About a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Laura Sitting Eagle was feeling unwell. The Blackfoot Elder, who resides on Siksika 146 – a First Nations reserve of the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta, 87km south-east of Calgary – went to see her doctor and was informed that anxiety was the issue. With a daughter working as a frontline healthcare worker and a school vice-principal son, she was worried for the health of her family and the stress was affecting her own wellbeing. She realised that she needed to get emotional, spiritual, physical and mental balance.
As her ancestors before her had done, she found relief in making a trek to the medicine wheel called Iniskim Umaapi to pray and make a spiritual offering.
One of the oldest religious monuments in the world, the medicine wheel sits on a windswept hill far from any signs of civilisation. It consists of a central cairn surrounded by 28 radiating stone lines that are encircled by another large ring of stones measuring 27m in diameter. The Blackfoot have many names for it, but the current commonly accepted name is Iniskim Umaapi, which means "buffalo calling stones sacred site". European colonists named the stone circle Majorville Medicine Wheel, after the Majorville post office and general store that was once nearby. Settlers called these structures medicine wheels because they resemble wagon wheels and are considered sacred sites by Indigenous People. Regardless of their name, these enigmatic geoglyphs are shrouded in mystery – Iniskim Umaapi more so than any others.
Medicine wheels are scattered across the Northern Plains, in Montana, Wyoming, Saskatchewan and Alberta, but Iniskim Umaapi is the oldest-known one in the world. Archaeological studies estimate the ancient stone circle to be about 5,000 years old – dating roughly the same time as the first phase of construction of Stonehenge. Located on England's Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge is thousands of kilometres and an ocean apart from Iniskim Umaapi. The fact that both stone circles are ancient and have mysterious purposes and origins led to Iniskim Umaapi being dubbed "Canada's Stonehenge" by Gordon R Freeman, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.
Built around 5,000 years ago, Iniskim Umaapi is the oldest-known medicine wheel in the world (Credit: Debbie Olsen)
Unlike Stonehenge, Insikim Umaapi is not easy to find. My husband and I got lost on our first attempt to reach the medicine wheel. It is surrounded by public land and sits on a high hill near a vast coulee carved by the Bow River. A maze of rough dirt roads – some with no trespassing signs – leads to the sacred site. We finally got there with the assistance of Indigenous guides from nearby Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, a museum and attraction dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the Siksika Nation’s language, culture and traditions.
The wind blasted across the prairie grass as we climbed to the lichen-covered stones at the top of the hill. Since I hadn't brought an offering, one of the guides gave me a piece of Bannock bread to lay on the stones in the central cairn.
In his book, Canada's Stonehenge, Freeman postulates that Iniskim Umaapi was part of a vast, open-air sun temple. He believes the stone circle was used as a calendar to mark the changing seasons and phases of the moon. "These discoveries show that genius existed on the North American Plains 5,000 years ago and probably much earlier than that," Freeman wrote. He also described the site as "the most intricate stone ring that remains on the North American Plains".
Freeman spent years studying this stone circle and other geoglyphs around the world. He estimates that he and his wife Phyllis spent a total of seven months living at Iniskim Umaapi over his many years of study, visiting the stone circle in every season and photographing it at both sunrise and sunset. He says that four of the 28 radiating stone lines in the circle correspond to the cardinal points of the compass.
Related stones can be found outside the circle on at least two other high hilltops (Credit: Debbie Olsen)
Iniskim Umaapi is situated on one of the highest hills in the region. On a clear day, you can see for about 100km in every direction when you're standing inside the circle. The site is surrounded by grasslands, and there are stones outside the circle on at least two other high hilltops. While some archaeologists interpret the placement of the stones outside the main circle as the random results of a glacial moraine, Freeman believes they were carefully placed there. Taken all together, he believes they represent the sun, the crescent moon, the morning star and constellations. According to Freeman, the rising and setting sun on both the longest and shortest days of the year line up with rocks inside and outside the circle. The spring and autumn equinoxes, when day and night are equal, are similarly marked with uncanny accuracy and the 28 radiating lines inside the circle correspond to the length of the lunar cycle.
Freeman has spent more time researching this ancient stone circle than any other scientist, but some archaeologists don't agree with his sun temple theories, despite compelling research and photographs. In fact, the exact purpose of Iniskim Umaapi is something scientists have not been able to agree upon.
It's a healing place that helped me gain the courage and strength I needed
However, the Blackfoot also see the stone circle as having four quadrants. The number four is one of the most significant numbers in Blackfoot culture, because it represents many things including the four cardinal directions, the four sacred medicines and the four human needs. To Laura Sitting Eagle, the four quadrants of the medicine wheel represent emotional, physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. The ancient stone circle is a place to find balance.
"Medicine wheels are sacred," she said. I went there to give an offering and it really helped me. It's a healing place that helped me gain the courage and strength I needed."
The greatest mystery of Iniskim Umaapi centres on its purpose, but there are also questions about the people who built it. Five thousand years ago, the original builders may have been ancestors of the Blackfoot People or they may have been another ancient Indigenous People who occupied the area. Regardless, the Blackfoot who have lived on this land since time immemorial have long used the ancient stone circle as a ceremonial site.
The Blackfoot People have long used the ancient stone circle as a ceremonial site (Credit: Debbie Olsen)
"To ordinary people, the rocks in the medicine wheel are just rocks, but to us they are alive," explained Gerald Sitting Eagle, a Siksika Elder and husband to Laura. "The rocks give us life and the four directions and the signs in the medicine wheel mean different things to different people. The rocks piled up in the middle look like a Sweat Lodge and some say the stone ring resembles a Sun Dance Lodge. There are many different stories about the purpose of the medicine wheel, but we know it is a place to look for the creator's help."
To ordinary people, the rocks in the medicine wheel are just rocks, but to us they are alive
Though I have Indigenous ancestors, I didn't know how to pray in the Blackfoot way when I stood inside the ancient medicine wheel. I sat and pondered about how I could achieve better balance in my life, and when I placed my small offering next to others on the stones, I felt a sense of awe and humility.
Like Stonehenge, we may never know exactly how or why Iniskim Umaapi was built. But all who spend time at the geoglyph agree that there is symbolism and power in this ancient stone circle – something that can only be felt and cannot be quantified. The Blackfoot Nation has recognised it for thousands of years.
Ancient Engineering Marvels is a BBC Travel series that takes inspiration from unique architectural ideas or ingenious constructions built by past civilisations and cultures across the planet.
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