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Medicine Wheel, WY (Cheyenne, Crow, Dakota and Many Others) (2005)

Sacred Significance
Though the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is used by more than fifty contemporary Native communities, precise information about its original design, use, and lasting significance remains difficult to locate outside of oral traditions and the lineages of spiritual leadership in those Native communities (for more information also see Some scholars speculate that Medicine Wheel, and stone constructions like it, was designed to look like a ground plan of a ceremonial shelter. Others consider elements of the site to be aligned with major astronomical events, specifically the summer and winter solstices. While it is difficult to find conclusive evidence that either is completely accurate, both theories understand the site to be a symbolic framework, marking intimate and universal boundaries of human experience.
What is abundantly clear is the continued significance the site has for Native people today. In this regard, it is helpful to apply the notion of Medicine Wheel as an organizational framework to better understand the ongoing significance of the site within a wide variety of traditions. For, while most Native groups do not publicly communicate the specific ceremonies and meanings associated with Medicine Wheel, it is clear from the ways it is used—primarily as a gathering place, a stage for ceremonial dancing and singing, and as a place to pursue spiritual meditation and reflection—that many communities and individuals structure their religious practice around annual visits to Medicine Wheel. The most common time for these visits is during the summer months, when, as Claudia Nissley, the Wyoming State Preservation Officer, notes "...over 81 tribes that ascribe significance to the wheel and journey to it..." for critical celebrations of dance, song, and prayer.
Ms. Nissley was also careful to add that "tribal leaders typically do not like to talk about their spiritual practice and sacred places." This statement is an important one to underscore here in light of concerns expressed by many communities about outside groups misusing elements of Native ceremonies outside established contexts. One notable example is the Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality issued by the Lakota Oyate. Concerns like this one have been pronounced frequently enough that protecting the confidentiality of Native sites (including location, often) has become standardized in the Department of the Interior's guidelines for officials involved with sacred sites.
Protection History
The first efforts to protect Medicine Wheel were attempted by Wyoming residents in 1915 who sought its classification as a national monument under Section 2 of the 1906 American Antiquities Act". However, as discussed in the introductory essay of this project Native American Religious and Cultural Freedom, protection under this legislation favors archeological and anthropological investigation of sites, and would have left little room for parties interested in using Medicine Wheel as a place of ongoing sacred significance. This nomination failed and the site remained unprotected until 1957 when the Big Horn National Forest administration set aside 200 acres around it as immune to "all forms of appropriation under public land laws." In 1970 the site was designated a National Historic Landmark. This listing is important in that it is a recognition of the broad significance of Medicine Wheel on a National level, but it does not offer secure protection from development or alteration of the property (click here for details).
In 1991, the Forest Service, reacting to heavier tourist traffic to the site, initiated a Draft Environmental Impact Statement to consider alternative "management options" of the site. The recommendation of the DEIS was to create an improved road, expanded parking area, and allow unrestricted public access to the site even during times of ceremonial use by Native individuals and groups. Many fought this proposal (see this Native-Net alert), and after considering the public's comments, the Forest Service reconsidered the management plan. In 1996, after adding groups like the Big Horn County Commissioners, Medicine Wheel Coalition on Sacred Sites in North America, Medicine Wheel Alliance, and Federal Aviation Administration to a list of consulting parties began working toward a "Memorandum of Agreement." For parties concerned about preserving the site for ceremonial use this was a crucial step, for the MOA was a public declaration that "the management priorities for management for the Medicine Wheel are its protection and continued traditional cultural use consistent with Section 110(f) of the [National Historic Preservation] Act."
This coalition first published a Programmatic Agreement that afforded temporary protection to Medicine Wheel, Medicine Mountain, and more than two miles of surrounding country. Again, this was an important gain for groups like the Medicine Wheel Coalition because the protections, directly responded to threats of foresting and mining to the preservation of the site's environmental integrity.
