The Medicine Wheel
(by Shelby Liggett)
The medicine wheel has been used by many cultures throughout history as a symbolic representation of the “circle of life” and as a tool to bring understanding, balance, peace, and healing. Consequently, the term “medicine” does not refer to a physical substance taken for an illness, but to the ability to heal and walk in balance through an understanding of the relationship of all entities of one’s life. This past spring, I had the honor of presenting the teachings of the medicine wheel in a Peace Studies class at Avila University and with my family at the “Sharing of Native American Ways Seminar” (SNAWS), sponsored by the Indian Council of Many Nations of Kansas City, MO (March 19, 2016 at St. Pius X High School). The information presented in this article on the medicine wheel is from both documented research by others from information that I was given orally in the Native traditional way.
The term “medicine wheel” is not an original indigenous term, but was first coined in the late 1800s by European Americans with the discovery of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Sheridan, Wyoming (Laframboise). This medicine wheel (and over 70 others that were found in the northern part of the U.S. and in Southern Alberta and British Columbia) was composed of rocks laid on the ground in a circular pattern, with spokes/rays of rocks radiating from a central pile of rocks (similar to that of a bicycle wheel). The Bighorn Medicine wheel was one of the largest found among the many stone formations and is 70 feet in diameter with 28 spokes and is part of an ancient Native historical site, thousands of years old. There is no written description of these early medicine wheels, but it is speculated that they were used for ceremonies/events and/or possible astronomical and calendar studies among the Plains Native Americans (“Medicine Wheel”). The medicine wheel has evolved over time, among the many indigenous people and Native American tribes. It is depicted as a circle with a cross inside the circle. The cross has one vertical line (from north to south) and one horizontal line (from west to east). These two lines of the cross, intersect in the center of the circle, forming four equal quadrants within the circle. This configuration is similar to a compass. Each of the end points of the two lines points to one of the four cardinal directions. The meanings and representations of the medicine wheel vary among the many tribes and also on an individual basis. However, the universal purpose of the medicine wheel is that of finding peace, harmony, and balance within yourself, as well as respect and gratitude for all of creation (other races, animals, plants, etc.). The term “medicine” does not refer only a simple healing herb for a physical ailment. It refers to healing, maintaining a healthy emotional state (love, respect, and gratitude), a strong spiritual connection with your Creator, and a positive/respectful connection with all of creation. This allows one to walk in balance. The circle itself is referred to as the sacred hoop by many indigenous people due to its representation of the “circle of life” (birth, youth, adult, death) and the interconnections between all of creation. It also represents the circular events of nature such as the rising/setting of the sun and the four seasons. The four quadrants are usually of four different colors. The Lakota wheel (one of the more common medicine wheels portrayed) is of red, black, yellow, and white (generally thought to represent the four races of mankind). Other color combinations are seen among some tribes. Some use blue (used by Cherokee instead of yellow), brown or green. Also, if thinking of a three dimensional circle, a color may be designated to the heavens above and to the earth below, in addition to the four colors of the four quadrants of the circle. The following is a list on the more common representations within the four quadrants (many others are possible in addition to the ones listed):
*Four Cardinal Directions: East, West, North, South
*Four Races of Mankind: Red, White, Black, Yellow
*Four Aspects of Life: Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual
*Four Ceremonial Plants: Sage (clearing), Cedar (protecting), Tobacco (thanks), Sweet Grass (blessing)
*Four Animal Associations: Bear, Eagle, Wolf, Buffalo (many others, depending on geographical area)
*Four Seasons: Spring (new birth), Summer (growing), Fall (harvest), Winter (rest)
*Four Times of Day: Sunrise, Noon, Sunset, Midnight
*Four Stages of Life: Birth (new life), Youth (learning), Adult/Elder (wisdom), Death (higher path)
*Four Basic Elements of Nature: Fire, Water, Earth, Air (wind)
*Four Heavenly Beings: Sun, Moon, Stars, Earth
*Four Paths of Life: Wisdom, Introspection, Spirit, Enlightenment
*Four Paths to Peace: Truth (honesty), Forgiveness (reconciliation), Healing, Peace (harmony)
There are many detailed explanations of each of the above possibilities within the quadrants of the medicine wheel as well. Making your own personal medicine wheel involves placing within each quadrant, the things or concepts that mean something to you in assisting/directing your personal walk in a harmonious balanced way. In this way, the medicine wheel creates a special place/tool for meditation, healing, growth, and reconnecting with the natural cycle of nature. Medicine wheels can be drawn on paper, embroidered, built with grapevines/metal rings, rocks placed in a circle, as a garden (providing a place to sit in the middle), and many other ways. You will sometimes see the horizontal line of the cross painted red (indicating the red path/good path to walk). The center of the circle may be representative of your balanced self or it may also be representative of the Creator of all things.
The teachings of the medicine wheel are important and relevant for both Natives and non-Natives, especially in our current society. Our lives and minds are filled with materialism and violence from mass media. Wars, civil unrest, drug abuse, crimes, homicides, suicides, poverty, and destruction of our environment are escalating worldwide. Respect, gratitude, forgiveness, and ways of dealing with the current chaos must begin on an individual and family level. We must learn to respect each other and come to the realization that we are all created as equals by the same Creator. This respect must include all of creation (our plants, animals, air, and earth) for our future survival. As frequently said by the Lakota, “Mitakuye Oyasin” or “we are all related.” Jesus Christ taught us the importance of gender and racial equality, the principles of loving your neighbor and enemy, and the importance of your spiritual life. The medicine wheel is currently being used in various schools in Canada with much success in building the needed self-esteem of their students (“Teaching the Medicine Wheel”). It is also being used by various organizations in the United States to successfully treat those in emotional and additive recovery (“Medicine Wheel” Recovery Ranch). The medicine wheel can ultimately be perceived as a tangible self-help tool for obtaining balance, harmony, and a spiritual understanding of our individual walks of life.
Drudgeon, Roy. “The Meaning and Use of the Medicine Wheel.” Six Crows.org. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Laframboise, Sandra and Karen Sherbina. “The Medicine Wheel.” Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society.org.
Web. 10 March 2016.
“Medicine Wheel.” Recovery Ranch.com Web. 10 March 2016.
“Medicine Wheel.” Discover Native American Spirituality, Healing. Web. 15 March 2016. Oxandine, Jamie.
“Native American Medicine Wheel: Comparison in Life.” Powwows.com. 8 April 2014. Web. 18 March 2016.
“Teaching by the Medicine Wheel.” Education Canada. June 2014. Web. 18 March 2016.
“The Meaning of the Medicine Wheel in Native Culture.” VisitCherokeeNC.com. Web. 17 March 2016.