Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain dedication

It was the culmination of a process but not the end of the journey.

Native American tribes, local and state government officials, federal agency heads and signatories to the historic preservation plan governing access to and land use surrounding the Medicine Wheel east of Lovell in the Big Horn Mountains gathered at the Porcupine Ranger Station and later at the Lovell Community Center Friday to dedicate and celebrate the boundary expansion of the newly named Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark.

Lynwood Tall Bull makes a point during the Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain dedication ceremony Friday morning. David Peck photo

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the name and boundary expansion in early July, and a dedication ceremony was planned for Aug. 26. Originally, the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, designated in 1970, encompassed just the top of Medicine Mountain, 110 acres surrounding the Wheel. Then in 1988 a process began to further manage the site, leading to first highly contentious and later more and more productive meetings that evolved, eventually, to a collaborative effort and a historic preservation plan.

The process continued toward the name change and boundary expansion, and that process culminated with the decision by Secretary Salazar and Friday’s events. The newly designated Medicine Wheel/Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark now encompasses 4,080 acres.

A historic day

The ceremony on the mountain included a blessing, drumming by the Northern Cheyenne Drum Group, a flute song and numerous prepared remarks. Later, people gathered at the Lovell Community Center for firemen’s ribs and further remarks. Planned as a public event, the evening meal and program was sparsely attended because event planners failed to notify the media, and thus the community, about the Friday activities.

Scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at the Porcupine Ranger Station, Friday morning’s dedication ceremony didn’t begin until nearly 11:40 as organizers waited for dignitaries to arrive. Steve Brady of the Medicine Wheel Coalition for Sacred Sites of North America, who has seen the process through from the very beginning, said in opening remarks that many tribal elders who supported the effort “are no longer here today, and a few of us are here to complete the process.” He urged all attending to think about the men and women in uniform who are serving in harm’s way. He presented an American flag given to him by a Crazy Dog Society member serving in the U.S. Navy, then introduced four veterans who presented the colors and an eagle staff as the Northern Cheyenne Drum Group performed a flag song, which Brady said was similar to the National Anthem in meaning.

Following a blessing, Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Bill Bass welcomed the assembled crowd and noted the willingness to cooperate among the seven signatories to the historic preservation plan: the Coalition, the Medicine Wheel Alliance, Big Horn County Commissioners, the U.S. Forest Service, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Keown remembrances

Former Forest Supervisor Larry Keown said he well remembers the early emotional days of the Medicine Wheel negotiations. The Forest Service had begun a process to further develop the Medicine Wheel site in 1988, and Native American groups quickly rallied to oppose the plans. By the time Keown arrived on the scene in 1991, tensions were high with a great amount of anger and mistrust among the parties involved.

“I attended a public meeting in Billings, and I went to meet Bill Tall Bull, the leader of the Medicine Wheel Alliance,” Keown said. “He said, ‘you’re just another white man of broken treaties, and I want nothing to do with you.’ We later became friends.”

Another time, Keown went to meet with Francis Brown, president of the Medicine Wheel Coalition, hoping to learn more about the issues.

“You’ll learn in court,” Brown told Keown after several of his questions.

“Francis was opening the door and testing us to see whether we wanted to walk through that door,” Keown said. “We chose to do so.

“At meetings we were called Custers of the world and treaty-breakers, responsible for genocide, but Francis Brown said this had to happen. Let people speak their peace. It was a new beginning.”

Not much was accomplished for about three years, Keown said, but barriers came down and friendships were formed. Brown became a friend, as did Tall Bull, who Keown called “a very wise person,” noting that negotiators were beginning to be viewed as people, not as nameless adversaries.

“We were embarking on a journey, and it took a long time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s over. We have a final designation, but the task is never completed. This is a living place, and people have dedicated their lives to it. There is environmental change and spiritual change, and it will require constant monitoring to protect the site.”

Continuing education is the key, Keown said, not in a tourism sense but in a cultural resource sense. He finished by reading a list of some 25 tribal elders and leaders who have died since the process began in 1988.

Following a flute song by Jay Old Mouse and two memorial drum songs, the late Bill Tall Bull’s son Lynwood spoke on behalf of the Medicine Wheel Alliance, saying his father and others did not die in vain and “are standing beside us today.”

Lynwood Tall Bull said he loved as a boy hearing the old men with their kind and gentle voices tell stories over the campfire of places like the Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain. He said the NHL process is part of a greater process to bring back native teachings, history and language.

“I hope this mountain will bring inspiration to all tribes in all lands,” he said. “Let us celebrate this occasion and open our hearts to everyone. This is for the whole world to enjoy it.”

Longtime Alliance member Jo Smith said it has been a great experience working with so many people to complete the HPP and the final NHL process. When in December of 2008 the seven parties to the process finally agreed on the final details of the national historic landmark designation and boundary, Smith said she felt “awe in that room.”

“We all looked at each other and said, ‘Really? We are in agreement?’ Then George Sutton (of the MW Coalition) shook hands with every one of us. Three years later we’re here to accept the work of all these people and agree to protect and preserve for all time and walk the spirit of the land. We are exceedingly grateful.”

