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Medicine wheels, or sacred hoops, were constructed by laying stones in a particular pattern on the ground. Originally, and still today, medicine wheels are stone structures constructed by certain indigenous peoples of North America for various astronomical, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes. More recently, syncretic, hybridized uses of medicine wheels, magic circles, and mandala sacred technology are employed in New Age, Wiccan, Pagan and other spiritual discourse throughout the World.
Erecting massive stone structures is a well-documented activity of ancient man, from the Egyptian pyramids to Stonehenge, and the natives of Northern America are no different in this regard. Medicine wheels appear all over northern United States and southern Canada, specifically South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. It is a circular arrangement of stones measuring 75 feet across with 28 rows of stones that radiate from a central cairn to an encircling stone rim. Almost all medicine wheels would have at least two of the three elements mentioned above (the center cairn, the outer ring, and the spokes), but beyond that there were many variations on this basic design, and every wheel found has been unique and has had its own style and eccentricities. Another variation is whether the spokes start from the center cairn and go out only to the outer ring, or whether they go past the outer ring, or whether they start at the outer ring and go out from there.
An odd variation sometimes found in medicine wheels is the presence of a passageway, or a doorway, in the circles. Also many medicine wheels have various other circles around the outside of the wheel, sometimes attached to spokes or the outer ring, and sometimes just seemingly floating free of the main structure. Medicine wheels have been built and used for so long, and each one has enough unique characteristics, that archeologists have found it nearly impossible to tell exactly what each one was for, and haven't had much success at making broad generalizations about their function and meaning.
One of the older wheels has been dated to over 4,500 years old; it had been built up by successive generations who would add new features to the circle. It is not hard to imagine that medicine wheels, like most large stone structures, would probably have served a ceremonial or ritual purpose. Astronomer John Eddy put forth the theory that some of the wheels had astronomical significance, where the longest spoke on a wheel could be pointing to a certain star at a certain time of the year, suggesting that the wheels were a way to mark certain days of the year.
In the Hopi Medicine Wheel of the Hopi prophecy of the four peoples of the Earth, the cardinal direction North represents the body, plants and animals, the color white and 'white skinned peoples', and Childhood.
The East is held to represent the mind, air, the color yellow and 'yellow skinned peoples', learning the groups to which people belong and Adolescence. Finally West holds the spirit, water, the color blue or black, and 'black-skinned peoples' and Elderhood.
In many other tribes, however, the Northern direction corresponds to Adulthood (the White Buffalo), the South represents Childhood (the Serpent), the West represents Adolescence (the Bear) and the Eastern direction represents Death and Re-birth (Eagle).
The term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, the most southern one known.
John Brumley, an archaeologist from Medicine Hat, has provided a very exacting definition of what constitutes a medicine wheel. The excavation yielded artifacts which archaeologists can "date" by style; the style of spear points and arrowheads changed in a regular manner over time and archaeologists have figured out the sequence of these changes. It seems that successive groups of people added new layers of rock, and some of their arrowheads, from that time until the coming of Europeans to Alberta.
The long period of use and construction of the central cairn at the Majorville Medicine Wheel suggests that such sites may have served different functions over the years. Thus, while we can reasonably surmise that the Majorville wheel served as a ceremonial centre for several thousand years, it is unlikely that archaeologists will ever know the details of the ceremonies or the religious philosophy which motivated the construction of the site. Perhaps one of the most interesting theories to be advanced is that there are significant stellar alignments present at the medicine wheels.
It is very difficult to confirm the astronomical hypothesis, and it is no longer as popular as it was a decade ago.
Medicine Wheel, also called the Sacred Hoop, is an important part of the Native American culture and spirituality.
There is no certainty as to the meaning and function of the Medicine Wheel and different Native American tribes are thought to have interpreted it differently.