Two years later, in 1996, the Forest Service published an Historic Preservation Plan for Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain which set aside between 18,000 and 20,000 acres of Forest Service land from any interest that could threaten the sacred nature of the site or that might compromise its preservation as an important "traditional cultural property." Justifying its decision, the Forest Service specifically notes much of the important legislation discussed in the introductory essay of this project, in particular the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Executive Order No. 13007 which was signed by President Clinton.
Wyoming Sawmills Incorporated v. United States Forest Service
In 1999, three years after the publication of the HPP, Wyoming Sawmills Incorporated, the lumber company primarily active in the logging of the Bighorn National Forest, filed a suit against the US Forest Service, the Medicine Wheel Coalition, and others alleging that the creation of the "Area of Consultation" amounted to a federal endorsement of "Native American Religions." Their cause was argued by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a group dedicated to defending "Individual Liberty," "The Right to Own and Use Property," "Limited and Ethical Government," and "The Free Enterprise System." The organization has continued to oppose conservation of federal land from resource extraction for environmental, cultural, or historical reasons. The President of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, William Pendley, has written two books: It Takes A Hero: The Grassroots Battle Against Environmental Oppression and War on the West: Government Tyranny on America's Great Frontier.
In the suit, Mountain States Legal Foundation suggests that by closing the area around Medicine Wheel to logging and construction of logging roads, the U.S. Forest Service was enacting injury to Wyoming Sawmills Incorporated, in order to promote "Native American Religions." The plaintiffs cited, in particular, a potential sale of timber from Horse Creek, for which Wyoming Sawmills Incorporated submitted a bid, that was never made because of establishment of the HPP. Click here to read a summary of Mountain States Legal Foundation's argument.
Defending the Forest Service were the Medicine Wheel Coalition for Sacred Sites in America—which was created with help from the Association on American Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and theBecket Fund for Religious Liberty.
These parties contended with the Foundation’s claim that the Forest Service was establishing the religions that use the site, arguing instead that the Forest Service was simply and rightly removing unreasonable burdens to the practice of those religions. They noted other examples of religious worship that takes place on federally-owned lands including chaplain programs in prisons and hospitals and even Christian chapels and churches that are preserved on federal land. The parties, and the National Trust in particular, also noted that Medicine Wheel is widely regarded as a site of broad cultural significance to American people of all faiths because of its use by so many different American Indian communities, which should therefore be protected by laws including and similar to the American Antiquities Act of 1906.
Ultimately, the courts decided against Mountain States Legal Foundation and Wyoming Sawmills Incorporated, contesting their claim of "injury" enacted by the HPP. In particular, the court noted that the alleged injury was not specifically economic, since no future financial benefit was guaranteed to Wyoming Sawmills and because the HPP did not rescind any promised economic benefit. Furthermore, the court noted, that only 10% of the relatively insignificant 1.6% of Bighorn Forest affected was suitable for logging anyway. Responding to the appeal filed after the suit, the 10th Circuit Court addressed these issues and others, in particular affirming the constitutionality of the decision of the Forest Service to protect the ability of Native communities to use Medicine Wheel as a site of important and living sacred significance.
Broader Implications and Federal Policy
Medicine Wheel has become one of the most well-known Native sacred sites in the country. Every year thousands of people travel to Medicine Wheel if not to participate actively in ceremonies and celebrations, to encounter a place that is sacred to so many different communities and has been used that way for nearly seven thousand years. The case contested against Wyoming Sawmills has also gained national attention as a rare victory for religious pluralism in America against an old adversary, the growing industry of natural resource extraction.
Because of this notoriety, Medicine Wheel and this case are often included in legislation regarding the preservation and management of sacred sites. A notable example is the House Bill 2419, which is currently in a House sub-committee, that would help protect Native sacred sites on Federal Land. As with other such contested sites, even with the courts’ clarification, issues continue to emerge in the ongoing administration of the Medicine Wheel and its environs.
Updated on September 27, 2005