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Teaching Native American History from a Native Viewpoint: Interpretive Position Provides Opportunity for Student to Share Her Perspective with Others


September 13, 2011 -- by Amy Stix
 
 
Francine Spang-Willis. Photo by Parker Hilton
   
 
 
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel.
Photo courtesy of Ross Walker
   
 
 
Offerings left at the Bighorn Medicine Wheel.
Photo courtesy of Ross Walker
   
 
 
The 1.5 mile walk to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. Photo courtesy of Ross Walker

Before last summer, Francine Spang-Willis had never considered working on a remote national forest as an interpretive ranger. But when Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest contacted MSU’s Native American Studies Department regarding an opportunity to educate the public about the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Willis jumped at the chance.

The former director of the American Indian Tribal Histories project at the Western Heritage Center in Billings and a current NAS Master of Arts candidate, Spang-Willis says her professional goal “is to be able to educate others about Native American history and culture from a Native American perspective.”

For Spang-Willis, the interpretive ranger position was a great fit. A descendant of Northern Cheyenne, Pawnee and German ancestors who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Spang-Willis said, “I applied and took the position because it fit with my goal to help educate others about the Medicine Wheel from a Native American perspective.”

According to archeological evidence, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel was constructed in two phases from 1,200 to 1,700 AD. The structure measures nearly 80 feet in diameter and consists of 28 alignments of limestone boulders radiating from a central cairn. Designated a historical landmark in 1970, the wheel was used by prehistoric Native Americans as an astrological calendar and for ceremonial, healing and teaching purposes. For more than 7,000 years, prehistoric people also used the land surrounding the wheel; just this year, the historic landmark expanded its boundaries to protect 4,000 acres of important archeological sites. Today, twelve thousand visitors from across the U.S., Europe and other countries make the mile and a half walk each summer to experience and learn about the Bighorn Medicine Wheel.

Members of different Native American tribes also regularly visit the site, sharing it with each other, as well as other visitors.

“No one particular tribe claims the wheel, but different tribes use it for spiritual and ceremonial practice,” said Spang-Willis, adding that medicine wheels can be found throughout the western U.S. and in Canada.

For Spang-Willis, whose work included interpreting the Bighorn Medicine Wheel for non-natives as well as assisting tribal members with some ceremonies conducted at the site, her summer job was a unique opportunity to connect with people from around the world and share her perspectives about the wheel as a Native American.

“The more perspectives you know about, the better your understanding is going to be. We as educators have that responsibility to value that Native American knowledge,” said Spang-Willis. Towards that goal, she now plans to help the U.S. Forest Service produce a DVD about the significance of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and “hopes tribes will add their voice to the wheel.”