Manataka American Indian Council





The Medicine Wheel Conflict


On December 6, 2001, a federal judge ruled in favor of a Historic Preservation Plan (HPP) that protects the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain in Wyoming, a site considered sacred to Native Americans. A Wyoming timber company had challenged the HPP, which was negotiated with tribal organizations, state and local governments, as a hindrance to logging. Northern Arapaho Tribal Chairman Al Addison welcomed the court victory, saying, “in an era that other federal agencies, particularly the Department of the Interior, have been criticized for making decisions affecting tribes without prior consultation, it is especially heartening to have a federal court giving the Forest Service’s careful planning process a seal of approval.”


History of the Conflict

The Medicine Wheel is an 80 foot diameter circle of stones located in the Bighorn National Forest on the western peak of Medicine Mountain, in north central Wyoming. Twenty-eight radial rows of rocks extend from a center point to the outer rim of the wheel. There are many stone circles that can be found throughout the western U.S. and Canada, but the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is probably the best preserved of all such sites within the United States. For many traditional Indian people, the Medicine Wheel is considered to be the altar for Medicine Mountain, a site of great spiritual significance.


Located at an elevation of 9,642 feet, the area surrounding the Medicine Wheel contains various alignments of rocks, tipi rings, caves and travois trails (parallel pairs of ruts in the ground caused by poles dragged by animals to carry freight). Archeological evidence indicates that the area has been used by Indian tribes for over 7,000 years. Last year, members of 70 tribes held ceremonies at this site. The Mountain is particularly sacred to Plains Indian tribes, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Lakota, Dakota, Shoshone, Cree, Salish, Kootenai and Blackfeet, among others.


In 1970, the Medicine Wheel was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior based upon its archeological value. Despite much evidence of a long history of ceremonial use of the site by Native American Indians, however, the Forest Service largely ignored the sacred aspects of the mountain throughout most of the 20th Century. In 1988, the Forest Service proposed a viewing platform at the Wheel, upgrading of the dirt road and parking lot near the Medicine Wheel and the construction of a visitor’s center in the vicinity of the Wheel. This prompted the formation of two Native American tribal organizations which, along with other environmental and historic preservation groups, launched a successful effort to block this proposal and to have the area recognized as an important Native American religious site and managed in a manner that would protect the integrity of the site as a sacred site and nationally important

traditional cultural property.


This effort culminated in September 1996, when the Forest Service, State Historic Preservation Office, Bighorn County (Wyoming) Commissioners, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Medicine Wheel Coalition, Medicine Wheel Alliance and Federal Aviation Administration signed a Programmatic Agreement implementing an Historic Preservation Plan for the area. This document established an 18,000-acre “Area of Consultation” that would encompass all of Medicine Mountain and the cultural resources associated with the Medicine Wheel, with special emphasis on protecting its sacred values. The plan facilitates traditional cultural use by Indian practitioners by providing for unlimited ceremonial use, including privacy for such ceremonies when requested, and by allowing plant gathering for religious activities. Native American interpreters are present at the site during the tourist season. Vehicular access and resource development are restricted in the area (with limited exceptions). Other activities such as grazing and tourism are permitted but carefully managed and monitored. Except for disabled persons, visitors must now hike a mile and a half to visit the Medicine Wheel.


Current Status

Although great progress has been made, the struggle to protect the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain continues. Wyoming Sawmills of Sheridan, Wyoming filed an appeal of the USFS plan shortly after its approval, but Forest Service officials denied the appeal in 1997. At the heart of the issue was the 18,000-acre area and the contention by Native Americans who use the Medicine Wheel in their ceremonies that nearby logging activities would interfere with their religious practices if heavy machinery, chainsaws and logging trucks were audible and visible from the site. Wyoming Sawmills claimed financial injury would result if they were unable to cut nearby timber and use local roads. Sawmill officials sought help from the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the same property rights advocacy group that fought a National Park Service effort to limit climbing on Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming due to Native American religious concerns. In February 1999, Wyoming Sawmills and Mountain States Legal Foundation sued to overturn the Forest Service land management plan for the Medicine Wheel in federal court.


In the lawsuit, Wyoming Sawmills contended that the plan changes "the standards and guidelines within the area of consultation and surrounding areas from multiple-use forest management to a special emphasis area solely to foster Native American religions and their rituals" and, as a result, the Historic Preservation Plan violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It demanded that the HPP be withdrawn and that the Forest Service be permanently barred “from restricting forest usage for religious purposes.”


In December 2001, federal judge Alan Johnson ruled in favor of the Forest Service and Medicine Wheel Coalition (who had intervened in the case). Judge Johnson ruled that Wyoming Sawmills had no standing to challenge the HPP based upon the First Amendment or applicable environmental laws. He also ruled that a claim could be filed based upon two other federal statutes, one specifically pertaining to the Forest Service’s management of its lands, but found that the process by which the HPP was developed did not violate either law.


Wyoming Sawmills and Mountain States Legal Foundation have appealed the court’s decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.


Controversy also continues to surround the effort to have Medicine Mountain and Medicine Wheel recognized as a National Historic Landmark based upon the traditional cultural importance of the area. Some local non-Indian groups are opposing the effort to submit such a nomination to the Keeper of the National Register.


The Forest Service has implemented the Historic Preservation Plan and is maintaining the site as a minimal impact area. The appellate case is expected to be argued in late 2002. The National Historic Landmark nomination is in draft form and an effort will be made to submit it for consideration, also in late 2002.


Lessons Learned

The successful progress that has been made to preserve the Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain was initiated and guided by an organized intertribal movement led by the Medicine Wheel Alliance and the Medicine Wheel Coalition. Both groups organized early, articulated the importance of the site, used existing laws effectively, and focused on achievable goals. The groups’ activism and support helped the Forest Service to overcome initial local resistance and develop and implement an effective Historic Preservation Plan with the widespread support of federal, state, local and tribal governments.


Though it was a rough and contentious road, this process proved the importance of dialogue between federal land managers and traditional Native American religious practitioners in developing policy to protect sacred areas.



Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark

U.S. Forest Service
Bighorn National Forest
1969 S. Sheridan Ave.
Sheridan, WY 82801

Medicine Wheel Alliance
Dull Knife College
PO Box 98
Lame Deer MT 59043
(406) 477-6215

Francis Brown, President
Medicine Wheel Coalition for Sacred Sites of North America
P.O. Box 2378
Ranchos de Taos, NM 87557
(505) 770-2060

Association on American Indian Affairs
P.O. Box 91358
Albuquerque NM 87199

“Seeking To Chainsaw The Medicine Wheel Historic Preservation Plan” by Charles Levendosky (April 18, 1999)

A history: “The Bighorn Medicine Wheel 1988-1999 by Fred Chapman”

Andrew Gulliford, Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions




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