Preserving the WY Medicine Wheel
It is not known what group of indigenous peoples built the Wyoming Medicine Wheel, located 60 miles outside of Sheridan, Wyoming in the Bighorn Mountains, or when they did so, but various Native American tribes have used the wheel as a sacred site for centuries. The Medicine Wheel is a circular pattern of stones surrounding a central stone cairn; twenty-eight stone pathways lead to smaller cairns as part of the wheel. Today, a six-foot-high barbed wire fence surrounds the wheel, placed by the Forest Service to protect the Medicine Wheel.
Those indigenous people who consider the wheel a sacred sight view the Medicine Wheel as a holistic model for life. The different teachings of the Medicine Wheel help individuals learn to live in balance with the Creator and all of creation. A 2007 article in the newspaper Win Awenen Nisitotung described how tribes use the Medicine Wheel: “The medicine wheel is like a mirror in which everything about human condition is reflected back.” The Medicine Wheel assists people along their path of life. This sacred site is important to Indigenous people to continue their ceremonies using the Medicine Wheel.
In 1970, the United States Forest Service designated the Medicine Wheel a National Historic Landmark. Tourists took to visiting the wheel, but the National Forest Service did not adequately provide protection for the site. Over the decades, some visitors removed rocks from the Wheel and vandalized the site with graffiti. In the early 1990s, tribes and coalitions fought to protect this land such damages and thefts.
On June 9, 1993, tribes—including the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Navajo, Shoshone, Sioux, and Southern Ute—political coalitions, and the Forest Services reached an agreement on managing the site. The Memorandum of Agreement (National Historic Preservation Act) contained several steps to curtail damage caused by tourists. The agreement reads, “The programmatic agreement will require the Forest Service in consultation with the parties to the MOA, to develop and implement a long term management plan which specifies the preservation and continued use of the Medicine Wheel and vicinity as its management priority.” Under the terms of the memorandum, the Forest Service agreed to only open Medicine Wheel to tourists between July 1 and November 1. Visitors would have to park away from the wheel itself and walk one-and-a-half a miles to the site. The government agreed to involve tribal members in discussions about managing the sacred site. The Forest Service would also close the site to visitors for three days around each equinox and solstice to “allow native practitioners undisturbed use for traditional rites and ceremonies.” This agreement set an important precedent. The government acknowledges sacred sites and protects them for American Indians.
Tribes have faced difficulties persuading the Forest Service to follow through with the National Historic Preservation Act. In May 1996, Diana Tillman Mitchell, a report for On Indian Land, revealed how the Forest Service failed to comply with the agreement. They were not including the elders from tribes in their consultations or management requirements. Mitchell wrote, “The guidance and policies should have active participation and notification to all Indian people involved! This is not happening.” The negotiations between Forest Service and the coalitions and tribes continued for a little over twenty years before reaching a final agreement. The updated agreement was implemented in September 1996 which issued the protocols the Forest Service must still follow followed today. The protocols designate 23,000 acres as sacred space to Native American and have provisions allowing Native American practitioners to use the site for ceremonies. In 2011, ethnographic discoveries about indigenous people’s cultural use of the surrounding landscape prompted the Forest Service to extend the boundaries of the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark to include an additional 4,080 acres. With this expansion, the Service also changed the name of the landmark to Medicine Mountain.
The steps taken in the 1990s to preserve the Medicine Wheel promoted a working relationship between Indigenous people and the United States government. Tribes and the federal government took steps to protect this special and sacred place. Still, the negotiated nature of this collaboration leaves some, including journalist Diana Tillman Mitchell, concerned that “the economics of a location may always outweigh Indigenous religious freedom.” Advocates like Chris Peters (Pohlik-lah/Karuk), an officer in Seventh Generation Fund, have insisted on their right to preserve sacred lands—“What’s more American: the right to drill for oil or the right to pray?—but when reviewing how the government has interacted with indigenous peoples in the past, it seems that if there is value to the land, the state will take it.