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Medicine wheel

A ceremonial drum of the Royal Military College of Canada showing a medicine wheel design.

Medicine wheels, or sacred hoops, are either a symbol of indigenous North American culture and religion, or stone monuments related to this symbol.

The monuments were constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground oriented to the four directions. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center of stone(s), and surrounding that is an outer ring of stones with "spokes", or lines of rocks radiating from the center with the spokes facing East, South, West and North following the cardinal directions. Some ancient types of sacred architecture were built by laying stones on the surface of the ground in particular patterns common to aboriginal people.

Originally, medicine wheels were stone structures constructed by a large number of the tribes or nations of indigenous peoples of America for religious, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes. Medicine wheels are still "opened" or inaugurated in Native American spirituality where, by certain tribes or groups, they are referred to as "sacred hoops". There are various native words to describe the ancient forms and types of rock alignments. The most prevalent and used involves the four directions.

More recently, syncretic, hybridized uses of medicine wheels, magic circles, and mandala sacred technology are employed in New Age, Wiccan, Pagan and other spiritual discourse throughout the World. The rite of the sacred hoop and medicine wheel differed and differs amongst indigenous traditions, as it now does between non-indigenous peoples, and between traditional and modernist variations.


  • Nomenclature 1
  • Exegesis 2
    • Stone structures as sacred architecture 2.1
    • Locality, siting and proxemics 2.2
    • Structure, fabrication and patterning 2.3
    • Cultural value, attribution and meaning 2.4
  • Medicine Wheel Park, Valley City, North Dakota, USA 3
  • New Age views 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


The Royal Alberta Museum (2005) hold that the term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn medicine wheel in Wyoming, the most southern archeological wheel still extant.[1] The term "medicine" was not applied because of any healing that was associated with the medicine wheel, but denotes that the sacred site and rock formations were of central importance and attributed with religious, hallowed, and spiritual significance.[1] The revisionist and culturally congruent English nomenclature is "sacred hoop".[2]

A 2007 Indian Country Today article on Indigenous American hoop dancing defines the hoop this way:

The hoop is symbolic of "the never-ending cycle of life." It has no beginning and no end. Tribal healers and holy men have regarded the hoop as sacred and have always used it in their ceremonies. Its significance enhanced the embodiment of healing ceremonies.[3]


Stone structures as sacred architecture

Intentionally erecting massive stone structures as sacred architecture is a well-documented activity of ancient monolithic and megalithic peoples and the indigenous peoples of Northern America shared in this proclivity. What does set them apart from many of the other monolithic peoples is how non-intrusive and environmentally sensitive the footprint and fabrication of their structures were. Unlike the usual grand and towering stone monoliths, the indigenous peoples of North America laid down stones on the Earth in certain arrangements and patterns. A distinctive type of these arrangements and patterns is found in the shape of a wheel, circle, hoop or disk; known generally through the term "medicine wheel" – though this nomenclature is culturally insensitive to some and is disfavored as an external cultural attribution.

The Royal Alberta Museum (2005) chart the possible point of origin and/or confluent or parallel tradition to the sacred hoop and mention tipi, stones as "foundation stones" or "tent-pegs", cobblestone, Plains Indians and ceremonial dance:

Scattered across the plains of Alberta are tens of thousands of stone structures. Most of these are simple circles of cobble stones which once held down the edges of the famous tipi of the Plains Indians; these are known as "tipi rings." Others, however, were of a more esoteric nature. Extremely large stone circles – some greater than 12 meters across – may be the remains of special ceremonial dance structures. A few cobble arrangements form the outlines of human figures, most of them obviously male. Perhaps the most intriguing cobble constructions, however, are the ones known as medicine wheels.[1]

Locality, siting and proxemics

Medicine wheels are sited throughout northern United States and southern Canada, specifically South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The majority of the circa 70 documented architectural hoops still extant are evident within Alberta, Canada.

One of the prototypical medicine wheels remains within the Bighorn National Forest in Big Horn County, Wyoming. This 75-foot-diameter (23 m) 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.

Medicine wheels were commonly used by North American natives such as the Ojibwa and prehistoric ancestors of the Assiniboine.

Some locations of medicine wheels are found in the prairie regions of North America, such as Manitoba, Wyoming, Montana, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Larger astronomical and ceremonial petroforms and Hopewell mound building can also be found in other places of North America.

Structure, fabrication and patterning

In defining the archetypal structure of the sacred hoop, the Royal Alberta Museum (2005) mentions Medicine Hat, cairn, concentric, radius, epicenter and stone circle holds that:

John Brumley, an archaeologist from Medicine Hat, has provided a very exacting definition of what constitutes a medicine wheel. He notes that a medicine wheel consists of at least two of the following three traits: (1) a central stone cairn, (2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or (3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point.[1]

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.

Medicine wheels were built by laying out stones in a circular pattern that often looked like a wagon wheel lying on its side. The wheels could be large, reaching diameters of 75 feet. Although archeologists are not definite on the purpose of each medicine wheel, it is thought that they probably had ceremonial or astronomical significance.

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.

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.

