The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is the most important of several medicine wheels in the American West. Constructed around 700 years ago and aligned with the stars, it is an important sacred site for local Indians as well as New Age practitioners.
History of Bighorn Medicine Wheel
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel predates the Indian tribes in the region and is thought to be about 700 years old. Members of the Crow tribe, who have long used the Medicine Wheel for rituals, ascribe its creation to a boy named Burnt Face. According to the story, the boy fell into the fire as a baby and was severely scarred.
When Burnt Face reached his teen years, he went on a vision quest in the mountains, where he fasted and built the medicine wheel. During his quest, he helped drive away an animal who attacked baby eaglets. In return, he was carried off by an eagle and his face was made smooth.
For centuries, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel has been used by Crow youth for fasting and vision quests. Native Americans also go to Bighorn to offer thanks for the creation that sustains them, placing a buffalo skull on the center cairn as a prayer offering. Prayers are offering here for healing, and atonement is made for harm done to others and to Mother Earth.
A number of great chiefs, including Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, have come to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel to pray for wisdom and guidance to lead their people in the transition from freedom to reservation life. The medicine wheel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
In recent years, Bighorn Medicine Wheel has attracted many New Age followers, who believe medicine wheels to be centers of earth energy. Many Native Americans of the area resent the presence of pilgrims and visitors to the site, and some young warriors are now reluctant to go to the wheel because of the presence of white visitors.
What to See at Bighorn Medicine Wheel
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is located in the Bighorn National Forest in north-central Wyoming, at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet on Medicine Mountain. Its elevation makes the medicine wheel inaccessible much of the year due to snow pack.
The wheel is made simply of locally gathered rocks. From a central cairn (pile of stones) of about 10 feet across and 2 feet high, 28 spokes radiate out to a rim of about 80 feet in diameter and 245 feet in circumference. Six smaller cairns are spaced along the rim.
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is astronomically aligned: four of the outer cairns line up with the rising and setting sun of the summer solstice, and the others with the three bright stars that fade as the sun rises on summer mornings: Aldebaran, Rigel and Sirius. The 28 spokes are likely to correspond with the days of the lunar month.
Today, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is protected by a wire fence with wooden posts, to which prayer offerings are often found attached. Offerings are still left in the cairns of the wheel as well.
Several contemporary related sites can be found in the vicinity of the wheel, including ceremonial staging areas, medicinal and ceremonial plant gathering areas, sweat lodge sites, altars, offering places and vision quest enclosures.
Around 100 medicine wheels have been identified throughout North America, including examples in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is considered the type site.
Quick Facts on Bighorn Medicine Wheel
|Names:||Bighorn Medicine Wheel|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||44.834992° N, 107.924847° W|
|Address:||Bighorn National Forest|
|Hours:||Only accessible in the summer due to high elevation.|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Bighorn Medicine Wheel|
- Norbert C. Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places (Oxford University Press, 1998), 24-25.
- Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark - Wyoming State Parks
- Explore Big Horn Medicine Wheel - Ancient Observatories, Timeless Knowledge - Stanford SOLAR Center
Map of Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Wyoming
Below is a location map and aerial view of Bighorn Medicine Wheel. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.