By Sharon A. Oakley
By Sharon A. Oakley
The Medicine Wheel
Reggie Black Plume is one of the very few men who live in modern times who were raised the ancient way. Instead of watching TV, he listened to the stories of the elders. Cars were not a part of his life as a youngster; they traveled by horse and wagon. Hard work was the norm just to survive.
Black Plume watched ancient ceremonies to which many were not privy, granted this favor as the "son" of the honored Chief. He was present when his great grandmother, a medicine woman, performed healing rituals that would astound even the most mystical thinkers of modern times. He learned the customs and beliefs of the Blackfeet people as a matter of daily education.
After Black Plume learned to speak English, Chief Shot Both Sides depended on him to translate important matters of government for him. He read and discussed letters and acted as a translator when meetings were held with Canadian Government representatives. He learned the ways of personal power and loyalty to his people through these sacred people, the Chief and the Medicine Woman.
In the early fifties, the Chief asked Black Plume to accompany a group of anthropologists and archaeologists as a guide to explore some parts of the Kainai Reserve. The professionals pledged not to disturb anything and made an agreement with the leader to report back to him anything they discovered. Black Plume relaxed in the shade of a tree and watched the educated people crawl around on their hands and knees with their little scoops, brooms and magnifying glasses. He shook his head and laughed at the sight, they looked a bit ridiculous to him.
But his attitude changed when he observed the unbridled excitement they exhibited when they discovered parts of a medicine wheel. Being of a curious mind, he joined the group and they explained what they felt they had discovered. After that, Black Plume was alongside them, on hands and knees, exploring and discovering the ancient wheel with great vigor.
When he went home at night with the archaeologists and anthropologists, he would give the elders the sketches of what they had found. The Chief and his wife would describe exactly what they were and some of their significance. The next morning the professionals would eagerly await news from Black Plume regarding the information from the elders. It became a great enterprise and stimulated Black Plume's life long fascination with the medicine wheel.
The Many Spotted Horses Medicine Wheel lies along the northeast portion of the reserve. It is marked with four spokes extending from an inner circle to an outer circle of rocks. The pie sections of the circle appear to represent the four changes of the moon phases. They also signify the four seasons and the spokes point to the four directions exactly.
With the assistance of the elders, Black Plume discerned the ancient way the wheel was also used to tell time and as a weather forecast prediction tool. He learned that the water pipe holders lived in isolation, near a water source, and interpreted the medicine wheel for many important facts. They placed a meter long willow stick in the center of the inner circle made of stones. It was driven into the ground to stand erect pointing towards the heavens. The water pipe holder would carve a line around the stick as each night passed, keeping track of the days, most usually thirty in all. There were twelve sticks, one for each month, every third stick having an extra ring giving an exact count of three hundred and sixty four nights in a year.
The Blackfeet traditionally counted nights not days, so this would account for the Caucasian calendar counting one more number, as it is calculated in days. Increasingly interesting is the fact that every fourth year the twelfth stick had an extra ring added to designate the leap year.
Another feature was a long piece of rawhide that was attached to the stick. It was stretched from the center to the outer ring and moved each night to monitor the rising of the sun in the morning. A rock marked the shadow of the rawhide strip signifying that it took ninety days for the sun to rise in the southeast instead of due east. Smaller pegs were secured in the ground to mark the actual seasonal changes. Days were not discussed, but how many moons, or nights were used in the language.
The inner core of circular rocks represented the sun while the outer circle signified the earth. The ancient spirituality of the Blackfeet considered the sun as the maker of the entire Universe. The earth was the mother who nurtured and protected all life upon her. The sky was as a father who gave the air to breathe. The water spirits gave sustenance and messages of mystical phenomenon. All plant and animal life was honored as they also brought humanity their life force.
The seasons were referred to by different names than they are today. What we now call January was termed Eating Stored Provisions Time. It was the immobile month, due to intense cold, and clan members shared their provisions. The eagles began migrating back to the area in February, so it was Eagle Time. March saw the ducks returning, it was Duck Time. The snows began to melt and the frogs emerged from their winter shelters, thus April was Frog Time. May through September was known as Blossom Time. October through December was known as unpredictable time as the weather events could vary drastically.
Led by the findings of the anthropologists and archaeologists, astronomers grew increasingly interested in the many wheels found in Alberta. The more they studied the wheels, the more they found remarkable signs that the ancient natives had even a greater understanding of the cosmos than earlier believed.
With no written language, the ancients were experts at obtaining information from previous wisdom carriers. The medicine pipe individuals had highly self trained memories and exacting methods of tracking the sun, moon, stars and planets.
They were taught the "sky marks" and patterns and marked them, using the medicine wheels to track their movements across the skies using the rawhide strips and rocks. Further investigation proved that the line through the hub aligns with the summer solstice sunrise. The probability of this being a chance occurrence is one in four thousand indicating the validity of the true expertise of the water piper holders.
The National Geographic Society provided funding for a group of researchers, including Dick Forbis of the University of Calgary and Tom and Alice Kehoe from the University of Wisconsin, to further study the medicine wheels in 1975. The Moose Mountain Wheel in Southeastern Alberta was well preserved and studied extensively. It carried similar directional elements.
The medicine wheel at Moose Mountain indicates that the cairn at the end of spoke E, sights the summer solstice sunrise. Cairn F serves as a star sight for Aldebaran, A, and Rigel, B, which are dawn rising stars. These alignments are believed to have occurred between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. making this particular wheel over two thousand years old.
Further study by the Kehoe's included excavating a portion of the central cairn. Beneath it they found a stone base built on an area that had been cleared by fire. This provided an opportunity for radiocarbon dating. The findings of the dating gave the date of over twenty six thousand years ago.
A large proportion of the wheels are in Alberta, these have been found to be the oldest. This indicates that the water pipe holders were making these observations those thousands of years ago, perhaps longer. It could be reasoned that due to the younger age of other medicine wheels, Aboriginal Astronomy was sourced in Alberta and taught to neighboring tribal apprentices who carried the knowledge back to their land and formed their own wheels.
Black Plume's continued study of the medicine wheel has brought him verification that his ancestors also had very sophisticated knowledge of the skies of the night. Yet as a lad he faithfully followed his great grandmother's instructions to create a wheel with stones around the tipi they used in travel and at the summer Sun Dances. This was to indicate that a medicine bundle holder, pipe carrier or Chief had dwelt there for a time. No one was to enter that sacred area for a period of four years.
He revealed that inside the larger circle he made around the tipi was a smaller one that had encircled the fire at the center of the lodge. To the west of the outer circle, he created another small circle around the alter. There the sacred bundles, pipes and sweet grass or sage receptacles along with other sacred objects were housed. After the lodge had been removed, the resulting circle highly resembled a medicine wheel.
"The more I learn about the Medicine Wheel, the more I realize that the knowledge is constantly expanding," Black Plume stated. Long Time Pipe Woman instructed him daily in the wisdom of his ancestors. She had traveled with the buffalo and had seen their demise as well as the results of the whiskey traders and other changes that were disheartening. She knew that eventually many of her people would forget their culture, traditions and empowering spiritual practices. She was adamant that her young ward retain the "secrets" so that someday he could remind their people enabling them to once again stand from a position of knowledge and power.
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