Medicine wheels are disappearing at an alarming rate
The Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel was first noted by Canadians of European ancestry in an 1895 report written by land surveyors. The report described the central cairn of the medicine wheel as being about 14 feet high, says Ian Brace, an archaeologist with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina.
“The central rock cairn is now about a foot-and-a-half high,” says Brace. “There’ve been people from all points on the globe who’ve not only visited the site, but taken a rock home with them.”
Theft, vandalism and agriculture have reduced to about 70 the number of medicine wheels on the Northern Plains of North America.
Brace says, “I can’t even guess how many medicine wheels once graced the plains.” (It’s estimated that there were about 20,000 medicine wheels in North America, before the Europeans came.) “But if the destruction of tipi rings is any indication of the degree of desecration besetting medicine wheels, “in my life time, they might just disappear.”
In the 1980s, the land encompassing the Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel came under the jurisdiction of a First Nation band. Because visitors wishing to view it must first get permission from the band council, at least some degree of security is now assured, says Brace.
But most of Saskatchewan’s medicine wheels are on Crown, public and privately-owned land. Although they’re “protected” under provincial legislation that allows for fines of up to $3,000 for anyone caught desecrating a medicine wheel, enforcement is difficult.
Most of the surviving medicine wheels are situated “off the beaten path”, accessible only to those bent on finding them, says Brace. The same remoteness that protects the wheels from the ravages of high foot traffic, however, also protects the unscrupulous from being caught stealing or vandalizing them.
It’s a problem that has no easy solution, but Brace says there may be hope in the Indian land-claims process. If ownership of the medicine wheel sites located on public and Crown land could be transferred to Indian bands, and if Indian families could be induced to reside on the sites, security would be greatly enhanced.