The Medicine Wheel is considered to symbolize peaceful interaction between the living beings inhabiting the Earth. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center of stone(s), and surrounding that is an outer ring of stones with "spokes", or lines of rocks radiating from the center. Medicine wheels are still 'opened' or inaugurated in Native American spirituality where they are more often referred to as "sacred hoops", which is the favored English rendering by some.
The rite of the sacred hoop and medicine wheel differed and differs amongst indigenous traditions, as it now does between non-indigenous peoples, and between traditional and modernist variations. This 75 foot diameter wheel has 28 spokes, and is part of a vast set of old Native American sites that document 7,000 years of their history in that area. Most medicine wheels follow the basic pattern of having a center cairn of stones, and surrounding that would be an outer ring of stones, then there would be "spokes", or lines of rocks, coming out the cairn.
The outer ring of stones will be broken, and there will be a stone path leading up to the center of the wheel.
Due to the long existence of such a basic structure, archeologists suspect that the function and meaning of the medicine wheel changed over time, and it is doubtful that we will ever know what the original purpose was. West also represents the final life stage in the wheel, being an elder and passing on knowledge to the next generation so that the wheel may start again just like the circle it takes after. In terms of social dynamics, community building and the use of Circles in Restorative Justice work, the four quadrants of the circle correspond to Introductions. That site consists of a central cairn or rock pile surrounded by a circle of stone; lines of cobbles link the central cairn and the surrounding circle. It seems that the central cairn at the Majorville wheel was initially constructed some 4,500 years ago! Curiously, the site does not seem to have been used between about 3,000 and 2,000 years ago; the distinctive barbed spear points of that time are not present in the cairn. One suspects that hunting magic or buffalo fertility might have played a part in the rituals, but the deeper meaning of the site is lost in time. A number of astronomers such as Steven Haak in Nebraska and David Vogt in Vancouver have critically evaluated the idea and have expressed severe reservations about the hypothesis.
Research has suggested a number of functions for the wheels, and has indicated their use over a very long period of time. A number of these structures have been sited all over southern Canada and northern United States.
Generally used for healing and health, it symbolizes the cycles of life and embodies the cardinal directions- North, East, South and West. Its circle shows everything as part of a cosmic whole and represents the balance between personal and natural powers. Some ancient types of sacred architecture were built by laying stones on the surface of the ground in particular patterns common to aboriginal peoples. The essential nature of the rite common to these divergent traditions deserves further anthropological exploration as does an exegesis of their valence. Although archeologists aren't exactly sure what each one was used for, it is thought that they probably had ceremonial or astronomical significance. Unlike the usual towering stone monoliths, the natives simply laid down lots of stones on the earth in certain arrangements. Extremely large stone circles - some greater than 12 metres across - may be the remains of special ceremonial dance structures.
The whole structure looks rather like a wagon wheel lain-out on the ground with the central cairn forming the hub, the radiating cobble lines the spokes, and the surrounding circle the rim. The most common form consists of a central cairn surrounded by a stone circle; 18 of these Type 1 medicine wheels are known in Alberta. Here is a sample of maps of Alberta medicine wheels reduced to more-or-less a common scale.
This wheel contains an enormous central cairn 9 metres in diameter, surrounded by a stone circle 27 metre across; about 28 spokes link the circle and central cairn.

Archaeologists do not know when the spokes and surrounding circle were constructed, or even if they were constructed at the same time.
It is not unusual for human beings to regard particular places as sacred, even when religions change. They note that simple familiarity with the night sky would likely produce an adequate estimate for timing ceremonies. Medicine wheels seem to be primarily an Alberta phenomenon; we have many more here than do the adjacent provinces and states. These are supposed to have been used for ritualistic, healing, teaching and astronomical purposes. The wheel can be used for self-realization, finding your purpose in life and bringing fulfillment and enlightenment into it.
Some medicine wheels will have one particular spoke that's significantly longer than the rest, suggesting something important about the direction it points. The "medicine" part of the name implies that it was of religious significance to Native peoples. A variant, known as a Type 2 medicine wheel, contains a passageway leading out from the stone circle; four are known. The radiating spokes appear to have no consistent pattern in terms of orientation or length. For example, many modern Catholic churches in Mexico occupy locales which formerly contained Aztec Indian temples. Other alignments, both to the summer solstice sunrise and to certain bright stars such as Aldebaran, Rigel or Sirius, have been proposed for a number of Alberta medicine wheels. Further, if great accuracy had been desired, it could have been attained better by using narrow poles as foresight and backsight than by using wider rock cairns.
Investigation and preservation of these unique features has been an on-going concern of the Archaeological Survey, The Provincial Museum of Alberta, and the Planning and Resource Management Branch, Historic Sites and Archives Service. There are also 'spokes' made from lines of stones laid as coming out from the center and going on to the outer circle. They also stand for the annual seasons (winter, spring, summer and fall), the natural elements (wind, earth, fire and water) and the aspects of life (spiritual, physical, mental and emotional).
Perhaps the most intriguing cobble constructions, however, are the ones known as medicine wheels. Type 3 structures consist of a central cairn with radiating cobble lines or "spokes;" again, four are known. Amazingly, some Type 4 medicine wheels have been built in this century by the Blood Indians of southern Alberta; one, Many Spotted Horses Medicine Wheel, is illustrated here. Apart from a physical construction on land, the medicine wheel can also take the form of paintings or artifacts. These modern Blood Indian structures were built to commemorate the death place of, or the last tipi occupied by, a famous warrior. The spokes are said to have no specific meaning other than to indicate that a famous warrior had died. Type 5 structures contain a circle with spokes radiating inward, while the Type 6 is similar but has a central cairn; only one of each occurs in the province.
Type 7 medicine wheels have a central cairn surrounded by a stone circle with spokes radiating outward; three are known. Type 8 structures are similar, but the spokes radiate from the central cairn and cross the circle.

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