Circular Prayers. 1992. Ucross Foundation, Clearmont, Wyoming.
“But the heart glows and a secret unrest gnaws at the roots of our being.”
—C.G. Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious
“Eventually one gets to the Medicine Wheel to fulfill one’s life.”
—Old Mouse, Arikara leader
It is late afternoon and the setting sun casts a soft light on the Wyoming landscape. Edie, Sylvia and I drive cautiously along a narrow dirt road in Edie’s red pick-up truck. We have been traveling for several hours and now begin the approach to the goal of our journey, on a high mountain plateau, windy and desolate, surrounded by sheer rock outcroppings, and in the distance, cascades of pine.
We have come to see the Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains. Measuring roughly eighty feet in diameter, the wheel is composed of limestone rocks arranged in twenty-eight spokes which radiate from a central cairn. Six smaller cairns are placed at intervals around the rim. In the past, the site has been damaged, both by the work of time and souvenir gatherers. Over the years, Native Americans have rebuilt it.
We reach the top of the plateau. Expecting to enter a sacred space, the first person that we encounter is something of a surprise. A park ranger sits in his truck, playing the radio. A curious, lonely guardian-figure, he is deprived of both his customary twin and his traditional function. He no longer signifies the danger of the threshold for the spiritual adventurer. Rather, he is a reminder that we are here merely to observe another tourist attraction in what has become the great recreational space of the American West. But his presence is only the first of many such intrusions and interventions.
The entire site is surrounded by an eight foot high fence of barbed wire.* The barbed wire is strung at eight inch intervals. The fence posts protrude outward above our heads, in a gesture which misapplies aggression as the appropriate mode of preservation. A crude door allows entrance into the wheel. It is locked now but the brochure explains that Native Americans are given access for religious ceremonies. I wonder about the bureaucracy, and the legacy of pain, which must surround this entryway. A path is worn into the ground at the outer circumference of the fence. The fence dominates the scene. Notwithstanding its preservationist necessity, it is a clumsy, awkward barrier, evoking prison walls and concentration camps, the worst of society’s malicious preventatives against supposed contamination.
However, the fence has become covered with hundreds of small objects, an ironic counterpoint to the unyielding spikes of the barbed wire. In the afternoon sun, the colors of these objects are brilliant and the wind sweeping across the plateau enlivens them beautifully. Ribbons, feathers, bones, sprigs of sage and straw, branches, stones, bells, beads, rawhide, jewelry, hair, flowers, strips of cloth, scarves, a rosary, a lizard brooch—they are offerings made by Native Americans and other visitors, attached to the fence as a form of prayer. Medicine bags are strung everywhere. These are the most moving evidence of reverent gesture that I have ever seen.
We look between the spikes of the barbed wire. In this place devoted to a quest for visions, we can barely see. It is literally impossible to catch more than a glimpse of the rocks within. The outer cairns are visible. The central cairn is less recognizable. There appears to be an animal skull within it. It is possible to mentally align some of the rocks into a straight line, presumably one of the spokes of the wheel. But there is no clear image here. These isolated glimpses do not congeal into a totality. What am I looking at? And why, despite the painful inadequacy of what I can see, do I feel that the center holds?
We walk around the Medicine Wheel several times. We recapitulate the circle, trying to imitate its spin, feeling the ways in which it is supported by the immense landscape beyond. We slowly examine many of the offerings, trying to imagine the scenarios of their placement. They nearly vibrate with shamanic intensity. Edie and I decide to make something that we can add to the fence. We want to leave something of ourselves here. By offering a trace of myself to this place, I feel that I will somehow be protected.
At the Medicine Wheel, traditional meanings, whatever they may have been, have now been permanently usurped by a collision of signifying forces. The erosive processes of history have robbed the Medicine wheel of any autonomous signifying power. Its original symbolic intent has receded from the site. Rather, the site is now a web of floating signifiers, imposed by time, nature, cultural constraints, and, in the form of visits such as mine, the projection of individual desires. The official history of the Medicine Wheel is primarily conjectural, arising from the various claims made by indigenous peoples as well as from standard archaeological practice. Like all archaeological sites, a narrative is coaxed from mute stones. Hundreds of limestone rocks were gathered and placed in the shape of a wheel by an unknown people sometime between 1200AD and 1700AD. Knowledge of the Medicine Wheel among the Crows extends into the distant past but they have said nothing about its construction except that “it was made by people who had no iron.”**
While I am ostensibly observing an archaeological site in a fixed time and location, I realize that I am actually staring into the imaginative space of my own memory. The Medicine Wheel has been permanently ruptured as a coherent sign through numerous interventions, the most overt of which is the barbed wire fence. As an object of perception, the image of the wheel has been rendered inaccessible. The perceiving subject, then, must likewise withdraw in order to capture that image. In the space of memory, different discourses compete to reconjure the Wheel’s significance and iconographic clarity.
The aesthetic standpoint, in search of the icon, imposes a view of the Wheel from above, taken as an aerial photograph, reproduced in a book on sacred sites, resting now on a shelf in a library, in a city very far from here. My experience of the Medicine Wheel could have ended in that book.
