The Medicine Wheel
By Francis Whiskeyjack
Windspeaker.com Buffalo Spirit Archives
For centuries Aboriginal people have used the four directions of the medicine wheel as a tool for learning and teaching. For the past 12 years, Elder and spiritual advisor, Francis Whiskeyjack, has used the medicine wheel as a guide and as a tool to help others.
Whiskeyjack, who was born and raised in Saddle Lake, Alta., credits the medicine wheel as being one of the positive forces in his life. In his own words, this is his interpretation:
I'm not saying that this is the only way to do the medicine wheel, but this is the way I do mine. These teachings are based on the teachings I received from people in the area that I come from. Many people have different interpretations in their medicine wheel and they are all right. No one is wrong.
In the centre of the circle I like to the put the Creator's name, because without the Creator nothing would exist. The wheel has always been in direct relationship with the Creator. Right under the Creator I put me, because I need to do things for myself in order to make this wheel work.
Within the circle is the four quadrants or areas. A lot of people know them as the four directions. The number four has many significant meanings for the Aboriginal people. Within the four directions there are all the sacred teachings of four.
In the universe there are four directions--East, South, West and North. There are four winds; four seasons—Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter; four races of people—the oriental, the red man, the black people, and the white people; four types of creatures that breathe—Those that fly, birds, those that are four-legged (the buffalo), those that are two-legged (man) and those that crawl (insects).
There are four elements on earth —wind, fire, water, and air. The directions used in the wheel are always used in a clockwise direction because that is the way the sun moves, rises and sets.
First of all, I'm going put in the first quadrant, which is the East that we were born physically. We are babies then. Our physical selves begin when we are born.
Then we go on to the next quadrant which is the South, on to the mental area… When we get to the teenage years we start to use our mind a lot more.
We get to the next direction, which is the West, where there is the emotional part of things . . . sadness or hurt is represented.
The last link in this fourth quadrant is the spiritual self. When people get older they tend to get more into their Spirituality. A lot of times we may be taught spirituality when we are younger, but we often feel that we do not need it then.
So this is the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual areas in the medicine wheel. Everything needs to depend on the other directions within these four quadrants. For instance, if someone got sick and was failing physically, of course, their mind would be affected, their emotions would be affected and their spirit would be affected. If someone was dealing with their spiritual self, their physical self would be affected, mentally they would be affected, and their emotions would be affected.
The medicine wheel is also about relationships; how to make things work between you and other people. There has to be balance in every person's life. When there is balance, people have harmony. There has to be balance in the four quadrants. Everything in the wheel has a relationship with each other. There is no harmony if all or one of these is not balanced. People may experience a certain amount of peace and harmony if one area is affected; however it won't last long.
When we talk about the physical quadrant, we are talking about birth. I'd like to think about birth as being a new day so this would be the sun. For everyone, the sun means warmth and light. The sun begins its new day in the direction of the East. That is where the sun rises… As the sun gives birth to a new day, we think about birth. We can also think of birth as a season, which is Spring. When you think of the Spring you think about what it brings for the new seeds. I'd like to think about this as a new birth, a new beginning. Even among men and women in their journey as a married couple, when they get together, they produce children. From Spring comes all new life.
From Spring in the East, we will go on to the South quadrant which is Summer, which represents the teenage years. At this point the seeds have grown from babies to teenagers. The next stage of the medicine wheel after the South is the West, which would represent the fall season. The teenagers then become adults and are represented in the West quadrant. The North, which represents the season of Winter, represents the Elders. Eventually the adults become older men and women and, of course, become grandfathers and grandmothers. The legacy continues on. The seeds are carried on throughout the life cycle. Even after the Elder has passed on the seeds, the old people are still within us. So this brings about the whole growth process.
When we look at the wheel in the way of colors, we look at the sun, we see the light and we can identify it with the color yellow. The South makes us think about red clay and the spilling of the buffalo blood, which is red.
To the West we look at the trees, so I'm gonna use the color green for the West. When we go to the North, we think of winter and, of course, everything is at rest. The color of the North is white because the Creator in his wisdom covers everything with a white blanket, so that the seeds will remain alive and then regenerate in the spring.
