The Medicine Wheel

Treaty 2 Territory- There are many versions of medicine wheel teachings. These teachings vary from one community to another but there are some basic concepts that are similar between the various medicine wheel teachings. For example, Medicine Wheels are usually depicted through four directions but also include the sky, the earth and the centre (7 directions). For Anishinaabe people, the colours are yellow (east), red (south), black or dark blue (west), white (north), Father Sky (blue), Mother Earth (green) and the self (Centre, purple). The medicine wheel reminds us that everything comes in fours – the four seasons, the four stages of life, the four races of humanity, four cardinal directions, etc. The seven stages of life and the seven living teachings (Benton-Banai, 2010) are also represented by the seven directions. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the use of colours (red, yellow, black, white, blue, green) appeared in contemporary medicine wheels.  The Earth Lodge has used the Medicine Wheel to depict our four pillars (Culture, Wellness, Lifelong Learning and Nation Building) that help guide us with the work that we do with FNT2T and the seven circles of our governance.

Traditional medicine wheels (also known as sacred circles) were often illustrated using stones set out in the form of a wheel and included at least two of the following three traits: (1) a central stone cairn, (2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or (3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018). Indigenous people used medicine wheels to mark significant locations such as places of energy, spiritual and ceremonial grounds, as well as meeting locations, places of meditation, teaching and celebration.

According to Elder Lillian Pitawanakwat, “All parts of the wheel are important and depend on each other in the cycle of life; what affects one affects all, and the world cannot continue with missing parts. For this reason, the Medicine Wheel teaches that harmony, balance and respect for all parts are needed to sustain life.”

The circle describes various aspects of life, both seen and unseen. It provides us teachings about how to live life in a good way. We as Indigenous people understand our connection to creation and all living things. The four directions remind us of the need for balance in our lives and that we must work on a daily basis to strive for that balance; balancing of the spirit, heart, body and mind.

Stone formation of a traditional Medicine Wheel

The Center

According to Pitawanakwat, the center represents the fire within and our responsibility for maintaining that fire. Pitawanakwat recalls that as a child, her father would ask at the end of the day, “My daughter, how is your fire burning?” In recalling the events of the day, she would reflect on whether she had been offensive to anyone, or whether she had been offended. This was an important part of nurturing the fire within as children were taught to let go of any distractions of the day and make peace within ourselves in order to nurture and maintain that inner fire.

The story of the Rose, as told by Pitawanakwat, serves as a reminder of the value of nurturance and the essence of life. According to this story, the Creator asked the flower people, “Who among you will bring a reminder to the two-legged about the essence of life?” The buttercup offered but the Creator refused on the basis that the buttercup was ‘too bright.’ All of the flowers offered their help but were refused. The rose finally offered, stating “Let me remind them with my essence, so that in times of sadness, and in times of joy, they will remember how to be kind to themselves.” So, the Creator, planted the seed of the rose and as it grew a little, it sprouted very, very sharp little thorns and eventually it bloomed into a full rose. This teaching reminds us that life is like a rose with the thorns representing life’s journey; the experiences that make us who we are and the rose representing the many times in life when we decay and die only to bounce back again through reflection, meditation, awareness, acceptance, and surrender.

The Gifts of the East

The East is the direction from which the new day comes to the world.  It is the direction of renewal.  When we travel to the East, we are tested with lessons that will teach us many things.  It is there that we learn to love as a child loves; a love that does not question others and does not know itself.  Here is where courage is born and truthfulness begins.  The East is the place of all beginnings.  Each time one returns to the East there will be new things to learn on a new level of understanding.  Not only is the East the direction of birth and rebirth, it is also the direction from which light comes into the world.  Therefore, it is the direction of guidance and leadership.  Here the gifts of beautiful and clear speech that help others understand is learned.  It is also where you learn to see clearly through difficult situations, much like the path of the eagle, which flies high above the world.  It watches the movements of all creatures and knows the hiding place of even the smallest one. 

The Gifts of the South

The South is the direction of the sun at its highest point.  It is the place of summer, of youth and of physical strength.  Since it is a time when people prepare for the fall and winter months, it symbolizes a time to prepare for the future.  The South is also the place of the heart, of generosity, of sensitivity to the feelings of others, of loyalty, of noble passions and of love.  The love learned here is the love of one person to another.  The most difficult and valuable gift to be sought in the South of the medicine wheel is the capacity to express feelings openly and freely in ways that do not hurt other beings.  It is here that we are able to put aside our negative feelings in order to help others.  We will also be able to release our own feelings of hurt that may stop us from being well-balanced and happy people.

The Gifts of the West

The West is the direction from which night and darkness comes.  It is the direction of the unknown, of dreams, of prayer and of meditation.  It is here that we test our will to its limits so that we may learn the gift of perseverance.  As one gets closer to a goal, the more difficult the journey becomes.  It is important to stick to a challenge no matter how hard and painful it may be.  Because thunder and lightning often come from the West, it symbolizes power and strength.  Two teachers of the West are the black bear and the turtle.  A person who has received the gifts of the West, like the black bear, possesses great strengths.  The source of that strength will come from deep inside that person.  Like the black bear who retires to a dark, private place in winter, a person who has learned the lessons of the West is able to shut out the world to pray and be tested.  It is very important to practice this gift of prayer as it promises to take us on a journey to the center of our own being.  To enter this place of learning requires daily prayer.  Each morning, upon rising, and each night before sleeping, the elders have taught us that we must meet our Creator alone.  One must set aside a special place for daily prayer, meditation, and deep personal reflection.  This is where we will realize and understand the connection between the human spirit and the Creator.  The greatest lesson to be learned from the teachers of the West is to accept ourselves as we really are; both spiritual and physical beings, and to never cut ourselves off from our spiritual selves.

The Gifts of the North

The North is the place of winter, of white snows that remind us of the white hair of our Elders.  It is the dawning place of true wisdom.  Some of the special gifts that await the travelers in the North of the medicine wheel are the ability to think, to solve problems, to understand and to interrupt hidden meanings.  The North can also be seen as the direction of completion and fulfillment.  Here the traveler learns the lessons of all things that end, and with it, the powers of completion of a goal, the more difficult the journey becomes.  To help us with our life’s struggles to complete this journey, the Creator has given the gift of perseverance.  But even with perseverance, one is never sure that the goal is near and can indeed be completed.  The final lesson of the North is the lesson of balance, for wisdom teaches us how all things fit together.  And when balance is applied, it becomes justice.  Justice is the greatest gift of the North.  With the help of justice, the traveler can see all things as they really are.  Without justice, there can be no peace in the world.  When we stand in the North, we can look over to the South and see ourselves singing the tender songs of love, and we realize that to know and understand is not only a thing of the head, but also of the heart.  We realize, as we look in the four directions that there is much more to be known than all the knowledge that all the wisest Elders have ever known, and we are humbled.  

The mystery of all endings is found in the birth of new beginnings. There is no ending to the journey of the four directions.  The human capacity to grow and learn is endless.  The medicine wheel turns forever.

Submitted by Renée McGurry, Earth Lodge Development Helper

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