The technologically inflected point of view interprets this construction as an astronomical observatory, marking the alignments of the sun, stars, and planets to the spokes of the wheel. Used as a calendar, agricultural and ritual cycles could be planned accordingly.
An economic approach implicates the site in the tourist industry, which functions as a regulator of social strata and values. The Medicine Wheel is under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service which manages the multiple uses of the Bighorn National forest, including, presumptuously, the protection of cultural resources, along with timber, wildlife, water, grazing, and recreation.
The anthropological perspective seeks the Wheel’s origins among the early Plains dwellers, noting a striking resemblance to the structure of the circular medicine lodge where the Sun Dance ceremony is conducted. Mythic significance is ascribed to the Medicine Wheel in stories of spiritual and political heroism among the leaders of the Nez Perce, the Crow, and the Shoshone Nations.
Behind the barbed wire, Native Americans, now with permission from park rangers, continue to carry out sacred rituals at the site. By means of hundreds of offerings which appropriate the barbed wire into the life of the Medicine Wheel, neo-shamanistic practices, performed by both Native Americans and non-native people, collide with the historical intrusion of the park service and tourism upon the sacred site.
Using the archetype as an orientation, a structuralist perspective might collapse the icon of the wheel into that of the mandala. These are places where myth and dream converge. The Wheel recalls the axis mundi, described by Mircea Eliade in his studies of world mythologies as the sacred center from which all life emanates. It recalls the dreams analyzed by Jung, in which spontaneously generated mandala symbols point to the psychic center of the personality associated with the collective unconscious.
Finally, from an artist’s perspective, I must ask myself if I am a scavenger among ruins, so uprooted from my own tradition that I must infiltrate others in order to define myself. Or am I one of a new community of spiritual nomads struggling with the artifacts of an emerging multihistorical culture which is constantly resignifying itself? This is one of many such journeys that I have made, hoping to reclaim something from the past, a link with a primordial center, with a sacred power; from a legacy composed of stones, bricks, and glass, erected in the shapes of tunnels, pyramids, domes, and spires; multiple, layered pasts, succumbing to irrevocable time while being preserved as discrete categories: Neolithic tombs, Gothic cathedrals, Mayan temples, Islamic mosques, each physically circumscribed by empty canyons, national parks, cities, paths, streets, highways.
In my visits, I feel that I become transparent. The sites are held in suspension, with no clear perimeter, oscillating between presence and absence, the communal and the solitary. If there is a personal self created by local, quotidian experiences, then is there also a transpersonal self which simultaneously exceeds these boundaries? Am I truly the vanishing subject or am I another form of intervention, contributing to a loss of meaning?
These planes of reference intersect the Medicine Wheel in the space of history. How do they contribute to the production of its meaning? Is this a meaning which can never be fixed, never quite achieving the status of either information or symbol, but rather, one which must always be in play? These referential planes are like the barbed wire—additional interventions which, while compromising the iconographic integrity of the object, further relativize it according to changing political, disciplinary, and social conditions. But they also reinvent the sign and therefore revitalize it. In this setting, what transpires between the witness and the site is multi-dimensional. Meaning, which is always in flux, always a projection, intervenes between perception and the ancient object. This meaning affects participation in the ritual of the ceremony, by Native Americans on the inside, and in the ritual of the visit, by others on the outside. What sort of dialogue is formed among these acts?
It is a dialogue of yearning and perhaps it may yield deeper understandings, as a paradigm of other dialogues which are beginning to emerge. As Cartesian dualisms wane, other forms of speech become possible, situated within networks, not of subject and object, but of interconnected subjects, inseparable from each other and therefore mutually responsive to each other. In the present moment, the significatory power of the Medicine Wheel is in some measure displaced to the barbed wire fence. For it is the fence which is the site of the current dialogue; in a transformation of its own iconographic identity, it morphs from a barrier into a medium. It becomes permeable. It is the membrane through which the fragmented sign flows and precipitates with other fragments into emerging forms of speech. There is a sense of urgency to the offerings which have been placed here. There is a call for healing, for communal forgiveness. I feel this urgency within myself and I am humbled by its magnitude.
I recognize that the fence stands for me. I am its maker. I am the thief. I am the outsider. I am the tourist. I am the witness. And I am also the supplicant.
* In September 1996, tribal representatives from the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Navajo, Shoshone, Sioux, and Southern Ute tribes, federal and state government administrators, and local elected officials implemented a plan for the Bighorn Medicine Wheel that reflects the diverse and contending interests of all these parties. The plan articulates the provisions and protocols by which the Bighorn Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain is managed today. It establishes a 23,000-acre site that encompasses all archeological sites associated with the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and facilitates traditional cultural use by Native American practitioners. It also mandates comprehensive site monitoring, and requires close cooperation among the consulting parties with regard to public visitation and land-development issues. Parking is now available only at a considerable distance from the site and visitors must walk one and one-half miles each way to visit the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. The barbed wire surrounding the site has been replaced by a low post and rope fence, making the wheel clearly visible, yet still protected. https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/medicine-wheel
** George Grinnell, “The Medicine Wheel” American Anthropologist, 24 (1922): 299–310