When we think about the sun in the East, we see the eagle spirit. The eagle is a sacred symbol in the Aboriginal communities because it is the only living creature that naturally flies closest to the sun, therefore the Native people believe that the eagle is a messenger for the Creator. It brings good messages to the Creator. This is why a lot of eagle feathers are used for doctoring. The Eagle uses the air, which is the wind spirit to get close to the sun.
Coming from the East, in the direction of the sun, we go onto the South direction. I like to put the buffalo spirit in the South direction because the buffalo represents offerings. We associate the buffalo with offerings because in the old days it offered its life for the livelihood of our Aboriginal people. When we killed a buffalo we used almost everything of its body. We made our clothing, our shoes, our utensils and got our food from the buffalo. So when we talk about the buffalo giving its life for us, we think about community. Why I say this is that when you think about the grandfather buffalo we think about its life and death here on earth. So when you offer something to the Creator and pray, good things can happen. The buffalo showed a lot of courage and love to die for us, so I like to think that love belongs in the South direction.
One of the natural things for a buffalo to do for its young is to protect it. Whenever the buffalo are in danger, the herd places all of its young into a circle and then surround the circle. They offer their lives to protect their young and that to me is showing a lot of love
Today a lot of the offerings for ceremonies come in the way of broadcloth prints. Whenever we talk about the broadcloth, we are talking about the buffalo spirit. The cloth has actually taken over from what the real offerings in ceremonies use to be. Long ago, berries and meat were used as offerings. Offerings can also be used in memorial feasts, to celebrate weddings, to seek wisdom from Elders, a Sundance, a sweat or to celebrate with visitors. This is the way of offering nowadays.
In the four directions we look to the East and see the eagle representing the things that fly, all the birds that fly. When we go to the next direction, which is the South, we think about the things with four legs as in the buffalo. We then go to the West where we can think about the two-legged ones, which is the bear and us. Even though we have the wolf with four legs in the North, we also have represented in this direction those that crawl on the ground or swim. All of these are related in the medicine wheel.
Now as we move on to adulthood in the West , we go into human emotional feelings. When we look to the West we see the mountains. From the mountains comes our strength and endurance. Out of the mountains come plant life, the trees and things like growth. When we think of the trees that go straight up and tall, it means honesty. When you are straight you are honest. So in the West quadrant we learn about honesty. This is the quadrant from which the stem of the pipe comes from. Many teachings of the pipe will teach you that the stem of the pipe is considered honest because it is made straight.
From the plants and the herbs in the west come medicines. So therefore when we light the sweetgrass, which we take right from the plants, from the plant life, we burn it and it heals us inwardly. In a symbolic way we are healing our minds and our bodies when we light the sweetgrass. We are also asking the Creator to heal our emotions and our feelings. As we share in this circle with others, we are asking the Creator, the healer, to heal us. We are asking our spirit guides, the helpers, our grandfathers and grandmothers, to pray for us, to be mediators and to help us. So this is one of the uses for the sweetgrass medicine.
"The other things we use are the roots, which incidentally are becoming lost now. Years ago, a lot of the medicine men and women knew the roots. They used the roots to heal natural diseases such as cancer or diabetes and other sicknesses. Today we do not have very many Elders left who know how to make the medicines and how to use the roots. It is now becoming a lost art.
I'll go back to the East again where the color yellow represents the Asian people. When we look at the South quadrant, the color red represents this direction. The red represents the red man. We follow the circle on to the West where the color blue represents the black people. We use the color blue because in our Cree culture we do not use dark colors as black in our wheel so we represent the black people with the color blue. We continue in the last direction, which is North, and we have the color white here, which represents our white brothers and sisters.
"So already when you look at this diagram, we think of balance and harmony. We start to see that if people worked together in this circle, everything will be balanced. If one side of the circle does not co-operate with the other side, then you have unrest and wars and there is no peace and harmony. That is why the oriental people, black people, our white brothers and sisters, talk about world peace, because there is so much unrest in the world. There is little balance in the world because we as humans can't seem to get along.
Another teaching you will find in the medicine wheel is that we all have choices. Life is a matter of choice. How we use the gifts we were given is a freedom of choice. We have the freedom to choose. I'm just going to go back to some of the gifts that we receive from these four directions.
