The riddle of the circle of ancient power


“Walk left,” the sign says, at the entrance to the roped-off site.

It’s a place that hammers me in the chest. The world spills away, down into the Bighorn Basin, across Wyoming and north into Montana, a huge gallop of space. Brown miles stretch out veined with river courses, serrated with ridges and mountain ranges. Gray clouds bulk up on the horizon.

The Medicine Wheel is made of stones and rests close to 10,000 feet on the exposed northern end of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. It is the end of a lingering fall, but it feels like storm. Wind tugs across the bare ridge through tufts of brittle grass. A skiff of snow sticks to the ground, blowing in hard pellets.  I fight the urge to return to safety, to get to lower ground, to pavement and the warm car.

I’ve been instructed to walk left. So I do.

I edge around the roped circle, looking in, wondering how to be here. Hundreds of offerings flap in the wind: Knotted scraps of red fabric, intricate bows, medicine bags, beaded necklaces, a pottery bowl, a buffalo skull, a hawk feather, a jaw bone. They are the artifacts of prayers and stories, gratitude and pleas, all gathered to this airy perch so starkly moving yet mysterious. 

The wheel is nearly 100 feet across, a ring of stones seamed with 28 spokes, which some think might represent the lunar cycle. Stone markers sit at the four directions, including the points where the sun rises and sets on summer solstice. All laid out in this most remote, most wind-bitten, most grand perch. What it means, no one knows, or is saying, any more than anyone knows what Stonehenge in England means. What the Forest Service says is that circles like this one reflect the 7,000-year-old occupancy of Native Americans on the continent.

The Crow Tribe has a legend of a young man with a burned face who traveled here on a vision quest, and who first laid out this wheel. It has been noted that this site forms one point of an equidistant triangle, the other points being Devils Tower and Hell’s Half Acre, near Casper, Wyoming.

There are a great many stone sites scattered across the Great Plains – sacred hoops, altars, animal designs - some added to over many generations. Few are preserved. Most are unrecognized. Many have been plowed up or paved over or otherwise destroyed -- another part of the legacy of oppression. Some are kept secret. The Medicine Wheel has been recognized and made a national historic landmark, for better or worse.

I walk left all the way around, looking in, then out across the sweep of distance, and close up, into the mountain valleys. The wind hammers my face, and then my back. I contemplate the offerings, imagine the people and lives they signify. I pull out my bandana and knot it around the rope, thinking about Mother Earth. It flaps in the wind. I imagine it fraying and fading along with the rest of these tattered prayer flags. It is inadequate, I know, not properly considered. It is also an impulse I can’t deny.

We make one more lap, lingering, our faces cold, the wind rising. It had been an effort to come here, up the winding miles of 10 percent grade, out the snow-crusted dirt road and slippery track to the ridge. I think of the ancients walking up the long river valleys, climbing past the last tongues of trees, emerging into the exposed high country.

Why did they come? To sit? To fast? To sing? To pray? To dance and celebrate? To be grateful? To find solace? To understand?

It isn’t the impulse to be of that culture that I feel, standing here in this raw wind. Nor is it the voyeuristic urge to peek at forbidden sanctuary. All I have is the abrupt command to walk left, and to make what I might of this lonely circle of stone humming with power on the lip of the earth.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Montana.

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