Filed Under Native Americans

Big Horn Medicine Wheel

In a picturesque and seemingly significant location, the Big Horn Medicine Wheel may reveal indigenous knowledge of astronomy.

At the top of the Big Horn Mountains, 9,642 feet above sea level, on the west ridge of Medicine Mountain, lies the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. The wheel sits about twenty yards away from a limestone cliff face, where visitors can look down upon the Big Horn Basin, the Wind River, and the Pryor Mountains of Montana. Using a piece of wood found built into the structure, archaeologists dated the Medicine Wheel itself to around 1760 AD. Other archaeological research carbon-dated charcoal and wood fragments found near the Medicine Wheel to 4,529 BCE.

The wheel is made of hundreds of white limestone rocks arranged in roughly in the circular shape of a wheel. Spanning eighty feet in diameter, the wheel is a true marvel, as most rocks used as material for the massive wheel originate from the bottom of the mountain, meaning the builders carried them to the top. At the center of the wheel lies another smaller circle, and 28 “spokes” radiate from this smaller center circle, connecting the center to the perimeter of the wheel. Small hollow cairns surround the wheel.

Although much research has been done on the wheel, archaeologists, astronomers, and other scholars have been unable to determine its origin and function. One astronomer suggests the indigenous builders might have designed the wheel to track celestial bodies, having found the cairns are in astronomical alignment with the summer solstice sunset and sunrise as well as the rise of the stars Alderbaran, Serius, and Rigel. Another astronomer disagrees, saying that had the medicine wheel’s purpose been to track the solstice and stars, the structure’s design would have been more precise and astronomical alignments with the wheel would be more obvious and practical. An archaeologist suggests that the cairns could have been small shelters for vision quest participants while another archaeologist believes the wheel is a model of a Cheyenne medicine lodge. A Crow legend tells the story of a boy that was able to find healing and tribal acceptance through the power connected to the wheel. The Cheyenne believe that the Legend of Sweet Medicine inspired the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. Many theories have been proposed and disputed, but no theory has provided irrefutable evidence for a single explanation.

The Big Horn Medicine Wheel is a national historical landmark and is still used by tribes for religious purposes. Visitors are allowed to view the Big Horn Medicine Wheel but are asked to respect the ancient site as it holds both religious and historical significance to many Native Americans.

Images

Big Horn Medicine Wheel The outer circle, cairns, spokes, and center of Big Horn Medicine Wheel are visible in this photo from above. Source: Courtesy of the Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MedicineWheel.jpg.
Medicine Wheel from the ground Source: Courtesy of the National Park Service. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bighorn_medicine_wheel.jpg.
Center and spokes In addition to the center and spokes seen in the middle of the image, a smaller cairn is also capture in the lower left. Source: Imerriott (pseud.), August 21, 2011. Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BHMW_north_2011.jpg.
Cut Ear Cut Ear, the figure pictured, sits in front of what appears to be one of the Medicine Wheel’s larger cairns. Source:
“Cut Ear, Standing by the Medicine Wheel.” July 1916. Courtesy of NPGallery. https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/ab3d5592f7c24d458bdec27945099199.
Medicine Wheel at Medicine Mountain Visitors to the Medicine Wheel are asked to be respectful of the wheel’s historic and sacred significance. Source: Djonson5 (pseud.), September 14, 2014. Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medicine_Wheel.jpg.

Location

Metadata

Kelli Holiday, Brigham Young University, “Big Horn Medicine Wheel,” Intermountain Histories, accessed December 2, 2023, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/582.