Mys­ter­ies of an an­cient medicine wheel.

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - AN­DREW PEN­NER

As the ragged rib­bon of road

— no, jeep-trail is more ac­cu­rate — me­an­dered through the god-knows-where prairie, a time­less aura soon took hold. No pi­o­neer­ing boy had ever plowed these plains. I could be on Mars, I thought. And about the only thing that told me I wasn’t was the odd sign or marker. One in­di­cated that an old school­house had once ex­isted on that spot a hun­dred years ago. And a cou­ple of oth­ers in­di­cated, thank­fully, that I was on the right “road” to the an­cient medicine wheel.

So, cosy in my beat-up 4x4, Corb Lund croak­ing on the stereo, I went deeper into the un­known. And, after 20 min­utes, give or take, of bump­ing along I fi­nally reached the site: “Canada’s Stone­henge.” I parked the truck, gath­ered some pho­tog­ra­phy gear, hopped out­side (no point lock­ing it, there was no other soul within 20 kilo­me­tres) and scam­pered to the top of the hill to the an­cient cairn of rock.

When I reached the lichen-coated stones I looked all around, got my bear­ings, and felt the warm Chi­nook wind sweep­ing over ev­ery­thing. I was on the high­est point for, per­haps, 100 kilo­me­tres in any di­rec­tion. The power of this place, this pre-his­toric “wheel,” was sneak­ing up on me. To the west, thin, wind-blasted short­grass, as far as the eye could see, mor­phed into sky. To the east, the deep, wa­ter-carved banks of the Bow sliced through the golden plains. They def­i­nitely picked a nice spot, I thought.

“They” be­ing the an­cient an­ces­tors of the Black­foot, the real pi­o­neers of the plains. And, in­ter­est­ingly, the Ma­jorville Medicine Wheel, one of a num­ber of sa­cred First Na­tions sites that have been left largely in­tact in south­ern Al­berta (yes, it does take some work to get there), is one of the old­est man-made struc­tures you can visit in Canada.

The an­cient medicine wheel — more ac­cu­rately, it’s a ge­o­glyph, which is essen­tially a man-made de­sign made on the ground with stones or earth — was con­structed over the span of a few thou­sand years. In­cred­i­bly, its first stones were placed ap­prox­i­mately 5,000 years ago. So, to put this into con­text, the wheel is 1,000 years older than Stone­henge, 3,500 years older than the Mayan pyra­mid of Chichen Itza, 500 years older than the Great Pyra­mid of Giza. Now, per­haps, you have a clearer pic­ture of what we’re deal­ing with here. In Al­berta. Just a cou­ple of hours from Cal­gary.

In his book, Canada’s Stone­henge, au­thor and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Al­berta Gor­don R. Free­man de­scribes the Ma­jorville Medicine Wheel as “the most in­tri­cate stone ring that re­mains on the North Amer­i­can Plains.” And Free­man should know. He spent the bet­ter part of 30 years study­ing ge­o­glyphs around the world and, specif­i­cally, the Ma­jorville wheel (which he prefers to call a stone ring or cir­cle, words that bet­ter res­onate with First Na­tions cul­ture). The cir­cle — as ev­i­denced by teepees, drum cir­cles, heal­ing cir­cles, stone ef­fi­gies, and so on — is a sa­cred form for First Na­tions peo­ple.

Although the Ma­jorville Medicine Wheel (the town of Ma­jorville is now gone, the clos­est town is Lomond, lo­cated ap­prox­i­mately 30 km south of the wheel) is not as vis­ually im­pres­sive as mon­u­ments such as Stone­henge, the sig­nif­i­cance of the site is just as pro­found. In­ter­est­ingly, Free­man, who camped at this site for weeks on end in the ’80s and ’90s, dis­cov­ered re­mark­able sim­i­lar­i­ties to Stone­henge and other an­cient sun tem­ples. The align­ment of rocks, sur­round­ing stone mark­ers, and spokes (although barely rec­og­niz­able, there are 28 spokes, or “rays,” that fan out from the cen­tre cairn) all point to a so­lar cal­en­dar that would most likely have been used for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses.

How­ever, pin­ning down all the mys­ter­ies and spe­cific pur­poses of the site is dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble. Through the ages, dif­fer­ent tribes and peo­ple could have used it for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, in­clud­ing as a site for prayer, sun dances and as a death lodge. It could also have been used as a nav­i­ga­tional aid, bound­ary marker and an as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tory. And, given the many sim­ple of­fer­ings I no­ticed on the rock cairn dur­ing my visit, it’s still used reg­u­larly as a place of wor­ship and prayer by the Black­foot and oth­ers who be­lieve in its spir­i­tual power. (Ob­vi­ously, any his­tor­i­cal or spir­i­tual site should be re­spected and hon­oured. Any tam­per­ing or re­moval of ob­jects, old or new, is a crime.)

But, as no­table as the Ma­jorville wheel is, it’s ac­tu­ally one of many wheels in Al­berta and Saskatchewan. While nu­mer­ous an­cient wheels were plowed un­der and de­stroyed dur­ing set­tle­ment, more than 70 are still in­tact on the Cana­dian Prairie. Many are on pri­vate land and re­quire spe­cial per­mis­sion to visit. And some, no doubt, have yet to be dis­cov­ered.

In­ter­est­ingly, 14 wheels alone have been doc­u­mented and vis­ited by ar­chae­ol­o­gists at CFB Suffield, which is the largest mil­i­tary train­ing base in Canada and home to 2,700 square km of re­mote, never-plowed prairie. Be­sides the medicine wheels, more than 2,000 ad­di­tional sites on the mas­sive base have been doc­u­mented as lo­ca­tions that con­tain teepee rings, cairns, stone fig­ures, and so on. Un­for­tu­nately, these are all off-lim­its to the pub­lic.

In her ex­cel­lent book, Stone by Stone: Ex­plor­ing An­cient Sites on the Cana­dian Plains, au­thor Liz Bryan chron­i­cles dozens of sites, in­clud­ing medicine wheels, buf­falo jumps, rock art, ef­fi­gies, teepee rings and more. In ad­di­tion to Ma­jorville, Bryan cites Sun­dial Medicine Wheel (near Car­man­gay) and the Rum­sey Medicine Wheel as the most eas­ily vis­ited.

On my way back to Cal­gary after vis­it­ing the Ma­jorville Medicine Wheel, I stopped at the Black­foot Cross­ing His­tor­i­cal Park to, hope­fully, gain a lit­tle more clar­ity on medicine wheels and the in­cred­i­ble his­tory of the Black­foot peo­ple. Not sur­pris­ingly, given the coun­try-al­ter­ing his­tory at Black­foot Cross­ing (this is where Treaty 7 was signed), I ac­tu­ally left with more ques­tions than an­swers.

And, to top it off, my tour guide men­tioned that they just re­cently, thanks to a sig­nif­i­cant grass fire, dis­cov­ered a gi­ant new medicine wheel some­where deep in Sik­sika ter­ri­tory. Long story short, I’ve got my fin­gers crossed that an­other medicine wheel road trip is in my near fu­ture.


The first stones of the cen­tre cairn at the Ma­jorville Medicine Wheel were laid ap­prox­i­mately 5,000 years ago, mak­ing it 1,000 years older than Stone­henge.

From above, you can see the spokes, or rays of the an­cient medicine wheel. A sign at the site ex­plains the his­tory and makeup of the ge­o­glyph.


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