Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

medicine wheel, bighorn

Scarves tied to the rope surrounding the Medicine Wheel. The National Forest representative said that different colored scarves, as well as their placement, can symbolize a variety of things depending on the tribe.

You may have heard the word “yoga” before. “Meditation,” too. Maybe “chakra” even, if you’ve participated in any of the two aforementioned words. In the past ten years or so, Westerners have become enthralled with connecting more intimately with their bodies and the world around them. They do this by tapping into Eastern practices, which have been around for at least 5,000 years, maybe since the dawn of civilization.

To neatly summarize: We, white people, took something that’s been around for approximately forever and used it to enrich our lives.

Not many cultures and/or religions have experienced this contemporary renaissance quite like Hinduism and Buddhism have.

Take, for example, Native American practices.

Placed 9,642 feet high on a flattened mountain top in the Bighorn Range is the Medicine Wheel. It’s 80 feet in diameter with 28 spokes, and specific cairns for astrological alignment. It was constructed 300-800 years ago and is still used today by over 80 native tribes.

The sky was an expressive gray when my sister and I visited, threatening rain in a far off, jeering sort of way, as if it knew we had left our rain jackets in the car and wanted to test our resolute. There were two other groups visiting, but we heard nothing but the wind and the quiet small talk of two Forest Service employees nearby. Mountains rippled into the distance, mirroring the bumps on our skin.

Standing in the stark and barren landscape, I too felt bare. As if the sky knew what I kept hidden in my bones. As if this mountain top was a platter and I was offering myself up to be judged, to be held, to stand at the mercy of the Earth in all my human smallness.

Such are the effects of the sacred.

I’ve experience parallel feelings in cathedrals and temples, and although none of these religions are mine, you don’t have to be part of something to appreciate it. Divinity can be experienced even if you don’t believe in the divine. All it requires is an open, wanting heart and a taste for wonder.

Beneath the watching sky, I thought about how the Native tribes know something we don’t. They lived in America for 12,000 years, a nearly unfathomable period of time, and then in just over 150 years, we took it all away from them. We gave them Jesus, and European names, and the promise of safety and fairness, and told them that what we were doing was a gift, that this was the best and only way to live life.

I don’t need to tell you how that worked out.

In recent years, we’ve turned back to the earth with a blistering ferocity. Organic farming, CSA programs, vanlife, and yes, meditation and yoga. We seek the simplicity of  lifestyles that we gutted and dressed in our own cotton dresses, calling it “civilized” because we didn’t understand beauty other than our own.

It seems that the Native Americans knew what they were doing all those 12,000 years.

I don’t think we should adopt Native American traditions or commercialize them the way we have for Hinduism or Buddhism—we’ve taken too much already—but I think we have a lot to learn from them.

Imagine learning without taking, without wanting a piece for ourselves. To leave an idea, a culture, intact with all its swirling nuances. Imagine if we realized that not everything was meant for us but it’s worthwhile anyway.

Maybe things would be different if we had listened more.

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