When we look at the East again, we look at the element of fire. Of course from the fire we receive warmth and light. If you follow this gift you get warmth and light and light often means kindness. If we include this gift within us, if we look at ourselves as being warm and kind (we all carry the light within us), if we have the fire, the sacred fire, within us, then we will be able to spread it to others in the medicine wheel circle. That in itself is power. So we can look at fire as positive. There is a lot of power in this medicine wheel circle, so I will write down power as one of the gifts of the East.
We then go to the next element, which is the South. We then see gifts of Mother Earth. The buffalo walking on the earth as a life-giving force is a gift. Like motherhood, Mother Earth means protection and survival. When I look at the earth it gives life to everything—to the grass, to the trees and everything else.
The next direction we will go to is the West , which is fall/autumn. When we think of the West we also think of the mountains. When we think of the mountains , we think of water. When you look at the snow-capped mountains of the West you will see a lot of water falls, so the gift of water is in the direction of the West. The water which flows into rivers and streams comes from the glaciers. It feeds all of the plants, animals and every living thing. Everything needs water in order to survive. So the water is in the West quadrant. But then again, the water is blue so we have a color of blue and green coming from the West. . . .
When we look at the last element, North, the gift from the North is the air. Everything needs the air to survive. This quadrant is often considered as the wind spirit. It gives us breath. It is also the last thing we do before we die. We take our last breath. Air is the life giving force. It is oxygen. We can use it in many good ways. For instance, if the wind spirit, the air, the wind in itself, in its greatest force, is working in a positive way, then it is good. But if there is too much, it can also be a negative thing. Think of the tornadoes and the hurricanes. In this quadrant, when we think of snow, we think of rest. We, as living creatures, need to rest a little everyday so that we can function properly. When you think about the final journey an Elder makes, we say die here on earth or death or final rest. Elders believe that there is life after death and, of course, while they have left us the seeds, we will continue on that circle in the medicine wheel.
So there you have the circle—air, fire, earth and water. North, East, South and West. All of these elements are life-giving forces.
If you use this medicine wheel as a positive influence in your life, then that is great, but if you use it in a negative way it will not help you. Many times people do things negatively. When I mentioned the four life-giving elements —air, fire, earth and water—if we were to look at these elements in a negative way, just think about it this way. What if there is too much fire? People are going to burn. Too much heat, too much fire, things explode. There is a lot of power in the element of fire. It can destroy and take lives. If people are not careful, if there is no warmth and kindness within them, sooner or later they are going to get burned. That is the kind of negative that this gift can bring if you do not respect it.
The earth, and in the way that it holds the trees, the grass, can also create negatives. Things can happen as in volcanoes or earthquakes, which can also take lives. If there is no balance in people, it can also cause all sorts of problems. Too much of anything is not good. Too much energy can take that life-giving force away. If we have too much water flowing down the mountains and if something on the earth is not balanced, you can have too much water and you can have flooding. Floods can take away great cities in a flash. You just have to listen to the news. Water can give life but it can also take a life.
You can relate this concept to everything in life. If you take too much of anything and get addicted, it can be a negative. The addiction starts to control you. Nothing on earth is bad, as it is created. It's when we abuse it that it becomes bad.
So these are the illustrations used when explaining the power of the circle. We apply the medicine wheel in a way that has to do with our mental, physical, spiritual and emotional selves. If we use the circle in a positive sense, then we will have a lot of positive feedback in life. For example, when you see a group of kids playing on the street in a circle and they are having a good time, getting along with each other, then that is good, the good power. Yet when you have other teenagers that are in gangs, when they are doing negative things, then that is not balanced and that is not good.
We often hear councillors talk about peer pressure. When a teenager or a young person is affected by peer pressure that is negative, then that will cause them a lot of problems. But they can also be affected by positive peer pressures that are good.
Within a circle there is always a lot of power. For example, when someone throws a rock in the water, you are going to see the point of entry. What you then see is a rippling effect in the way of a circle. Each one of us, when we look at ourselves as that little rock, has the power to influence the community we live in either negatively or positively. We can throw two rocks into the water and the strength of that rippling effect will be greater, three rocks or four rocks and so on and so forth. That is why one of the statements that I hear so often is true is that it takes a whole community to raise a child. We, as in everyone in the whole community, can become one power and can bring a child up in a good way. We can identify in the way of circles with Native teachings.
