and harmony, and leave prayer offerings in return.
The origin story of the wheel varies from tribe to tribe. Crow Indians claimed it existed when they first arrived, believing that the sun built it to show people how to make a teepee. The Shoshone and others believe that little people built the wheel and that they still live in caverns beneath it. An early ethnologist, G.B. Grinnell, suggested that the wheel is a stone model of the Cheyenne sun dance lodge, built where wood was scarce.
Perhaps the wheel served as a timepiece or calendar for specific rituals and ceremonies. In studying the wheel for National Geographic, noted astronomer John A. Eddy found that many of the cairns line up for the summer solstice sunrise and sunset, and the rising points of three bright stars-Aldebaran, Rigel and Sirius. “The early Indians of the plains made use of the sun and stars in fairly sophisticated ways,” Eddy concluded.
In the early evening, I had pulled into the unpaved Forest Service parking area near the base of Medicine Mountain and began the 1.5-mile walking ascent. Vehicle access to the site is heavily regulated, and that seemed appropriate. One has to earn the right to visit the wheel, I felt. After all, native people through the ages had once walked to this spot for days and even weeks, seekers of the sacred.
Ascending the winding road, I soon met the last group of visitors who were on their way down since only one other car was in the parking area. Visitation had been rising steadily in recent years, so I felt it was almost miraculous that I found myself walking alone up the mountain. The western sun was dipping in and out of clouds, bathing the mountaintop in soft yellow light–a spectacular sight. Then I spotted the unmistakable form of a fox running down the trail towards me. We nearly met face to face before he quickly scooted off into the brush. People may have left the mountain for the evening, but not the wildlife.
At a gap before the last rise, a sign told of how this was the conjunction of an ancient trail where buffalo-oriented Plains people interacted with the more hunter-gatherer mountain people, going back 10,000 years. Medicine Mountain was always a place of peace, where even traditional enemies such as the Crow, Blackfeet and Sioux could gather unmolested. The same is true of other sites, such as the Pipestone area in southwestern Minnesota, where red catlinite was obtained for medicine pipes.
Appropriately, on the last leg of the climb, the trail was red pea gravel, perhaps symbolic of the sacred red road one follows when they dedicate their life in service of Creator.
Approaching the wheel, colorful prayer flags, tobacco ties, medicine pouches and other offerings that had been tied on the rope perimeter fence danced in the wind. The power of the place was permeable. I had been climbing with exuberance, feeling more energized than I had in days, but I slowed when I neared the top and walked around the wheel in a clockwise fashion. Sitting in the west, facing east, I then knelt and pulled out the long-stemmed medicine pipe I had received from a Muskogee spiritual leader named Bear Heart more than twenty-five years before. I smudged myself and the pipe with cedar leaves-purifying natural incense–as I filled the red bowl with pure tobacco, humming a chant Bear Heart had taught me. As I had first been instructed, I pointed the stem towards the four directions, then toward the sky and earth, before bringing it towards my own heart and to my lips to light it.
Many native people believe that Creator placed spirit helpers in all four directions, and in the sky and earth, and that a piece of divinity was placed inside each of us. That is why the number seven is often considered a sacred number.
I smoked the pipe and prayed for all life on earth, for my family and loved ones, for my ancestors and future generations, and for spiritual harmony and clarity in my life. I gave thanks for my journey and how it had first come about. And I gave thanks for the public lands that are being carefully protected into the future, and for those people who remain vigilant in their stewardship of those lands.
With my eyes closed, I lifted the pipe to the sky in thanksgiving just as a young voice called out from the trail, “Indians!” Startled, I glanced over at a sandy-haired boy who had fixated on the colorful prayer flags and other objects tied to the fence. He was racing up the hill. Behind him was a man and woman, a young girl of about four, and a large black dog. I backed away quietly as the father tried to keep the boy from handling the offerings. They talked loudly, snapped a few pictures, and stayed only a few minutes, barely noticing me. This was clearly a tourist stop for them, a curiosity. So what if someone was praying? In that instant when that boy had cried out “Indians!” I realized the tremendous educational challenge that remains regarding Native American sacred sites that are open to the general public. What if I had been on a vision quest, sitting inside the wheel praying for up to four days without food or water, and tourists strolled up taking photos of me? How would I feel? One wouldn’t enter a Catholic Church and scream, “Nuns!”
