Medicine wheels are a creation of Native Americans that have been built for thousands of years. It’s a structure made by rocks placed in the landscape; it typically has a central stone(s) surrounded by one or more concentric circles, and/or two or more lines radiating outward from the center point. Most of the few hundred that survive are found in Canada and the U.S. Mountain West.
Some scientists and historians believe these forms were related to the stars, reflecting various celestial alignments (not unlike Stonehenge and other ancient structures). The most famous, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, has been an important example of this theory. It has a central “cairn” large enough to contain a sitting person, surrounded by 28 spokes emanating outward, with six other cairns along the outer ring.
They have also been known and utilized as a focus of ceremony and spiritual practice, like a large altar on the land. They invite us into an experience of reflection, gratitude, silence, and a meditation on the eternal cycles of life. It embodies the Native cultural values of harmony, balance, right relation, and interconnectedness with the natural world. Like the labyrinth in Christianity, it has a very specific form and way in which to engage with it.
The medicine wheel honors the four directions – north, south, east and west (and three more if you include “above”, “below” and the center). The form is often a circle with these four quadrants, and an inner “spirit circle” that the spokes lead into.
Here is a basic approach to a Medicine Wheel ceremony, although it is ultimately a creative and individual expression. Entering from the East, go clockwise, stopping in each direction/quadrant to call out the general attributes (qualities, animals, colors, and elements) of each direction. Honor the direction and speak to how it influences your life; maybe even ask for guidance or support with something specific. Then express gratitude for these qualities, beings, and energies by making an offering. The offering can be an herb, either burning or – as I like to – thrown up into the air. End with an enthusiastic “Ho!” of affirmation and completion. Here are some ideas to play with:
To the East:
Air, spring, birds (the eagle), dawn, birth/childhood, new beginnings, creativity, growth, yellow (tobacco)
To the South:
Fire, summer, midday, snakes or 4-leggeds (coyote/wolf, deer), youth, fertility, abundance, joy, yang, red (sweetgrass)
To the West:
Water, autumn, the bear (approaching hibernation), evening, maturity, healing, harvesting, wisdom, blue (sage)
To the North:
Earth, winter, white, the buffalo, nighttime, introspection and rest, stillness, yin, darkness, patience, elders (cedar)
For Above – Father Sky, the active principle
For Below – Mother Earth, the receptive principle
For the Center – Humanity, the heart/soul, the here and now – you, embodying all!
Note: In parentheses I put the herbal offerings associated with the directions, but you can use one for all the directions. (I use corn meal, which probably originated in the mid-or-southwest U.S.) Here they are shown in their whole form but can be powdered or crumbled - the better to toss up in the air! I will describe other types of offerings in my next newsletters. Also, various tribes and traditions have different takes on the colors, sometimes including black, white, blue, yellow and red.
I hope this piques your interest – it’s a start! Next, I will share our experience as a community building 3 wheels in Bozeman, Montana. Exploring a medicine wheel is a wonderful way to celebrate fall outdoors and reflect on all this year has brought.
Current good books on the subject are by Sun Bear and Kenneth Meadows among others. I also ran across the “The Medicine Wheel Garden” for all you so inclined!
My first encounters with the Native American spirituality and the medicine wheel were as a teen, with books – “Seven Arrows” (Hyemeyohsts Storm), “Oglala Religion” and “Yuwipi” (William Powers) and "Black Elk Speaks" (John G. Niehardt).
I later made a film on flint knapping for Encyclopedia Britannica. I went on to seek out Native healers throughout my filmmaking travels, eventually meeting my mentor Della Keats (an Inuit from Kotzebue, Alaska).
And at the Randall Museum, on a small hillside park in San Francisco, I took my young children to learn about medicine wheels around a beautiful quilt on that theme. (Made by the teacher – thank you Kristin!)