Setting the Stage
These were my childhood years. My father was a Canadian Pacific Railway station agent and moved from station to higher-paying station as the opportunity arose. He also had a great interest in artifacts that turned up on the wind-blown prairie of east-central Saskatchewan. During 1935 to 1939 my family spent occasional summer Sunday afternoons searching for spearheads and other stone artifacts in fields near Lanigan (a town between Saskatoon and Yorkton), and Dad gave my two brothers and me a nickel for each artifact we found. In those days a jawbreaker or licorice pipe only cost a copper (1¢), so we were well rewarded.
From Lanigan we moved to the hamlet of Sonningdale, and then to Broadacres. On a spring day when I was eleven, my older brother John and I rode our bikes 13 kilometres along trails from Broadacres to Tramping Lake, a long, narrow lake that slashes deeply through the Saskatchewan prairie. Just before the trail turned to angle down the steep bank, we noticed a circle of stones in the short, dry grass. We went to look at it and saw other circles nearby, each about three large paces across. In one we saw a flat, white bone flush with the ground. We scratched around its edge, found it continued downward, and carefully dug it out with sharp-edged pebbles.
It was a human skull!
We cleaned it off and took it home. With all Dad’s arrowheads and stone tools, what would he think of an ancient Indian skull?
He was angry—we had violated a grave! “Graveyards are not all surrounded by fences,” he said. He got us into the car and drove back to rebury the skull. (There was always a shovel in the trunk of a prairie car, to use when stuck in mud or snow.)
John and I felt ashamed but didn’t really understand why an ancient grave on the prairie should not be touched. Where are the Indians now? Who visits the graves anymore?
As Dad enlarged the hole we’d dug, to bury the skull deeper, he turned up neck vertebrae, which then had to be buried deeper as well. As he dug, ribs turned up. The grave had been barely beneath the surface. By the time he finished deepening the grave, I’d counted about 180 bones; there are 206 bones in an average adult human skeleton. (A new baby has about 300.)
Before putting them in the grave, I put the lower jaw on a rock, fitted the upper part of the skull to it, put a crocus in each eye socket and my cap on the head, and took its picture with my parents’ Brownie box camera.
As I recall the event more than sixty years later—kids out of curiosity and ignorance digging up human bones in a remote place, bones of a race that had been vanquished a century earlier by members of the kids’ race—it represents a tragic part of human nature. If a physically stronger individual attacks a weaker individual, it’s considered a criminal act. If a militarily stronger nation attacks a weaker nation, it’s considered a legitimate conquest. Eleven and thirteen year olds of European heritage are still not being told what really happened to the Indians in North America during the nineteenth century. What would happen if they were?
Then came World War II, and in his spare time my father travelled the countryside selling Victory Bonds to farmers to help the war effort. I went with him. The persuasive argument was that if the Germans conquered Canada, our lives would become much worse. He knew what happened to the indigenous inhabitants the last time Europeans conquered this continent.
Some of the Saskatchewan villages we migrated to were near Indian Reserves. Indians were materially poor, but they didn’t want to live like us. During the summer they preferred to live in tents, not spending long in one place, trapping and snaring some of their food. Most village people had little respect for them. In my late teens, I became aware of the disfiguring concept of prejudice.
* * * *
In books such as this there is always discussion about what to call the people who have lived here for millennia, now that Canada contains many people from India.
Out of respect I am using the word of a prairie Indian Elder who told me, “You people came here and called us Indians, and those animals buffalo. Now you want to change the names. I don’t want to change the names.”
Sacred Rings of Stones
The grave John and I found was within one of a cluster of rings of cobblestones on the west bank of Tramping Lake. I don’t know whether all the rings were grave markers, or whether they were the remains of a village that had been abandoned after a death in one lodge. Sometimes the body was sealed in its lodge, and the rest of the village was moved away, leaving the tipi rings for a later return.
Tramping Lake is a salt lake in a long, deep, north–south trench that was gouged into the clay by glacier meltwater nine to ten thousand years ago. I know now that salt lakes (which animals frequent for the salt), the north–south axis, and the Sun rise and set directions east and west have special meaning to many Indians.
