BIGHORN MOUNTAINS, Wyo. -- A frozen wind blew high atop the Bighorn Mountains. Along a chain-link fence caked with snow and ice even in June, leather pouches and colorful cloth bundles twisted in the breeze, their red and yellow hues like bursts of sunlight.
Inside the fence lay a collection of limestone rocks: a giant center cairn and hundreds of smaller stones stretching into 28 spokes. Outside lay a sign containing the words of an Arikara Indian: ''Eventually one gets to the Medicine Wheel to fulfill one's life.''
On this mountain range rising 10,000 feet above the sea, the Medicine Wheel stands as a testament to what American Indians hold sacred. It is where Earth meets sky, where the secular and the ethereal converge. According to legend, Nez Perce Chief Joseph fasted at the Wheel after his people fled the U.S. Army. Crow Chief Red Plume received medicine and feathers here to protect his people from harm.
Today, more than 80 tribes make the 1 1/4-mile trek to the Wheel to lace their colorful bundles around the fence and pray for loved ones, for wisdom, for strength.
''The Medicine Wheel,'' explains Crow elder John Hill, ''is a chapel in the wilderness.''
The chapel was deserted on a recent cold afternoon -- silent, but for the wind and an occasional bird. Through the clouds, the view stretched for miles across snowcapped pines and valleys of wildflowers.
There was no sign of the struggle over this and dozens of other Indian religious sites across the country. There was only serenity.
Once hailed as a model for how federal land managers and Indians can work together to protect sacred Indian sites, the Medicine Wheel has become a battleground in a fight over how to balance traditional Indian religion with modern interests such as logging, mining and tourism. It is a fight, Indians believe, fueled by the ignorance of a society that places the almighty dollar above the Almighty.
Keith Harding frowns as he maneuvers his pickup across the Bighorn National Forest in northern Wyoming. Where others see beauty, Harding finds blemishes: lodgepole pines infested with disease, dead and splintered Douglas firs, overgrown patches of spruce that are a fire hazard.
''If you don't have the tools to manage for that,'' he grumbles, ''these trees are all going to die.''
Harding sees a forest in decay -- and millions of dollars down the drain.
Harding is chief forester for Wyoming Sawmills Inc., based on the eastern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. The sawmill, employing 100 people, was founded in 1964 after the U.S. Forest Service solicited companies to help manage timber in the forest.
''The Bighorn has always been our base,'' says mill President Ernie Schmidt. ''That's why we're here.''
And that's why Schmidt and Harding are worried.
In 1985, the Forest Service approved a management plan that set aside 264,000 acres of land in the Bighorn for logging. Four years ago, the agency amended the plan to create an 18,000-acre ''area of consultation'' around the Medicine Wheel. The policy requires the Forest Service to consult with Indians about any activity within the zone that might harm the spiritual value of the wheel, including logging.
As Schmidt sees it, the Indians ''would have veto power over anything that happens in this area.''
The sawmill has sued the Forest Service to do away with the area of consultation, arguing the idea violates the constitutional separation between church and state and has cost them millions of dollars in potential business. A federal court ruling is pending.
The battle over sacred sites dates back more than a century, when the government forced Indians onto reservations and ordered them to abandon their religion for Christianity. After Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, Indians returned to their religious sites -- many on government-owned lands -- to find some damaged by commercialism.
''The federal land managers were destroying these sites quite frequently,'' says Jerry Flute, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs.
The tribes fought back, filing lawsuits when the government wanted to construct a logging road through a sacred area or allow a ski resort to be built on a sacred mountain. Yet time and again, courts ruled the religious freedom act did not prevent the government from doing as it pleased on its lands.
The tide has begun to turn in recent years, due primarily to a 1996 executive order requiring land managers to consult with tribes about activities that could damage sacred sites.
Lawsuits persist today, although plaintiffs now include businesses such as Wyoming Sawmills, tourists -- even rock climbers who accuse land managers of unlawfully restricting access to public places by implementing policies that sacrifice individual rights in the name of religion.