Signs can be effective-if people stop long enough to read them. One sign explained that some native leaders believe the medicine wheel belongs to all people, but with that access comes a tremendous responsibility. Visitors should approach sacred Native American sites with respect and reverence, as they would their own church or temple. Of course, children will be children, and I bore no ill will towards the young boy.
What is the best way to regulate a sacred site? When numerous tribes are using it, such as the medicine wheel, you can’t put it in the hands of one tribe, and if you allowed only Native Americans to use it, who would determine who is a Native American? The lines are blurry after generations of racial mixing and the fact that some tribes and groups are not recognized by the federal government, even though members may have bona-fide native blood and cultural heritage. And what about those sincere seekers who are not Native American? Is there a place for them?
I remembered a visit to another holy site–Bear Butte in South Dakota-many years before where a clear-eyed caretaker reminded every visitor to be quiet and to not disturb people who were praying. One on one human contact can be very useful in educating visitors. The sacred can remain sacred, and all visitors can leave and take away something that is good.
A good start regarding the stone wheel on Medicine Mountain was the formation of two Native American tribal organizations, the Medicine Wheel Alliance and the Medicine Wheel Coalition, in response to a 1988 Forest Service proposal to build a viewing platform at the wheel. With help from environmental and historic preservation groups, the platform proposal was successfully blocked and a long dialogue was begun on how best to protect the integrity of the site. The groups and the Forest Service eventually developed an historic preservation plan for the wheel and the surrounding 18,000 acres, the entire mountain. One tenet allows for privacy by Native American practitioners when requested. Additionally, efforts are being made for more Native American interpreters during the tourist season.
In trying to explain the spiritual importance of places such as the medicine wheel, the author T. H. Watkins points out that modern classifications such as “national forests” or “national parks” are virtually meaningless because Native American belief systems and practices have no walls. “They [sacred places] represent a quality whose value cannot be measured by boundaries drawn or ecosystems measured or wildlife inventoried,” he wrote. “There is a spiritual dimension to these lands that can only be measured by the protocols of the heart, a dimension that has to do with the ancient connection between human beings and the wild world that sustains them. The Indians, the First Peoples of this continent, have honored that connection more faithfully than those who have followed them as the dominant human presence on this land. It is, traditional Indians believe, a sacred connection, and they validate it where and when they can with rituals older than recorded time.”
Bill Tall Bull, a Northern Cheyenne elder, put it even more succinctly, “The Earth has a spirit. All of creation has a spirit. Everything that comes from the sacred earth is sacred.”
Traditional native people point out that there is a danger to protecting certain sacred sites, or, in a broader sense, parks and wilderness areas, if the rest of the lands are then open for rampant exploitation. If all of our actions were done with careful planning and attunement to the land, our entire economy and way of life would become more sustainable, and our problems would be solved from the ground up, with day to day choices. Pie in the sky, I know, but places such as the medicine wheel have given me a glimpse of the possibilities.
Before leaving the wheel, I placed tobacco and ash from my pipe along the perimeter where I had been sitting. I knew not to leave crystals or other objects that have not been traditionally used in this region. Tobacco, on the other hand, is sacred to nearly all Native American tribes on this continent. It was always used with prayer and ritual; only since the arrival of Europeans has tobacco been used in an addictive and recreational fashion, with numerous health consequences. Even chemicals are added to some brands to enhance addiction. One has to question the moral efficacy of such practices.
The next morning, after sleeping on the ground for the last time, I drove south, towards Denver and a plane ride home. I felt less alone than I had in my entire journey. It is that way when you touch the sacred-you feel a part of everything and everyone. My highest hope was for our nation’s sacred landscape to remain as steadfast guideposts to point the way for future travelers, helping us to honor and strengthen an age-old compact between humans and the earth.
About the author:
Doug Alderson is the author of numerous magazine articles and three books, including The Vision Keepers (Quest Books 2007), about walks across the United States and experiences with Native American people. His first book, Waters Less Traveled (University Press of Florida) was runner-up for best travel book in 2006 by the North American Travel Journalists Association. His newest book, New Dawn for the Kissimmee River: Orlando to Lake Okeechobee by Kayak, will be released by the University Press of Florida in late summer of 2009. To learn more about his work, log onto www.dougalderson.net.