A transportable dwelling, a tipi, was made of several poles tied together at the top and spread out on the ground, making a cone. This frame was covered with sewn buffalo hides, and the bottom edge of the cover was anchored with pegs or stones. The stones were gathered locally, so when a tipi was moved the stones were left behind, more or less as the ring that had anchored the cover.
Thousands of tipi rings still exist on unplowed land. Hundreds of thousands were destroyed by agriculture during the last century, as farmers gathered the stones into piles so they wouldn’t damage machinery. A small fraction of the stone rings are much larger and more intricate than tipi rings. They probably had a ceremonial purpose. The Majorville Medicine Wheel is one such example.
Why a circular shape for a ceremonial place? A circle is easier to make than a square; one needs only an anchor stake, a rope, and a scratching peg. A circle has visual elegance that an imperfect square lacks. A circle has no beginning and no end. Circles are used in spiritual and philosophical metaphors around the world.
North American Plains Indians give philosophical meaning to the circular shapes of their lodges and drums. Circles relate to the horizon of creation, and to the annual cycle of apparent life and death, in which life anticipates death and death anticipates rebirth. Circles and cycles are associated with spirituality, with rhythm and balance within individual lives as parts of ongoing nature.
The Majorville Medicine Wheel is the most intricate stone ring that remains on the North American Plains. It is also the most ancient, estimated at 5000 years. The 2000-year-old Moose Mountains Sacred Ring in southeastern Saskatchewan is egg-shaped and different in style from the ring near Majorville. The approximately 300- year-old Big Horn Sacred Ring has stylistic similarities to both the Majorville and Moose Mountains Rings. There were probably other Sacred Rings of intermediate ages that have been destroyed, or have not yet been discovered.
More than one hundred intricate rings of stones on prairie hills have been designated “medicine wheels” for lack of a better name. I call them Sacred Rings to shift the emphasis toward Indian concepts, and “wheel” is not one of them. Several recent books state that all medicine wheels are on mountaintops, but only one is—Big Horn Sacred Ring.
* * * *
In early June 2003, I got permission from a Big Horn Forest Ranger in Lovell, Wyoming, to go to the Big Horn Ring, located on government parkland. Lovell is on the plain west of the Big Horn Range, 1800 metres below the Sacred Ring, which is 2930 metres above Mean Sea Level. Highway 14A, the Sky Highway, crosses the mountains to Sheridan and is closed by snow during most of the year, but it had opened the day before my visit. The road from the Sky Highway to a parking lot 2.5 kilometres from the Sacred Ring was still of-officially closed and potentially dangerous, but I found it passable.
The ranger had said, “Be careful walking from the parking lot to the medicine wheel, because if you slip on the snow you won’t stop until you reach Cleveland.”
The Big Horn Ring is on the crest of Medicine Mountain, which is edged by spectacular chimney-pot cliffs of anciently eroded limestone. Although the Sacred Ring is only about three centuries old, other features of the site indicate that the place might have been held sacred for many thousands of years. It is on the west edge of the mountain range, overlooking the plain far below to the west.
The seven so-called cairns that are part of the large Sacred Ring are not the usual piles of stones, but resemble vision quest seats, a ring or U of stones with space for your seat and legs. A few hundred metres from the summit and a little below it, on the broad shoulders of the mountain, there are a few tipi rings and several shelter-size holes down into the rock.
What luck to have the place to myself! In the snow on the walk up I had crossed fresh paw tracks—as big as the palm of my hand— of a lone wolf, which somehow gave me a fellow feeling. Maybe this was an ancient vision quest site; an isolated, difficult-to-access place where a Brave would go to fast and to seek spiritual guidance, usually from an animal spirit or the Thunder Spirit.
These ancient places have an aura about them. Storm clouds gathering above the peaks in the east added to the effect; lightning flashes and rolling thunder would have climaxed an already happy visit.
