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