The Importance of Medicine Wheels in Indigenous Culture

May 3, 2022

Photo Courtesy of the Galt Museum and Archives

The well-known Medicine Wheels in the Southern Alberta include Many Spotted Horses Medicine Wheel, Sundial Medicine Wheel and the Majorville Medicine Wheel site.  The Medicine Wheels are identified by a cairn of rocks with spokes branching out in all directions, that could resemble a wheel but not always. effigies, stone circles/tipi rings, vision quests, stone cairns, and stone alignments Many have a central cairn sometimes surrounded by one or two rings.  Sundial is located near Carmangay, about an hour north of Lethbridge. It is situated on a hill, with a central cairn and two surrounding circles with entrance markings.  Suffield Tipi rings are located near Cypress County, the Tipi Rings are located on hills overlooking the South Saskatchewan River, in Alberta. The site encompasses 14 sets of archaeological remains.  The most renowned Medicine Wheel is the Majorville Medicine Wheel and cairn located near Bassano, which consists of a central cairn, which is linked to a surrounding stone circle by 28 spokes. 

Many Spotted Horses is located on the northeastern part of the Blood Reserve.  It is believed that when a great chief dies a lodge was placed over him, and when the lodge was thrown down by the wind, the body of the deceased was laid upon the ground and a cairn of stones placed over it.  This is the case of the Many Spotted Horses Medicine Wheel.  The other Medicine Wheels are used for ceremonial purposes even to this day, offerings are scattered throughout the area.  

In addition to Medicine Wheels there are stone figure shaped like animals or humans or part of a larger formation, there are several located in Southern Alberta, including Napi or Old Man effigies. Tipi rings are a circle of stones used to hold down the edges of the lodges, there are still thousands of tipi rings still to be found in the prairies.  The size of the ring indicated if it was used during the dog days or after the use of horses had begun. If there are two rings it was used during the winter, with the second ring indicating where a fire pit sat. The tipi rings indicate winter and summer camps of the seasonal rounds of the Blackfoot. The typical Blackfoot tipi ring had a doorway facing east, marked by a break in the circle. If a tipi did not have a break it was usually a death lodge, someone had died in there and the lodge was closed and sewn shut. Many tipi rings sites have been disseminated by settlers, scattering or piling the rocks. For the Blackfoot the tipi rings are marking and stories left behind by the ancestors. 

The Blackfoot sacred sites are still significant to the Blackfoot today, many remain as places for ceremony, vision quest sites, and a gathering place to offer prayers. Some of the sites are threatened by development and are unprotected.

To keep learning more about the rich Indigenous culture that helps make the melting pot of lethbridge so unique, keep reading more on our Indigenous Lethbridge page!

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