The Medicine Wheel is a sacred symbol found in indigenous traditions throughout the world, expressing the unity of all things and illustrating the structure and order of the universe. It is a symbol simplistic enough that a child may perceive and grasp its meaning, yet so dynamic that elders who have spent their lifetime studying its meaning cannot claim to know all of its teachings.
The Medicine Wheel illustration below shows some of the Medicine Wheel teachings of the Anishinabe Ojibway. Also included are four Ojibway sayings cited from the book, Ojibwe Waasa Inaabidaa: We Look to All Directions, by authors Thomas Peacock and Marlene Wisuri. Each of these sayings encompasses a body of traditional knowledge based on Medicine Wheel Teachings:
There are literally hundreds of teachings expressed by the Medicine Wheel, many of which are observable in nature:
- Four Cardinal Directions: East, South, West, and North
- Four Phases of the Moon: New Moon, Waxing, Full Moon, and Waning
- Four Seasons of the Year: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter
- Four Sacred Times of Day: Sunrise, Noon, Sunset, and Midnight
- Four Races of Humankind: Asian (Yellow), Native American (Red), African (Black), and European (White)
- Four Traditional Elements: Air, Earth, Water, and Fire
- Four Human Modes of Experience: Emotional (Feeling), Mental (Thinking), Spiritual (Connection), and Physical (Sensation)
- Four “Hills of Life”: Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood, and Our Elders
These natural observations teach us that our lives follow patterns visible in nature. The Medicine Wheel is therefore a guide for life’s journey, teaching us that there is a time and a purpose for the events of our lives. When used as a tool for meditation, the Medicine Wheel can help us bring unity and balance to our life.
The East represents new beginnings. The Sun rises each and every day in the East and is a reminder that every day we are offered a new beginning, an opportunity to choose to do right in the world and to set our affairs in good order, according to the wishes of Our Creator. Every morning, as the Sun rises, we are reborn into this world. How we greet the day is very important. Many indigenous people wake early every morning and offer prayers for the new day as the Sun rises. The beginning of any journey is in the East. It is the direction of Spring, which begins the year with New Life upon Mother Earth. It is the direction of birth and childhood, when all things are new and we are only just beginning to learn about our world. For this reason, the East is also the direction of innocence and playful joy. Emotion is the quality of the East because of our childlike nature as we approach anything new. One of the greatest challenges of our lives is to understand and gain control over our own emotions. Air is the element of the East, for this is a symbol of the Breath of Life, which we draw into ourselves when we are first born, and which sustains us throughout our lives.
After rising in the East, the Sun proceeds across the Southern sky, ultimately setting in the West. Thus, the Sun teaches us how to walk upon the Medicine Wheel. Following the path of the Sun, the life sustainer, the giver of warmth, light, and energy, we follow the Medicine Wheel in a clockwise direction, beginning in the East and proceeding through the South, West, North, and finally returning full circle back to the East. Many times during our lives, we will return to the East to enjoy the blessings of new beginnings, perhaps a new job, new marriage, a new place to live, etc. The Medicine Wheel also teaches us that death itself is a new beginning. Like the New Moon, we shall come into the Fullness of our life on the earth, and we will eventually wane, only to become new once again; for upon completion of the Medicine Wheel journey, we begin anew in the East, in new form and with increased knowledge and wisdom. The Sun will rise again tomorrow. The color of the East is yellow in honor of the Rising Sun.
The South is the place of the Sun at High Noon, its highest point in the sky, from which it provides light and warmth and fosters the growth and maturity of all living beings. The warmth provided by the Sun is analogous to the love and compassion that we should show toward all our relations, including those Peoples of the mineral, plant, and animal orders, and all human beings regardless of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or sexuality. The light provided by the Sun from its place in the Southern Sky is symbolic of the Light of Knowledge, which ever guides humanity toward peace, harmony, and balance upon Mother Earth. Thus, the human quality of the South is Intellectual Growth, including learning to approach all situations with reason, guided by careful thought and calm deliberation. Together, the symbolic warmth and light of the Sun foster within us a sense of our personal growth. In the South, we are in the Summer of our lives. Summer is the season of growth and plenty, as all life on the earth develops toward its full potential. We are adolescents developing into young adults, learning about life and what we must do to lead successful lives and please Our Creator. Though we are no longer new upon the earth, as we were in East, we are like Grandmother Moon waxing toward the Fullness of our potential. And we must always remember that the South holds the seeds of New Life within its bosom, for the birds travel to the South in the wintertime and when they return in the spring they carry with them New Life. Earth is the element of the South, for through the gifts of the Sun at High Noon, all life on earth flourishes. The color of the South is Red in honor of the High Sun and in honor of our young men and women, the lifeblood of the People.
