By: Kelly J. Beaulieu, B.A., BSc Ag
The Science of the Medicine Wheel
Many cultures have attempted to track the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars and have used these celestial bodies to measure time, to follow specific geographic routes using cardinal directions and to relate to the physical and spiritual world they live in. There are numerous examples of ancient sites around the world where ancient cultures and ancestors laid out stones in patterns that relate very closely to the movements of the sun and can be used as calendars showing accurate sunrises and sunsets on the solstices and observed equinoxes.
The Medicine Wheel, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop or Sacred Circle, has been used by generations of various Native American tribes and First Nations in Canada for health and healing and as a tool for learning and teaching. There are many interpretations of the Medicine Wheel by many people and cultures, and no one is wrong. Depending on the teachings they received, many Elders, including SAY Magazine’s consulting Elder Norman “Redsky” Monkman, refer to the Medicine Wheel as the Medicine Circle. In fact, “Medicine Wheel” is not an Indigenous term – this term was given to the structures by the first Europeans and is not the way the first peoples referred to their rock structures. In fact, a wheel was a foreign concept to the ancient first peoples, but this is how they are commonly referred to in present time.
For the purpose of this article we will use the more widely recognized term Medicine Wheel.
There are seven common teachings associated with the medicine wheel in many First Nations’ cultures. These teachings vary by tribal custom and by the elders relating their own heritage and stories. However, there are a lot of common themes that can be taught and discussed that are very relevant to modern life and can be proudly taught as evidence of the high level of knowledge in cosmic things, in the changing of seasons, in timekeeping, in the use and respect for animals, in plants and in the elements.
There is no right or wrong way to use the medicine wheel as a teaching tool. It is both a universal symbol and a personal mnemonic tool for various cultures. Inviting elders to relate their associated learnings about the medicine wheel is an important way of preserving and passing on culturally important knowledge. The knowledge vested in elders should be honoured and respected.
Using the Medicine Wheel in Teachings
The circle, or wheel, is a common symbol in many cultures and represents several elements to the First Nations. The circle acknowledges the connectedness of everything in life, such as the four seasons, the four stages of life and the four winds, and it represents the continuous cycle and relationship of the seen and unseen, the physical and spiritual, birth and death, and the daily sunrise and sunset.
The circle is divided into four coloured quadrants. The colours can vary, but the symbolism remains similar amongst the first peoples. The wheel moves in a clockwise direction, with the teachings always beginning at the yellow, or eastern, quadrant. These colours relate to teachings of the directions, seasons, elements, animals, plants, heavenly bodies and the stages of life.
Question you can pose to students: Many things in the world are round. Can you name some?
Possible answers: The moon, the sun, the sacred hoop, the connections of all things, etc.
Lesson #1: The Four Directions
The four colour quadrants on the medicine wheel can represent the four directions: north, south, east and west. The teachings of the four directions start with the east, or yellow, quadrant and run clockwise around the circle. Red symbolizes the south, black the west and white the north.
How to teach the four directions:
Here is a game you can play to help your students remember the directions. The teacher stands facing due north and holds out her arms. Pointing first with her right arm, she tells the students that this is east. The teacher then lowers her right arm and points with her left, showing where due west is when facing north. Then, the teacher can indicate that south is behind her, directly opposite of north. Practice with your students: Have someone call out directions at random, and everyone must move or point in that direction as quickly as possible.
Lesson #2: The Four Seasons
The four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter) are also represented in the medicine wheel’s colours. Yellow symbolizes spring. We start the wheel with yellow the same way we start the seasons with spring when life is renewed; it is a time of planting and birth. Red represents summer and is a time of abundance when ripe red berries are picked and fresh food is preserved. Black represents fall; this is when plants mature and harvests take place. White symbolizes the winter season when there is death and completion of the life cycle.
How to teach the four seasons:
Students can name the seasons and talk about why each colour represents that specific season. Start with yellow and spring. Can they name some of the first yellow flowers that appear in early spring? What colour are most of the berries when ripened? Why would the colour white represent winter, and so on.
