Monday, June 8, 2015

Medicine Wheel: To Go or Not to Go?


Before I saw this tweet, I had never heard of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. I've never been to Wyoming and am not terribly familiar with these physical medicine wheel constructions on the northern plains. But 700 years is significant, this photo looks almost unreal, and the "most sacred site for Native Americans" part makes me nervous, so I was curious to find out the real story on this place.

The Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark is a fascinating place, especially for someone like me with anthropology/archaeology and history degrees and a strong interest in Native culture. But for someone (again, like me) who is writing a travel blog encouraging people to go learn about and experience Native America, a bunch of red flags also started waving in my head. While the Wheel is in a National Forest that welcomes visitors and does have interpreters onsite in the summer, it is a sacred and protected place. Should a non-Native traveler like me go there? Should we just stay away out of respectfulness?

The Medicine Wheel is located near the summit of Medicine Mountain in the Bighorn National Forest near Lovell, Wyoming. It has been used by Northwest Plains tribes such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Dakota, Shoshone, Cree, Salish, Kootenai and Blackfeet for hundreds of years as a ceremonial location. Archaeologists believe that the surrounding area of connected sites has been in use by humans for more than 7,000 years. Between 70 and 150 similar medicine wheels have been found in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, but the Medicine Mountain wheel is one of the best preserved and most typical.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1969 and renamed Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark (from Bighorn Medicine Wheel) in 2011. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has not had a strong history prior to these most recent agreements of partnering with Native tribes to protect the integrity of the area as a sacred place and ensure the peoples' rights to use the site for ceremonial purposes. In 1988, a Forest Service plan to expand tourism to the area was blocked by a coalition of indigenous, environmental, and historical-preservation groups who felt the plan was too exploitative.

That action resulted in a 1996 Historic Preservation Plan which currently mandates unlimited tribal ceremonial use and carefully managed, restricted tourism. Native American interpreters guide visitors when the site is not in use for ceremonies, and there is a 1.5 mile hike to the Medicine Wheel in order to minimize vehicle traffic. Legal action has been taken to prohibit or limit natural resources extraction, such as logging and grazing.

So, should you and I make the hike up Medicine Mountain to visit the Medicine Wheel if we find ourselves in the area? Does it make a difference that I am white? What about a member of another tribe from elsewhere in America who might be on vacation there, such as a Choctaw or a Mohegan citizen? What about a practitioner of some New Age religion who wants to visit the site as a "pilgrim?"

I don't know what the answers are. As my mouse hovered over that original tweet, I questioned whether it was the right thing to do. And I decided not to hit retweet.

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