Monday, July 7, 2008

Blackfeet Tribe hopes to bring change with medicine wheel

This week, the Blackfeet Tribe will lay the first stone of a medicine wheel monument — a healing symbol steeped in Native American history that tribal members hope will be a positive influence to help reduce alcohol-related vehicle crashes.


Timed with North American Indian Days in Browning, the community is invited to help celebrate the construction of the 50-foot rock medicine wheel at 10 a.m. Thursday.

A traditional feed will follow the prayer ceremony.

The idea for a medicine wheel sprang from a ceremony two years ago in Browning where 49 families gathered to mourn the sons and daughters who died in drinking and driving crashes.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation has the highest number of Native American traffic fatalities in Montana, according to state statistics. Since the Montana Department of Transportation began sponsoring a local traffic safety program on the reservation in 2006, alcohol-related fatalities in crashes have decreased in relation to total crash fatalities on the reservation.

"Real change must come from the communities. I applaud the Blackfeet people for trying to find their own answers within their culture," Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch said.

In Indian Country, using phrases such as "fighting addiction" or "war on poverty" invites the negative forces or spirits to fight back, tribal officials said.

Native tradition holds that the medicine wheel, which is considered a symbol of peaceful interaction of the Earth's living things, represents harmony. Project supporters hope that the new wheel will inspire healthier lifestyle choices among tribal members.

"The process is not as simple as it might seem," said John Salois, president of Blackfeet Community College. "All of the materials that come to the site must receive special offerings and prayers, both before and after they are relocated to the site of the medicine wheel."

The project, approved by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, is organized by Blackfeet Community College, which donated land, construction materials and labor, and the Montana Department of Transportation, which contributed $7,000 to launch the project.

DOT officials also hope to raise money to add benches, signage and landscaping to the site, which is located just east of the tribal college campus. An access road has been added since the project began a year ago.

"This is an idea that came from the community as a spiritual and educational focus against drunk driving and alcohol use," Lynch said.

While the medicine wheel is believed to have originated in the Blackfeet Confederacy, none have been preserved on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.

As many as 150 medicine wheels were identified in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, but the majority are in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, 800-438-6600 or

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