Circles of bison skulls were important in Plains worship and used by the Hidatsa, Sioux, and Crow among others. Catlin visited a burial ground containing circles of bison and human skulls and recorded it in Butte de Mort, Sioux Burial Ground, Upper Missouri, 1834 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1985.66.475). Other written accounts describe the circles as places of meditation and consultation, as well as ceremony.
The title of the image, however, refers to more elaborate circles, usually made of stone, with a central cairn and radiating spokes that were used for astronomical readings or more general ceremonial purposes. Such circles were not used for healing (or medicine in the western sense), but were sources of power for those who made or used them.
Miller seldom treats Native American ceremonial practices; this is the only such subject among the paintings completed for Sir William Drummond Stewart. Miller gives the image an ethnographic flavor by carefully articulating the skulls facing nose inward (as in Catlin’s depiction) and by providing an Indian companion who points toward the circle, as if explaining its meaning or history to Stewart. At the same time, Miller sensationalizes the image by portraying the circles at night, glowing in the light of the moon which peeks between the clouds. Shrouded in darkness, the skulls take on an eerie and mysterious quality which surely embodied western fears about Indian religious practices.
The artist; Sir William Drummond Stewart, 1839; Frank Nichols Stewart, 1871; [Chapman’s, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1871]; Bonamy Mansell Power; willed to Edward Power, 1900; by descent to Major G.H. Power, Great Yarmouth, England; [Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, NY, 1966]; [?]; [Rosenstock Arts, Denver, CO, 1990]; present owner