Nine hundred kilometres to the northeast, the Moose Mountains Sacred Ring is on the west edge of the Moose Mountains ridge of hills in Saskatchewan. (The local Nakoda insist that the s be added to the Whiteman’s word “Mountain,” and the Sacred Ring is not on the highest summit.) The location on the west edge of a highland overlooking a plain is another way in which the much younger Big Horn Sacred Ring relates to the Moose Mountains one.
My contact in the Moose Mountains was a Nakoda Elder. He told me the etiquette and showed me the way. I gave a gift of tobacco to the Nakoda Holy Man who lived at the entrance to the path to the Sacred Hilltop, and asked permission to photograph the Sacred Ring and its surroundings. The Elder took me up. At the west edge of the Ring site he presented tobacco to the Western Sky while praying, and put it on the ground, perhaps under a stone. He stayed with me for some time, no doubt to see that I was not disturbing anything, only taking compass readings along sight lines, pacing distances, and photographing from a tripod.
The egg-shaped Moose Mountains Sacred Ring has a long axis that runs northwest–southeast. The 10-metre diameter cairn in the northwest “Big-end” of the egg resembles a yolk, and the “Littleend” of the egg points southeast. An egg is an ancient symbol of fertility and rebirth, and the yolk is a symbol of the Sun; I think the Moose Mountains Sacred Ring represents a “Sun-egg,” and it points approximately toward the Winter Solstice Sun rise in the southeast. (The hill could be called Sun-egg Hill; in the Nakoda language, Wi-witga Baha.)
A line of stones runs upslope from a small cairn southwest of the egg to the large yolk cairn on the summit. John Eddy suggested the line points upslope to the Summer Solstice Sun rise in the northeast, but the yolk horizon is too near for an accurate line. The line points more convincingly in the opposite direction downslope to the Winter Solstice Sun set on the distant southwest horizon. (Alice Kehoe told me that formerly a large rock on top of the original cairn gave a more precise alignment to the Summer Solstice rise, but there is no record of Sun rise along that alignment.)
I think this was a place for ceremonies to assist regeneration of the weakened Sun; to end Winter and to bring Spring.
The Beautiful Sky Moves
The brilliant Sun does not move across the clear blue sky; the sky itself moves in a daily cycle and defines the directions east and west. During the night, the moving sky is spectacularly patterned with stars, with the mottled Moon and the planets moving very slowly among them.
The Moon’s shape changes from night to night, growing gradually from a thin crescent to a full disk, then shrinking slowly to a thin crescent and finally disappearing for a couple of nights before starting a new cycle. Each night the Moon shifts its position easterly along a path among the stars, making a complete circuit around the sky in a moonth.
(I have coined the term moonth to distinguish our calendar month from the Moon-cycle period. The Moon makes a complete circuit around the sky in a moonth, 29 or 30 days, averaging 29.53 days. The Gregorian calendar month is roughly a moonth, but its length is flexible to make twelve of them fit a solar year and a repeatable sequence of Christian festivals.)
The Sun also travels along a path among the stars, taking a year to complete a circuit around the sky. During a human lifetime, the annual path of the Sun among the stars remains constant, but it shifts slowly during a period of thousands of years. The paths of the Moon and planets through the stars are complex, each taking a different amount of time to complete a circuit.
Periodic motions of lights in the sky define amounts of time for us. Inquisitive people have probably studied the sky from the beginning of mankind. On rare occasions a new light appears in the sky, then slowly fades. What was that! We call it a supernova, an exploding old star, but it must have been even more fascinating of old.
The sky is a topless source of fascination. Skywatchers are still trying to figure out how it works. For example, it is still not known whether a spiral galaxy is condensing from less dense material, or is expanding from periodic, directional explosions in its rotating, dense core (like the jets in opposite directions observed from a super-massive Black Hole). I think the latter is a model for the future, because there is almost nothing left of the time-and-space-restrictive BigBang Theory but the name. These explosions in “active galactic nuclei” throughout the universe would generate the observed low-temperature background radiation (corresponding to -270° C, or 3 kelvins, equal to 3 Centigrade degrees above the lowest possible temperature). Light from extremely distant sources would disappear by attrition. You have to visualize the not-nothing that vacuum is, and why the speed of light is constant in it. Matter and energy would be recycled on a time scale of quadrillions of years.
