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‘The Medicine Wheel’
Wakashie of the Shoshone’s Leadership Quest


Adapted from The Glorious Quest of Chief Washakie by Ralph H. & Mary Tillman

1798

In a valley of the Bitter Root Mountains, in a teepee of the Flatheads, as the sun rose, a boy was born to a woman of the Shoshone, wife to Chief Paseego. An elder chief blessed the boy with a flat stone disk suspended from a thong, one side etched with the form of a buffalo, the other with a timeless symbol of rebirth, later known by people who did not believe in such things as a swastika. The mother announced that this symbol was also held sacred by her people and the elder chief predicted that the boy would become a great man…

After numerous bloody adventures the boy become a man declared himself to be Washakie, “The Rattler,” and habitually carried a rattle he had made from the hide of the buffalo he had slain to honor his mother’s people for accepting him back among them.

Spring, 1838

After leading his fellow warriors in a successful battle to recover hostages from the enemy Blackfeet, Wakashie was honored by the chief of the Shoshones, who assigned him the task of taking his birth gift to Medicine Wheel Mountain, a path that this chief and his counterpart of the Flatheads, who had given Wakashie the medicine stone at his birth, had also taken, and gave him a sacred word to say as he displayed his Medicine Stone to the ancient keepers of the Medicine Wheel. [1]

Wakashie responded with a chant:

“The Stone,

My medicine,

Will guide me true!

“I shall walk

The Unknown Way

With courage.

With courage I shall walk!

“All-Father in the Sun [2]

And my Medicine

Will show me the Way!”

Summer, 1838

Dressed plainly, a single feather in his hair, bearing his bow and arrows, rattle, and a metal tomahawk he had taken from the Blackfeet in the battle, he set off. Wakashie was tall, strong and determined to gain recognition in the eyes of All Father in the Sun and thence induction into the Sacred Brotherhood as he journeyed toward Medicine Wheel Mountain in the country of the Sacred Raven People [3] in the Big Horn Mountains. After stealing a horse from a Cheyenne herd, Wakashie at last arrived at the sacred mountain.

At the base of a mountain was an elder so worn by time that he appeared barely human. The elder appeared unnaturally light in his step, must have been over a hundred winters old, yet when Wakashie showed him the medicine stone the elder’s mouth split in a toothless grin and he led the war chief up the mountain path as nimbly as a youth. The path was hazardous and his guide was uncommonly strong.

At the mountaintop, Wakashie saw the spokes of the stone wheel radiating out from the stone cairn at its center.

The main spokes of the wheel numbered seven.

Lesser spokes brought the total to 28.

Before the central cairn was a stone altar, surrounded by four lesser altars at the cardinal points of the world.

Noting that the tread of many feet had beaten a bare path around the wheel and deducing by this and his lone appearance that the wheel had stood here beyond memory and had hosted visionaries in the forgotten past, Wakashie prayed through the night.

As the sun rose he approached the great altar where he was told to kneel and pray. He asked All-Father in the Sun to fill all the winters of his life with faith and strength and that his power among men would be true and right.

An elder of incredible age approached Wakashie with a luxuriant beard of great length catching the wind and regarding the chief of the Shoshone with blue eyes, and asked of him his name and purpose to which Wakashie answered, “A Shoshone youth on the path of Truth.”

The patriarch asked for a sign and Wakashie showed him the Medicine Stone, to which the holy man replied, “It is inscribed with the Truth sign and was the medicine of a Flathead Chief.”

Wakashie then spoke the sacred password and the holy man enlightened him as to the Truth that there was one God and that the spirit journeyed on after the death of the body. He was instructed to abide by the Truth and informed that he had a counterpart in every northern tribe, who had likewise pledged himself to Truth, God and Unity. He was further instructed to journey to the place where pipestone was mined and return with a pipe for his final initiation.

Autumn-Winter, 1838-39

Journeying through the land of the hostile Sioux toward the sacred pipestone place, a place near what we now know as the border of South Dakota and Minnesota, Wakashie acquired the companionship of a white trapper who took him among the Mandans, where he took up with a Pawnee warrior in a similar quest. After cutting catlinite for the making of their pipes they exchanged gifts, gloves to Wakashie and an arrow to the Pawnee. Having bound themselves in this way, they separated.

Wakashie returned to the Mandan fort where he discovered that the famous Shoshone woman Sakajawea was alone, for her French husband had just died. She had her two half-French children to care for and wished to return to her people. So Wakashie hunted for white trappers until Spring and the four travelled toward the Black Hills with trappers going there to trade.

Spring, 1939

Wakashie left Sakajawea and her children on the Powder River and returned to Medicine Wheel Mountain. There he found the elder guide near death and discovered that the blue-eyed holy man had died in the depths of the winter. Fearing that he would never learn the secret of the Truth Path he asked the guide for instruction.

Near death, the guide consoled the distraught Wakashie, “I give you the Word of the Brotherhood of the Wheel.”

The ailing wise man than continued haltingly, admonishing Wakashie in broken sentences to use the word for good and for peace. The man managed to speak the three-syllable word and Wakashie promised to do so.

Then, “The aged man started to tell him something else, but death caught him before the words could pass his lips, even though Wakashie bent his ear very close.”

After his descent of Medicine Wheel Mountain, Wakashie dedicated his life to alliance-building rather than his previous occupation of war-making.

Afterward

In February 1900, in the same month that took the holy man who inducted him into the Medicine Wheel Society, Wakashie passed away, having guided his tribe for some 60 years.

Notes

1. Although not stated in the legend of Wakashie, this is an indication that the chiefs of these two tribes belonged to an extra-tribal society.

2. Damma Uppa or Tamapah, meaning Sun-Father of the Day or Father of Us All, who lives in the sun, sometimes translated as Great Spirit or God

3. Commonly called the Crow Indians

4. Dates are based on Wakashie’s birth dates and date of death, which are known, but remain conjecture based on the supposition that he attained chieftain status in his late 30s and conducted his chieftainship quest about his 40th year.

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