Lesson #3: The Four Elements
The four elements, fire, earth, water and wind, can be taught through the medicine wheel. In the teaching of the elements, the yellow quadrant represents fire, since from fire we receive warmth and light. Red represents earth, as it is from the earth we receive the food we eat and the medicine we need to live; it is our life blood. Black symbolizes water. It is essential to our bodies, flowing to all the plants and animals on the earth. Wind is represented by the white quadrant. It is the air we need to breathe; it is the life-giving force we cannot see.
How to teach the four elements:
An elder or teacher can discuss how the four elements are necessary to our existence and to the role we play in the world.
It is important to note the following teachings in lessons 4 through 7 require an elder with special knowledge of the customs of the nation to discuss and teach to the youth of their community and heritage.
Lesson #4: Animals
There are no firm rules about what animals are associated with the medicine wheel or in which quadrant they must be shown. This is a matter of choice and tradition. However, there are some common spirit animals that are associated with the wheel: the eagle, the buffalo, the wolf or coyote and the bear.
The eagle is most often shown in the yellow section and represents the eagle’s vision, power and ability to see the bigger picture of the world from above. The eagle is the bird that flies closest to the creator and is the messenger between people and the creator.
The buffalo is frequently represented in the red quadrant. The buffalo is a provider, a strong spirit with great endurance and emotional courage. In some cases, red also symbolizes the mouse or rabbit, spirit animals that are associated with abundance and busy working.
The wolf or coyote is normally shown in the black quadrant. The coyote is a spirit animal that is playful, adaptable and is often characterized as a “jokester”. The wolf spirit animal is intelligent, has strong instincts and demonstrates freedom as an essential way of life. The wolf at times can also represent distrust and fear of being threatened.
The white, or northern, quadrant is frequently associated with the bear, a brother to people. The bear is strong, confident and is a powerful image of healing for both the physical and emotional. The white section is also often associated with the white buffalo calf, which is a sacred animal to the first nations.
Lesson #5: Plants
The medicinal plants associated with the medicine wheel are all plants that can be used to smudge. The plant associated with the yellow/eastern section of the medicine wheel is tobacco. Tobacco is a scared plant used to honour the creator. It was the first medicinal plant given to the people, and it is often offered as a gift to other medicinal plants, to honour the spirits or to begin a personal conversation with the creator
The plant associated with the southern section is sage. Sage is often used in ceremonies as a smudge to remove negative energies, to cleanse the mind, and to ready for the ceremonies and teachings.
Sweetgrass is associated with the black/western quadrant. It is a calming smudge and is used for purification prior to important ceremonies.
Cedar is represented by the white/northern part of the medicine wheel, and it is a plant that can be used to purify an area such as a home or sweat lodge. It is often considered a guardian to keep away evil.
Lesson #6: Heavenly Bodies
The alignment of the medicine wheel on the ground is placed in relation to the heavenly bodies and how they move through our lives. The sun rises in the east, and so it is represented in the yellow section, the beginning of the medicine wheel. The rising sun signals a new day, and this section is also seen as morning in some teachings. The sun represents new beginnings and a renewal of the rhythms of life.
The earth is represented in the south, which is directly below the stars, or heavens. The earth is the sacred home of the people and is the giver of the essentials of life. It is a living system in which people are integrally bound from birth until death.
The moon is represented by the west or the blackness of night. The moon helps to guide times of planting and is a way to record time and events.
The stars are represented in the northern section. They mirror what is below and represent those that have gone before. They also represent ways of understanding and of navigating at night using constellations.
Lesson #7: Stages of Life
The four sections of the medicine wheel also symbolize the four stages of human life.
The eastern section represents the beginning of life, birth and early childhood. It is a time of innocence and purity. The east is where people come from. The east represents new life being brought into the world.
The southern section represents youth and adolescence, a time of growth and the beginning of knowledge. It is a time of learning and represents the mental development of self.
The west is the time of adulthood and parenthood, when responsibilities and nurturing are one’s main occupations. The west represents the emotional self and meeting the fulfillment of life as we find our meaning and place.
Finally, the northern section of the wheel represents elders, grandparents and death. The white symbolizes the hair of the elders and their years of learning. This is the place of wisdom and of imparting the knowledge gained from a lifetime of living in the physical world to the younger generations. It is a time of reflection, rest and increased understanding of the aspects of the spiritual world.