Native American Medicine Wheel

In Native American spirituality, the Medicine Wheel represents harmony and connections and is considered a major symbol of peaceful interaction among all living beings on Earth. A number of stone Medicine Wheels are scattered across the plains of Alberta and northern United States. Some are extremely large with a diameter greater then 12 meters across.

The term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, the most southern and one of the largest in existence. That site consists of a central circle of piled rock surrounded by a circle of stone; "Rays" of stones travel out from the central core of rock and its surrounding circle. The structure looks like the wheel of a bicycle. Alberta and British Columbia, have two-thirds of all known Medicine wheels (47) which suggests that Southern Alberta was a central meeting place for many Plains First Nations tribes who followed Medicine Wheel ceremonies.

Despite their physical existence, there is a lot of mystery that surrounds the Medicine Wheel as no written record to their purpose has been found. Of the many theories to their purpose, the two learning theories are: the wheels contain significant stellar and cosmological alignments, and/or, the performance of specific rituals and ceremonies that have been long forgotten.

Medicine Wheels are still used today in the Native American spirituality, however most of the meaning behind them is not shared among Non-Native peoples.

A medicine wheel at Big Horn.


Erecting massive stone structures is a well-documented activity of ancient man, from the Egyptian pyramids to Stonehenge, and the natives of Northern America are no different in this regard. What does separate them from the rest is how non-intrusive their structures were. Unlike the usual towering stone monoliths, the natives simply laid down lots of stones on the earth in certain arrangements. One of the more obtuse arrangements is the medicine wheel. Medicine wheels appear all over northern United States and southern Canada, specifically South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Most of the wheels have been found in Alberta. In all over 70 medicine wheels have been found. One of the prototypical medicine wheels is in Big Horn County, Wyoming. This 75 foot diameter wheel has 28 spokes, and is part of a vast set of old Native American sites that document 7,000 years of their history in that area.

How are they made?

Medicine wheels were constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center cairn of stones, and surrounding that would be an outer ring of stones, then there would be "spokes", or lines of rocks, coming out the cairn. Almost all medicine wheels would have at least two of the three elements mentioned above (the center cairn, the outer ring, and the spokes), but beyond that there were many variations on this basic design, and every wheel found has been unique and has had its own style and eccentricities. The most common deviation between different wheels are the spokes. There is no set number of spokes for a medicine wheel to have. The spokes within each wheel are rarely evenly spaced out, or even all the same length. Some medicine wheels will have one particular spoke that's significantly longer than the rest, suggesting something important about the direction it points (see Meaning below). Another variation is whether the spokes start from the center cairn and go out only to the outer ring, or whether they go past the outer ring, or whether they start at the outer ring and go out from there. An odd variation sometimes found in medicine wheels is the presence of a passageway, or a doorway, in the circles. The outer ring of stones will be broken, and there will be a stone path leading up to the center of the wheel. Also many medicine wheels have various other circles around the outside of the wheel, sometimes attached to spokes or the outer ring, and sometimes just seemingly floating free of the main structure.

What do they mean?

Medicine wheels have been built and used for so long, and each one has enough unique characteristics, that archeologists have found it nearly impossible to tell exactly what each one was for, and haven't had much success at making broad generalizations about their function and meaning. One of the older wheels has been dated to over 4,500 years old; it had been built up by successive generations who would add new features to the circle. Due to the long existence of such a basic structure, archeologists suspect that the function and meaning of the medicine wheel changed over time, and it is doubtful that we will ever know what the original purpose was. It is not hard to imagine that medicine wheels, like most large stone structures, would probably have served a ceremonial or ritual purpose. There is evidence of dancing within some of the wheels. Other wheels were probably used as part of a ritual vision quest. Astronomer John Eddy put forth the theory that some of the wheels had astronomical significance, where the longest spoke on a wheel could be pointing to a certain star at a certain time of the year, suggesting that the wheels were a way to mark certain days of the year. Other scientists have shown that some of the wheels mark the longest day of the year. (Note that an astronomical/calendar theory has been suggested for just about every unnatural stone structure on Earth.)


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It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Medicine Wheel ".