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Medicine Wheels

Medicine wheels are a rare and mysterious cultural feature found throughout the plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, and northern Wyoming. Imposing and visually impressive, there is evidence to suggest that the medicine wheel served a variety of religious and ceremonial functions. Structurally they reflect a diversity of form and size.

The term medicine wheel has been used since the late nineteenth century to describe a wide variety of Aboriginal surface stone structures found on the Plains. They are generally made up of a central cairn or circle of stone from the center of which radiates a series of rows of other stones. Though the true purpose of these stone constructions remains unknown, some Aboriginal groups believe that they symbolize and reflect the dynamics and meaning of the universe.

Medicine wheels mark a sacred site and often times a corresponding sacred ceremony. These sites are sacred to many Plains groups, but their meaning varies between various tribes and bands. They are places that provide energy, healing, teaching and understanding. It is speculated that there were over twenty thousand medicine wheel sites in North America prior to contact. However, theft, vandalism and agriculture have drastically reduced these numbers. Currently, there are seventy known sites in North America and fifty of these seventy sites are in southern and central Alberta.

Some Medicine Wheels have been dated at 4,500 years. It is speculated that some of the more recent wheels were built to commemorate the lives of great hunters or brave warriors. However, astronomers have argued that Medicine Wheels were ancient observatories. According to Gordon Freeman and Phyllis Freeman, there are several cairn alignments that accurately mark the cardinal directions, which can be determined without use of a clock or magnetic compass, by measuring motions of the stars and sun.1 They examined the Majorville Wheel complex and found that this particular site does have a connection to summer solstice and winter solstice.

Smaller stone circles, which are identified as tipi rings are often found in the vicinity of the Medicine Wheels. Most of the medicine wheels lie in prominent topographic settings on exposed, windswept hilltops or on high river terraces, but some have also been found in river valley bottoms and on open prairies.

According to Aboriginal oral history, some medicine wheels were marks of burial lodges. Archeological evidence has revealed that bone fragments have been discovered in the area of a medicine wheel.

The medicine wheel has grown from a physical marker on the landscape to a solid cultural concept. They have become teaching tools within the greater Aboriginal community.

Elder and spiritual advisor, Francis Whiskeyjack of Saddle Lake, Alberta, discusses his concept of the medicine wheel and how he uses the medicine wheel in his teaching.

There are four elements on earth – wind, fire, water, and air. The directions used in the wheel are always used in a clockwise direction because that is the way the sun moves, rises, and sets. First of all, I’m going [to] put in the first quadrant, which is the east, that we were born physically. We are babies then. Our physical selves begin when we are born.

Then we go on to the next quadrant which is the south, on to the mental area… When we get to the teenage years we start to use our mind a lot more.

We get to the next direction, which is the west, where there is the emotional part of things … sadness or hurt is represented.

The last link is this fourth quadrant is the spiritual self. When people get older they tend to get more into their spirituality. A lot of times we may be taught spirituality when we are younger, but we often feel that we do not need it then.2

The Canada Health Network is using the medicine wheel as a concept to educate Aboriginal communities about diseases like HIV/AIDS. In this circumstance the medicine wheel is used to demonstrate the life cycle of the virus. It is explained that each person travels through the phases of the medicine wheel at their own pace. Not everyone will travel through each stage, while others will travel through a single stage many times.

While their use may never be fully understood, the hundreds of medicine wheels scattered across the plains of Alberta continue to offer an intriguing look into the past.

Berry, Susan, and Jack Brink. Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations. Edmonton: The Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004.

Barnett, D. "Mystery of the Medicine Wheels" retrieved from

 www.usask.ca/education/ideas/tplan/sslp/wheel/medicine.htm. July 18, 2005.

Freeman, Gordon R., and Phyllis J. Freeman. Observational Archaeolastronomy at the Majorville Medicine Wheel Complex: Winter and Summer Solstice Sun Rise and Set Alignments Accurate to 0.2°. Ontario: The Ontario Archeological Society Inc.

Whiskeyjack, Francis. "The Medicine Wheel" retrieved from www.ammsa.com/buffalospirit/June-2000/medicinewheel.html. July 18, 2005


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