One Thing: A Rock Isn’t Always a Rock
by Henry HeavyShield
I first visited Iniskim Umaapi, the Majorville Medicine Wheel, in 2017. I had recently dropped out of graduate school and moved back home from Vancouver, homesick for the wide open Prairie. Moonlighting as a chauffeur for the day, I borrowed my sister’s Pontiac Montana and picked up a group of Niitsitapi youth and their caseworkers and my mom in Standoff, AB. Thanks to my infallible, GPS-like sense of direction we got lost twice, only.
The site isn’t particularly difficult to find; we headed east on the highway from Lethbridge, then hit some gravel stretches and, finally, winding dirt roads carved in crown land. The ruts did a number on the Montana’s suspension but like a true rez car, she proved her strength. There, at its base, we met archaeologist and historian Blair First Rider, who led us up to the medicine wheel’s summit. Following his prayer and offering of thanks, he welcomed us to walk the site before we went iniskim hunting.
Medicine wheels are stone structures consisting, albeit with variations among subgroups, of a centre mound surrounded by spokes, corridors, or crosses connected to a perimeter wheel. They hold practical and symbolic value for Niitsitapi; the wheels are astrological tools, altars, boundary markers, and calendars. They also designate important hunting sites, sources for collecting medicine, sanctuaries for dreams, and most significantly, places for people to gather. Iniskim Umaapi is centred on top of a large hill at 900 m above sea level. A stone cairn, which is about 10 m in diameter and about 2 m tall, composes the wheel’s hub, and from this centre radiate 26 to 28 spokes. The stones vary in size, shape, and colour but if there’s one thing they have in common, it’s that they’re all large enough to have required serious work for the Old People to transport and assemble.
I chose a random spoke, and walked out until I reached one of the perimeter rings. I was awed by scale, standing on a mountain in the middle of the Prairie with untold vantage: the sky, the river valley, the dark sliver of the Rockies on the western horizon and the Cypress Hills to the east. Having just been told the wheel began construction 5,000 years ago, I felt small and impermanent but, above all, connected. The open ness of the landscape engulfs me; I am home.
These stones have travelled through time, through countless generations; throughout the millennia, they and the land upon which they’re arranged have carried different meanings and uses for their visitors. Liz Bryan, in Stone by Stone, notes that, according to astronomers who have analyzed the site, Iniskim Umaapi’s architecture accurately marks the position of sunrises and sunsets for the solstices and equinoxes, as well as seasonal positions of Iipisowaahs, the Morning Star. When the Old People placed these stones, they made scientific instruments. Based on the presence of offerings recovered during archaeologic digs of the site, others saw, and indeed still see today, a place of spiritual significance, a place of meditation, and a place to express gratitude. Perhaps for others, still, the stones were practical, useful; it must have been easy, from the hilltop, to spot herds moving across the land or to gauge the distance of neighbouring camps. I wonder, too, if the stones of the medicine wheel weren’t also, like tipi rings, a way of writing on the landscape, stories in stones.
On the side of a coulee sloping toward the Bow River, Blair explains what we’re looking for: pieces of baculite, the fossilized remains of cephalopods, dwellers of the oceans that covered what is now Southern Alberta during the late Cretaceous period, approximately 100–66 million years ago. When whole, the fossils look like thick rib bones covered with an iridescent shell. Baculites break easily along the seams or septa of their former shell and the resulting pieces are what we refer to as iniskim: buffalo-calling stones, redolent of bison, complete with a head, humped back, and legs. A rock, it seems, isn’t always a rock.
Once, during a time of famine, as winter gripped the Prairie, the bison herds had migrated and wouldn’t return. Game became scarce and the people began to starve. Weasel-Woman was sent from camp to hunt or gather firewood. On her way back, she heard a voice. She followed the chirp-chirping to its source, where she found a peculiarly shaped stone wrapped in fur. The stone called out to her, and when she picked it up, it taught her a song and ceremony that, when shared with her people and performed, allowed them to call back the herds, guaranteeing a successful hunt and ending the famine. The stone taught Weasel-Woman to cast it as if it were a die. If the stone landed face down, she was promised happiness and bounty for her and her family. I find an iniskim, and throw it. Likewise: it lands face down. Because the stone is slightly concave, the outside of the curve, which has the bison’s face, is also always the heaviest side. Throwing an iniskim, then, is a bit like rolling loaded dice.
In Leslie Marmon Silko’s Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, she writes that “[t]hose who pay no attention to rocks may be surprised, but the appearance of a rock may change from hour to hour.” Describing one of her walks around the lava hills near Tucson, AZ, she finds a shape-shifting basalt forma tion that, depending on the light, angle, and time of day, sometimes takes on the appearance of a bear. The iniskim and the stones of the medicine wheel are indeed shape-shifters, too. Through time, the stones change depending on what use we have for them. The constant, however, is that they connect past and present. In researching the etymology of Iniskim Umaapi, I have been unable to find an adequate translation for the name’s second half. After consulting with family and knowledge-keepers, I find the closest word is aomoii’pi, which means “to gather all people to one spot.” Iniskim Aomoii’pi is a place of gathering, both in the explicit sense of coming together as family or community, but also as a means of gathering through time, with the Old People who came before us.