Mysteries of an ancient medicine wheel.
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.