What are Medicine Wheels?

Medicine Wheel
Photograph by Richard Collier, Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office
In the late 1800s prospectors discovered a large circular design made of stones in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. This new find was intriguing, especially since its nature was unknown. Its discovery caught the attention of archaeologists who began the task of unraveling its history. After interviewing the local Indians, the archeologists discovered that the stone circles were now called medicine wheels, although their true origins were a mystery.

The name Medicine Wheel may seem strange, considering how modern society thinks of medicine. To the Native Americans, medicine means spiritual and mysterious. These wheels are an intricate part of their spirituality and connection to the Earth and sky. Medicine wheels are not the only circular stone remnants that have been discovered. There are tens of thousands of stone circles that freckle the landscape of Canada and Northwestern United States.

The majority of these circles are tipi rings, stones arranged to hold down the sides of a tipi. So what makes the medicine wheels unique and special, and is there a way to distinguish them? This answer is yes! Many Medicine wheels have been found although few of them have been studied. The medicine wheels that have been documented all seem to share at least two of these dinstinct traits:
  1. They have a central stone cairn (large pile of rocks)
  2. They consist of one or more concentric stone circles
  3. They include spokes of stones radiating outward from a central point

Although all medicine wheels typically share these traits, they can be very different from one another in overall design. There can be different types of wheels with different styles of construction. Some look like wagon wheels, some look like bull's-eyes, and others are more abstract.

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