Patterned groups of bright stars, called constellations (togetherstars), have been imagined to represent beings or things that exist on Earth. As in Heaven, so below. The periodic changes of constellations in the sky were in ancient times committed to memory as stories about doings of the constellation beings. Myths are stories based on real events.
Trying to figure out how the sky works, then and now, occupies a curious few. It has the same motivation as a man watching the swing of a full skirt on a walking woman, and figuring out what makes it do that. You have to consider the style and the properties of the cloth of the skirt, and the motions and structure of the body beneath it. Muscles, fat, and bones—especially the motions of the glutei maximi during the oscillating steps. Some bums even gyrate. Finding an answer doesn’t decrease the attraction, because a more detailed question always follows. Major advances in science are made this way. Later, other people do something useful with the new knowledge.
From the discovered dates of the annual arrival and departure of the changing constellations in the sky and their correlation with the weather, people ritualized the periods for hunting and gathering of particular foods, the periods for preparing shelter and clothing, and for making the tools to do these things. Other people designed skirts that swing or do not swing, to match the moods of suitably structured wearers.
Genius existed tens of thousands of years ago, as it does today. Magnificent, lifelike paintings of animals on smoothed walls deep in caves have been dated back thirty thousand years near Chauvet-Pontd’Arc, France, and back sixteen thousand years in southern France and northern Spain. How and why was this great art put in the farthest depths of the caves? There must have been a powerful motivation, which might simply have been the personal drive of exceptionally skilful individuals, guided by a belief system.
And then there are those who created the time machines that are the subject of this book. Genius on the prairies existed five thousand years ago.
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The Sun appears to us to move across the sky from east to west. Its position tells the time of day. For observers in the Northern Hemisphere where this story takes place, stars in the southern half of the sky appear to move from east to west, while those in the northern half circle the North Pole Star counterclockwise. Their positions tell the time of night.
During the last thirty years, archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have enjoyed a controversy over whether Stonehenge and certain medicine wheels contain an alignment to the Summer Solstice Sun rise. The controversy was only possible because none of the participants had ever made an exact observation of a Sun rise. An alignment of sighting gaps or stones, like back and front sights on a rifle, has to point to the Sun rise position on the horizon. The nay-sayers suggested that the rise position on the horizon is uncertain, because it might correspond to the place where the Sun’s full orb is sitting on the horizon, or perhaps to where the half orb is above the horizon, or maybe to the point of the first flash of the top edge of the Sun on the horizon. At the latitude of Stonehenge and the medicine wheel near Majorville, the horizon positions of the first flash and full orb differ by about one degree, but the full orb position is difficult to determine accurately because the amount of refraction of light decreases with increasing height above the horizon, which gives the Sun’s disc an oval shape. Some of the yay-sayers suggested that the rise position is that of half orb, which is even less certain than the full orb position.
Anyone who makes rise and set observations from the same spot over several years, as Skywatchers had to do in ancient times and still do, finds that the positions of the first and last flashes are the most reproducible, most nearly the same on the same date year after year. My main contribution to archaeoastronomy in the North Temperate Zone has been to rediscover the ancient technique of observation, which has provided the first dependable rise and set data during recent centuries along alignments marked by fixed back and front sights.
From day to day during a year, the positions of Sun rise and set move along the horizon, from north to south during summer and autumn, and south to north during winter and spring. At the northern extreme, the position of rise appears to remain the same for a few days, then reverses direction and begins to drift southward. The “Sun stands still” at that time, which is what the Anglo-Latin word “Solstice” means. (Sol means Sun.) The northern Sun-standstill is the Summer Solstice, which centres on June 21. A sufficiently accurate instrument can pick exactly June 21, when the drifting Sun rise position stops and turns around. The southern Sun-standstill is the Winter Solstice, on December 21 or 22, depending on the year within the leap year cycle. The Sun’s place on the horizon and its direction of drift tell the time of year. The positions of the constellations visible shortly after Sun set, or at any fixed time of night, also tell the time of year.