''What we have to do is balance it,'' says Kolleen Bean, a Forest Service heritage resource specialist who works at the Medicine Wheel. ''We are directed to allow timber sales, mining, grazing, and we're also directed to allow certain areas to be set aside for traditional use. If both sides are mad at us, we're probably doing the right thing.''
The battles are particularly intense in the West. In Utah, a group of bridge enthusiasts sued the National Park Service over a policy that asks visitors to refrain from walking under Rainbow Bridge National Monument because of its religious significance. In Arizona, members of the San Carlos Apache are fighting construction of a power line to an observatory built on Mount Graham, a sacred peak.
And just a few hundred miles east of the Medicine Wheel, near the South Dakota border, they're fighting over what to call -- and whether to climb -- a hulking butte known to visitors as Devils Tower. To American Indians, it is Bear Lodge.
They had pretended to be tourists, only they held religious offerings instead of cameras and came to worship rather than gawk. When they were ready to leave, they dug up a cottonwood to take back and plant on the reservation. The tree, it was said, could protect one from evil.
Charlotte Black Elk was just 7 years old when her parents brought her to Devils Tower to pray. She had been to the butte before, but this journey was different.
''I knew that I would have to remember everything to pass it on,'' says Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota. ''It was a place that had to be honored and respected.''
It was 1952 and the tower, the country's first national monument, was a popular tourist stop on the Mount Rushmore-to-Yellowstone route. Climbers also flocked to scale the 867-foot rock column.
But long before the tourists and climbers arrived, Northern Plains Indians lived and worshiped at Bear Lodge, named after an Indian legend that says the tower was formed when seven girls jumped on a rock to escape a bear. The rock shot upward as the bear clawed its side, thus creating the deep crags that line the butte.
When white settlers arrived, the Plains tribes were relocated to reservations far from Bear Lodge and ordered to abandon their religion. Those who wanted to keep their sacred practices alive did so in secret.
Even into the 1950s, when the Black Elks made the 190-mile trek from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to Bear Lodge, they did so as tourists -- not Oglala Lakotas coming to pray.
Black Elk returned every year, but it wasn't until after the Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed that she stopped pretending. She and other Indians went to the National Park Service and, in 1985, began holding an annual sundance at Bear Lodge.
By then, visitation had risen after the tower was featured in the film ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'' When Indians held ceremonies, says Black Elk, visitors stared as though they were a stop on a tour.
''They stand at the edge of the tower and will look. We've had some clownishly dancing,'' she says.
Signs were erected asking tourists to respect the religious nature of the tower and in 1995, following more consultation with the tribes, the Park Service began asking climbers to refrain from scaling the tower in June, when the sundance is held.
The number of June climbers has dipped an average of 85 percent. However, several climbers sued the Park Service arguing the policy violated the separation between church and state. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court let the closure stand.
Black Elk, now 48, calls the policy a triumph in the fight to protect sacred sites, although tribes are still working to formally change the name of the butte to Bear Lodge. These days, her children help organize the sundance and practice Lakota religion without fear of retribution.
''Their attitude is very different from my father's generation,'' she says. ''He was quietly Indian. My children are openly Indian.''
Still, Black Elk worries that sacred sites will remain threatened until the public understands that Indian religion and the land are inextricably linked.
''The American attitude is that everybody has a God-given right to be entertained and to get wealthy while they're being entertained,'' she says. ''The attitude with natural resources is not that they need to be respected, but rather how they can be protected for the benefit of humans.''
From mountains to medicine wheels, bridges to waterfalls, sacred sites all across the country are entangled in similar disputes. There have been winners and losers on both sides, but the only point all seem to agree on is that Congress or the courts will have to determine future management of these sites.
''We need a simple law to protect American Indian cultural properties, particularly where they are known sacred sites that have been used by tribes for millennia,'' says Indian activist Flute.
Until then, the fight will be fought case by case -- as it was at Devils Tower, as it is at the Medicine Wheel. Until then, concludes Flute: ''This contention will continue.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.