There are buffalo spirits in the South and then there are the bear spirits in the West. We use the bear spirit in the West because we associate it with the fact that it uproots a lot of plants when it eats. Plants are represented in the West. We also use the bear spirit for healing. For example, we use bear grease in our sweatlodges. The bear is one of the animals that knows how to heal itself by using plants. The teachings we get from the grizzly bear are strength and endurance. From the mountains, as in the rock from where the pipe comes, we can also identify with strength and endurance.
When a bear is in danger, it stands up like a man. It can stand up on two legs. There is a lesson here. It teaches us that as human beings, when we are faced with obstacles in our lives and we have nowhere to run, we have to stand up for ourselves. We have to face our problems at hand. There is a lot of strength and endurance in the teachings from the bear.
Another thing we use in the medicine wheel is the sweetgrass for smudging. For example, if you are going to offer tobacco to Mother Earth or if you are going to use her plants, or the food in ceremonies, we usually use tobacco offerings. Tobacco is also one of the medicines—basically tobacco, sweetgrass and sage. I believe that sage is considered the women's smudge.
When we pick the sweetgrass plant, we offer tobacco, which we pick only in the Summer. One of the teachings we get from the sweetgrass is that it is kind and presentable. It is good. We can walk all over it and a few days later it will be standing again. The sweetgrass has the natural process of surviving. You can burn it, you can trample or stomp on it, but it will always come back. We also get strength and endurance from it. It teaches us to be kind and gentle. These are the kinds of gifts that we get from the teachings of the sweetgrass.
When we move on to the north quadrant, the wolf clan is used. The reason that the wolf is used in the north is that it often travels in a pack. It lives in a type of commune with other wolves. Many times the survival of the wolf depends on the ability to circle its prey in order to survive. Again in the natural order of things, everything depends on the circle.
Survival is also a key word in the concept of the medicine wheel. If you take away the air element or the fire element or the water element, nothing would survive. We all need to work with Mother Earth. We all need to share that power. Much like the way I was explaining earlier, if you take away a physical part of a human being, for instance, if a person is handicapped , then the mental, emotional or spiritual self will be affected in some way.
If a person, for instance, has no spirituality in their life, there is really no direction. There is no belief system. What are they going to do with their emotions, when they have no one to turn to? When you have spirituality, your spirit is strong. It fills the void of emptiness...
You know that the Creator is there and you are not alone. You know that your spirit is within yourself. When I look at this circle, there is the Creator who is in me. If I do not love myself, I cannot love those around me. If I do not respect myself, I cannot respect the Creator or those around me. If I do not understand myself, I cannot understand the Creator or those around me. If I cannot feel anything about myself, I cannot feel anything for other people.
This is where a lot of times we talk about the inner child stuff. So a lot of things have to start with me, the relationship within me.
I hope that I've explained just some of the teachings of the medicine wheel. Always though, if you follow the way the sun travels, everything is related. It always goes back to relationships. These are just some of the examples in the wheel.
So within this simple wheel it starts off with birth, everything is born. We are related to everything that is around us. I've heard Elders say that a lot of times when we pray for the things that we need, certainly if we look hard enough, those things are all around us. That it is up to us to see them and to use them. We can use all the things that live around us.
There are more teachings on the medicine wheel and I'm learning more every day. I'm not saying that everything I'm saying is true. I still have a lot of things to learn. I began to learn about the medicine wheel when I first began to go to the sweatlodges, which is about 12 years ago. In the beginning I did not understand the wheel like I understand it now. It's taken a long time for me to identify with it. The wheel gives me an opportunity to know I can identify with my own needs.
I'm not saying that my teachings are the right way. There are not people who teach the medicine wheel. If you are not living in a community where it is taught, then it is hard to get a whole lot of the teachings.
I'm very fortunate that in my community there are people who are into the sweatlodges, ceremonies, and who teach others on the wheel. But I find that there are not enough medicine wheel teachings in urban areas. A lot of young people are not even into this belief system. These teachings are pretty deep, but the more you study the wheel, the more you begin to understand it…