Jeff Hill of the Alliance said he was “very, very thankful” to be “standing here today.” He, too, noted the many relationships formed during the process and said though the Medicine Wheel area was once part of the Crow nation, it is meant for all to go to the site, take gifts and “humble ourselves.”

Dallas Ross of Minnesota spoke for the Medicine Wheel Coalition and said it was meaningful to hear the list of names of those who worked on the process “to the end of their day.” He acknowledged the “non-native” participation in the process and said the passion on display was not a human passion but was born of a spirit “who wishes it had a place to pray.

“Today I stand at the center of the world to give honor to a sacred place,” Ross said. “We don’t know who built it, but we know what caused it to be built. Who did it is of no consequence. The reason has great consequence.”

Steve Brady recounted the long and sometimes contentious process that led to Friday’s dedication. He said he first came to the Wheel in the mid-1960s with Bill Tall Bull for a pipe ceremony when the road to the site was very primitive. He said he heard stories about the Big Horn Mountains and how the Northern Cheyenne were connected to the mountains.

When the Forest Service first released an environmental assessment in 1988, the Crazy Dog Society, among others, responded to the EA, “the district ranger threatened to bulldoze the wheel off the mountain and the fight was on.

“It was very contentious for a long time, but eventually things turned around,” he said.

Brady recounted how the Alliance and Coalition formed so tribes could consult “government to government” with the Forest Service, the formation of a programmatic agreement and the HPP, the lawsuit from Wyoming Sawmills and the U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting the lawsuit.

He said the tribes went “round and round” with the Big Horn County Commissioners but eventually came to an understanding with the commissioners regarding the boundary, which needed to be expanded, he said, to encompass many other traditional cultural areas beyond the Wheel itself.

Attorney Jack Trope spoke for the American Association on American Indian Affairs, which supported the tribes in the process.

“We’ve come a long way,” Trope said. “It has been a journey from suspicion and conflict to mutual respect for traditions and people who participate in those traditions.”

Trope noted the participation of many others including former commissioner Ray Peterson and current commissioner Keith Grant. He urged the Forest Service and National Park Service to spread the spirit of the Medicine Wheel agreement to other sacred sites across the U.S.A., noting that not all of them are being protected and respected like the Wheel.

The final speaker before lunch was Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Supt. Jerry Case, who spoke about the Park Service role in the nomination process. He said the Big Horn Medicine Wheel was always recognized as one of the most significant archaeological sites in the nation, the best known and best preserved of known medicine wheels.

But with this final NHL decision came three important developments, Case said: the expansion of the boundary, the name change and the groundbreaking historical landmark designation based on traditional, cultural practices.

“It remains a place for worship and vision quests and the gathering of plants,” Case said. “It is not only a historic site but a living one. This is the first national historic landmark recognized as a traditional, cultural place.”

Evening program

During the evening program at the Lovell Community Center, letters were read from U.S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, as well as U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis.

Keith Grant noted the contentious times in the process but said early difficulties led to good times and now, “the best of times.” He spoke of the friendships that developed and said, “From here on we don’t need to look back, we need to look forward. The sharing of cultures is something we need to do more of.”

Rep. Elaine Harvey addressed the native Americans in the audience, saying there are “so many things we have to learn from each other,” adding, “There are so many things we have in common.”

Harvey recalled trips to the Medicine Wheel when she was a child, led by her father, who spoke reverently about the mysteries and traditions of the Wheel. And when he spoke, she said, “everybody was quiet, and it was out of respect.

Friday’s dedication “made me hunger for more knowledge and more shared culture,” Harvey said. “I want to know about the legend of the Little People. I want to know about the Medicine Wheel, which my dad taught us to respect. I hope you have a desire to spend time with us, too. We have more in common with each other than we realize.”

Councilman Brian Dickson, Harvey’s brother, spoke representing the Town of Lovell and also recounted his family’s visits to the Medicine Wheel.

“I hold some things sacred,” Dickson said. “Some people share those same values and worship them in similar ways as I do. Others hold them sacred in different ways. I respect their right to worship in a way they think is sacred.”

During one of the Dickson family visits to the Wheel, and being a young boy, Dickson said he picked up a rock at the site to throw it, drawing a sharp rebuke from his father.

“Put it back,” Dickson quoted his father as saying. “You have no right to throw it. You have no right to disturb this ground.”

Dickson said he has been fortunate to spend time at the Medicine Wheel with his children, noting, “It’s a sacred place to me. We have fond memories and felt it was a place to be reverent. I’m grateful for the cooperation to be able to protect this sacred site, that we can join together to preserve this site for future generations.”

Also speaking were Albert Sand Crane of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, Mary Hopkins of Wyoming SHPO, Dull Knife College president Dr. Richard Little Bear, Brad Keeler of the AAIA, Brady again, Lisa Whitman French of the National Park Service and Forest Supervisor Bill Bass.

The Northern Cheyenne Drum Group and the Lovell Elementary Choir provided music.

By David Peck