The Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming, is located…on the western peak of Medicine Mountain at an elevation of 9,642 feet in the Bighorn Range east of Lovell, Wyoming.
The 75-foot diameter Medicine Wheel is a roughly circular alignment of rocks and associated cairns enclosing 28 radial rows of rock extending out from a central cairn. This feature is part of a much larger complex of interrelated archeological sites and traditional use areas that express 7000 years of American Indian adaptation to and use of the alpine landscape that surrounds Medicine Mountain.
Numerous contemporary American Indian traditional use areas and features, including ceremonial staging areas, medicinal and ceremonial plant gathering areas, sweat lodge sites, altars, offering locales and fasting (vision quest) enclosures, can be found nearby. Ethnohistoric, ethnographic, and archeological evidence demonstrates that the Medicine Wheel and the surrounding landscape constitute one of the most important and well preserved ancient American Indian sacred site complexes in North America. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is considered the type site for medicine wheels in North America. Between 70 and 150 wheels have been identified in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
The land surrounding the wheel has been used by prehistoric American Indian groups for at least 7,000 years. In contemporary times, the region’s Arapaho, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Kootenai-Salish, Lakota Sioux, Plains Cree, Shoshone and other tribal people generally venerate the site, and some use it to fast, pray and experience vision quests.
The Medicine Wheel appears to be part of a much larger network of prehistoric trails, sites and important landmarks encompassing more than 23,000 acres. Visitors must hike 1.5 miles to reach the Medicine Wheel, and there can view the scenic Bighorn Basin and many of the trails and landmarks while experiencing the awe-inspiring power of Medicine Mountain.
Of the various medicine wheels throughout the continent, Bighorn is one of the most well studied and preserved. As a result of the work of one archaeoastronomer, Jack Eddy, it was discovered that the arrangement of the cairns and spokes hold special celestial significance. Eddy suggests that when the wheel was built by Plains Indians 300-800 years ago, it served to predict the positions of the Sun and other bright stars in the sky around the summer solstice.
When sitting in one cairn and looking towards another, the observer’s vision is drawn to a specific point on the horizon. Eddy found that two points determined by different cairn alignments corresponded to the places in the sky where the sun rose and set on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Furthermore, other lines of sight created by the cairn combinations marked the heliacal risings of the bright stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius.
A heliacal rising is an important event because it pinpoints an exact calendar date. This event occurs when a star first reappears at dawn, after it has been washed out by the Sun’s light for an entire season. At Bighorn, for instance, Aldebaran’s heliacal rising occurs just a few days before the solstice. Rigel then rises at dawn 28 days (or one lunar month) after Aldebaran and Sirius rises another 28 days after Rigel.
It is known that the number 28 is sacred among some tribes, because of its association with the lunar cycle. There are 28 spokes in a medicine wheel, as well as in the roofs of some ceremonial buildings. Whether or not the builders of the wheel at Bighorn were aware of the 28-day intervals between the heliacal risings mentioned above is not certain. This possibility, however, remains very likely.