The West is the direction of Spirit. The Sun sets in the West, having made its journey along the Path of Life from the East. Beyond the Path of Life is the Spirit World. Thus, the West is the direction of prayer, meditation, and spiritual pursuits. It is also the direction of Spiritual Power and Purification, for the Thunder Beings that bring the purifying, life-giving, rains dwell in the West. The Thunder Beings are helpers but can also be very destructive. Likewise, when in spiritual balance, humankind are the helpers of Creation, but when we fall out of balance, we can become very destructive. To deny the Spiritual quality of our selves is to deny the needs and longings of our own souls. No person can ignore the Spiritual callings of their life without sickness and suffering plaguing them. This is the greatest weakness of our society. Though we are materially wealthy, we are spiritually bankrupt, and the negative effects of this deficiency are readily visible all around us. Each of us must seek and find spiritual truth in the West to bring balance and meaning to our lives. If our life has meaning and purpose, then we will see meaning and purpose in the lives of others, and we strive for balance and harmony in our world.
The journey to the West requires a great deal of discipline and maturity, and for these reasons the West is the direction of Adulthood. Like the Full Moon, we are full with purpose and activity during our adult years. This is also the Autumn of our lives. Our jubilant youthful pursuits are behind us and we must assume leadership in our family, community, nation, and world. This may be accomplished by fulfilling our vision…our individual purpose. Autumn also affords us our last chance to prepare for the winter months. We must prepare our families and ourselves for the twilight years of our life. Water is the element of the West. Water is the life-giving, life-sustaining, element that best reflects the nature of our spirit. There are many teachings concerning water and spirit. It is paramount to understand that as the body thirsts for water to sustain itself, so does the soul thirst for spiritual wisdom to sustain itself and achieve balance for the whole self. Black is the color of the West, in honor of the night that follows the setting of the Sun, and in honor of the Thunder Beings, whose black cloud heads fill the sky in the West shortly before the coming of the rain.
North is the Midnight Land. In the North, we do not see the Sun, for it is below the horizon. The absence of the light and warmth of the Sun is felt as winter comes upon us. The element of the North is Fire, for we must rely on its warmth and light during the winter months when we long for the return of the Sun. We are told that the Fire that burns in our lodges is the same Fire that burns in the Sun, and so this is a very special gift that we may enjoy during the winter months. The Pure White Snows of Winter blanket Mother Earth as she rests and prepares for the birth of New Life in the spring. As the Snow purifies Mother Earth, so the North teaches us to have Purity of Word, Thought, and Deed. Mother Earth recedes within herself in the peaceful tranquility of winter and we too must look within ourselves and reflect upon our life. What is the meaning of my life? Have I served my purpose? Have I provided for the generations that will follow me on this earth? These are the questions we ask ourselves in the North. It is these questions that help us understand the nature of our relationship with All Our Relations in the natural world, and to better understand Gitchi Manitou…the Great Mystery…Our Creator.
White is the color of the North, as it is the color of the Winter Snows and the color of the hair of Our Elders, who are nearing the completion of their earthly journey, just as Grandmother Moon is waning and will soon become New. Our Elders are Sacred because they have walked ahead of us on the Path of Life and have learned the wisdom of each direction on the Medicine Wheel. Only after we have walked the Medicine Wheel to the North and have learned to balance our emotions and live a life guided by the Light of Knowledge from our Intellect and the Spiritual Understanding gained from the West, can we offer a lifetime of experience to the generations that follow us. The wisdom of Our Elders guides and teaches us, if we are willing to humble ourselves and learn from them. It is the responsibility of Our Elders to teach the traditions and values of the People to our children so that the Way is kept from generation to generation.
At the center of the Medicine Wheel is the Great Mystery…Our Creator…the single point at which all things converge. The classical Greek philosopher Empedocles famously remarked, “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.” The implication is that God is everywhere and within everything. The totality of existence is present in God and, if taken to its logical conclusion, is God. Given this revelation into the nature of existence, it is understandable why indigenous peoples proclaim that everything in nature is sacred.