They are made by placing rocks down into a circle shape, and four lines or more of rocks are put down across the circle, or near the circle. Medicine wheels are used to mark the geographical directions and astronomical events of the sun, moon, some stars, and some planets in relation to the Earth's horizon at that location. These rock sites were also used for important ceremonies, teachings, and as sacred places to give thanks to the Creator, or Gitchi Manitou, known as the Great Spirit in the Ojibway language. Other North American indigenous peoples also made these circle petroforms. Medicine wheels are very similar to circular turtle shaped petroforms with the legs, head, and tail pointing out the directions and aligned with astronomical events.

Cultural value, attribution and meaning

The historical, archeological medicine wheels and sacred hoops have been built and engaged ritually for millennia, and each one has enough unique characteristics and qualities that archaeologists have encountered significant challenges in determining with precision what each one was for; similarly, gauging their commonality of function and meaning has also been problematic.

One of the older wheels has been dated to over 4,500 years old. Like Stonehenge, 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, archaeologists 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.

Astronomer John Eddy put forth the theory that some of the wheels had astronomical significance, where spokes on a wheel could be pointing to certain stars, as well as sunrise or sunset, at a certain time of the year, suggesting that the wheels were a way to mark certain days of the year. See Alice B. Kehoe and Thomas F. Kehoe, 1979, Solstice-Aligned Boulder Configurations in Saskatchewan. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 48, Mercury Series, National Museum of Man, Ottawa. (Translated into French by P. Ferryn, published 1978 Kadath 26:19-31, Brussels, Belgium). Other scientists have shown that some of the wheels mark the longest day of the year.

The idea that some Indigenous American and Canadian peoples engage the Medicine Wheel and associated rites to demonstrate the periodicity and cyclicality of Nature, change, life and lifecycles, interdependence, relationships and the Mysterium Magnum of the Earth and the Universe, amongst other teachings, is one of the Western interpretations making American First Nations the "Other", supposedly more spiritual, to contrast with supposedly less spiritual "Us".[4]

Medicine Wheel Park, Valley City, North Dakota, USA

Joe Stickler of Valley City State University,North Dakota, with the assistance of his students, began the construction of Medicine Wheel Park in 1992. The Park showcases two solar calendars: "a horizon calendar (the medicine wheel) and a meridian or noontime calendar."[5] According to the Medicine Wheel website, the "large circle measures 213 feet around. The 28 spokes radiating from its center represent the number of days in the lunar cycle. Six spokes extending well beyond the Wheel are aligned to the horizon positions of sunrises and sunsets on the first days of the four seasons."[5]

New Age views

Desy (2007) describes a New Age-era sacred hoop as a developmental, introspective tool, linking with it the Classical Elements, totems and cardinal directions: "The medicine wheel represents the sacred circle of life, its basic four directions, and the elements. Animal totems serve as guardian of each of the directions."[6] Desy also outlines some of the substances and fetishes involved in the construction and opening of a sacred hoop as a personal rite of "sacred play": "A personal medicine wheel can be made using fetishes such as crystals, arrowheads, seashells, feathers, animal fur/bones, and so on.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Source: [1] (accessed: January 2, 2008)
  2. ^ Source: [2] (accessed: January 2, 2008)
  3. ^ Zotigh, Dennis (30 May 2007). "History of the modern Hoop Dance".  
  4. ^ Kehoe, Alice B., 1990 "Primal Gaia: Primitivism and Plastic Medicine Men" in The Invented Indian, ed. J. A. Clifton. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books, pp. 193–209.
  5. ^ a b "Medicine Wheel Park". Valley City State University. 2005. Retrieved 2008-01-03. 
  6. ^ a b Desy, Phylameana lila (2007). "Medicine Wheel". 

Further reading

  • "Medicine Wheels: A Mystery in Stone", written by J. Rod Vickers that appeared in Alberta Past 8(3):6-7, Winter 1992-93.


  • John A. Eddy. "Medicine Wheels and Plains Indian Astronomy", in Native American Astronomy. ed. Anthony F. Aveni (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1977) p. 147-169.
  • John A. Eddy. "Medicine Wheels and Plains Indians", in Astronomy of the Ancients. ed. Kenneth Brecher and Michael Feirtag Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979, p. 1-24.
  • Gordon Freeman. Canada's Stonehenge. Official website.
  • E.C. Krupp, Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations, (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1983) p. 141-148.
  • Jamie Jobb, The Night Sky Book (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1977) p. 70-71.
  • Ray F. Williamson, Living the Sky. The Cosmos of the American Indian, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984) p. 191-217.
  • Sun Bear and Wabun. The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology. (Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Books, New Jersey, 1980)


  • Anthony F. Aveni, "Native American Astronomy". Physics Today Issue 37 (June 1984) p. 24-32.
  • Von Del Chamberlain, "Prehistoric American Astronomy". Astronomy Issue 4 (July 1976) p. 10-19.
  • John A. Eddy, "Astronomical Alignment of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel", Science Issue 184 (June 1974) p. 1035-1043.
  • John Eddy, "Probing the Mystery of the Medicine Wheels", National Geographic 151:1, 140-46 (January 1977).
  • O. Richard Norton, "Early Indian Sun-Watching Sites are Real", American West Issue 24 (August 1987) p. 63-70

External links

  • Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark
  • What is a Medicine Wheel?
  • Photographs of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel
  • Kiwanis Medicine Wheel
  • The Turtle and the Serpent
  • Medicine Wheel Park at Valley City State University
  • Standord University Solar Center Medicine Wheel Page
  • A Report on the Medicine Wheel

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