A set of lines between stones on the ground could be fixed pointers, with lights in the sky moving between them to indicate the time of day or the month of the year. A time machine. The Moon changes shape every night in a moonthly cycle, so the shape of the Moon tells the time of moonth.
We usually think of a time machine as a clock, with pointers that rotate to mark the time of day or night. On a wall of the Old Town Hall in Prague, there is a six-hundred-year-old astronomical clock that has several rotating pointers indicating the time of day or night, the time of year, and the phase of the Moon. People living in cities don’t normally see a broad expanse of sky and distant horizons; they are intrigued by a mechanical device that simulates sky events. Country folk are intrigued by the fact that someone could make a machine like that that works.
On the ancient North American Plains, there were no cities. Changes in the dramatic sky were observable by everyone.
The Summer Solstice Sun rise and set positions occur on the longest day of the year. The Sun’s altitude at noon is the highest that it attains above the horizon during the year. The hottest period of the year follows the Summer Solstice.
The Winter Solstice Sun rise and set positions occur on the shortest day of the year, and the Sun’s noon altitude is the lowest during the year. The coldest period of the year follows the Winter Solstice.
North, south, east, and west are called the “cardinal directions.” How were they picked, and why are they called “cardinal”?
First, the term itself comes from the Latin cardo, meaning hinge or pivot. The stars rotate each night about a north–south pivot with the Pole Star at the north end and the south end not visible from the Northern Hemisphere. North is simply the direction along the Earth’s surface to the horizon point perpendicularly below the centre of rotation, the Pole Star. South is the direction exactly opposite to north. The directions of Sun rise during each year swing from northeast to southeast and back again, as if swinging about a hinge due east. The Sun set positions during each year swing from northwest to southwest and back, about a hinge due west. North and south are the directions toward the horizon points directly below the sky pivot-ends, east and west are the hinge-points of the Sun rise and set directions.
The names of the cardinal directions refer to positions of the Sun. “East,” from the Greek ???, or eos, means “red sky in the morning,” dawn, and is the direction where the Sun rises. “West,” from the Greek ???????, or hesperos, and the Latin vesper, means “evening,” and is the direction where the Sun sets. “North,” from the Umbrian nertu, means “on the left,” which is the location of this direction when one faces the direction of dawn to pray. North is where the Sun never arrives, and implies darkness and cold. Finally, “south,” from the Goth sunno, means “sun,” and is the direction where the Sun is highest in the sky, and the word implies light and warmth.
Obstructive Bias of “Western, Eastern” and “Old World, New World” Classifications
People of European background commonly classify different cultures, modes of thought, science, and religion as “Western” or “Eastern” and “Old World” or “New World.” These classifications are so heavily charged with European bias that they emit sparks in non-European contexts. They form an extreme barrier to understanding the diverse cultures in the world.
The philosophy of the people in North America was evidently very different from that in Europe. For Europeans, “Eastern” meant Eastern Asia (the “Far East”) and “Western” included Europe and Asia Minor (the “Middle East,” the cradle of “Western” culture). It would be more insightful to use an initial, broad classification according to continent: African, North American, South American, Asian, Australian, and European. American cultures then refer to those that existed before the invasion by Europeans. Five centuries of concerted attempts to destroy American cultures have so far fallen short of the mark, and the cultures are resurging in modified forms.
Percy Bullchild, a Blackfeet Indian, in his book The Sun Came Down, wrote, “The truest name of our Creator of all life on Mother Earth is Holy One, or Sun. God was invented by Europeans and brought into this world to make their misdoings good.” The Sun is considered to be the personification of the most immense power in creation because it governs all life on Earth. The focus is different from that of larger cosmologies.
All continents long predate human occupation, so are effectively of the same age in this context. The terms “Old” and “New” Worlds stem from a European pecking order that is no longer useful. American civilizations evolved long before the European term “Old World” came into use.
The recent classifications “pre-scientific,” “scientific,” and “truescientific” do not increase our understanding. The root of the word “science,” after all, is the Latin sciens, which means knowing, understanding. There is more than one way of knowing, and understanding is a more basic thing.
(Chapter 2, Canada’ Stonehenge)