November marks Native American Heritage month, which pays tribute to the rich ancestry of Native Americans who have traditionally relied on teachings about the interconnectedness of life and the natural world.
Medicine Wheels are tools that have been used by generations of Native American tribes, in various ways for health and healing, and to help members find inner peace, learn how to be humble and build self-compassion. But what exactly are they, and how are they used?
Medicine Wheel is a modern term that has been applied to the remains of over seventy circular stone structures scattered throughout the Plains of North America, some as large as sixty yards in diameter, says Kathy L. Callahan, author of The Path of the Medicine Wheel: A Guide to the Sacred, adding that studies indicate they could have been used to track both astronomical phenomena and the passing of the season.
Today, Medicine Wheels take on varied forms, and sizes, among tribes, and can even be personalized based an individual’s visions or dreams; however, they all serve as tools to help people learn about the interconnectedness of life. The wheels tend to share certain elements, such as The Four Directions.
The Four Directions
The US National Library of Medicine in Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing notes that the Four Directions (East, South, West, and North) move clockwise, and are typically represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, which for some stands for the human races. The Four Directions can also represent:
- Stages of life: birth, youth, adult (or elder), death
- Seasons of the year: spring, summer, winter, fall
- Aspects of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical
- Elements of nature: fire (or sun), air, water, and earth
- Animals: Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Buffalo and many others
- Ceremonial plants: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar
Experiencing the Medicine Wheel
“To follow the path of the Medicine Wheel is to embark upon an experiential journey,” writes Kathy L. Callahan in The Path of the Medicine Wheel: A Guide to the Sacred. “You must absorb the feelings and emotions of each lesson” as well as “open yourself to change and be willing to become a new person.”
The four major teachings
Callahan notes that the four major teachings of the Medicine Wheel include Unity, Balance, Growth/Movement and Attunement.
Unity “By entering the sacred circle, we become aware of the web of life that connects all living and nonliving things.”
Balance “The teaching of balance comes from the placement of elemental powers around the Medicine Wheel.…[and] the knowledge of harmony…as you move within the ebb and flow of life.”
Movement and Growth “As you pass through the various positions on the wheel, you learn about the different directions, seasons, elements, moons, plants and animals.…You open yourself to the fullness of life.”
Attunement “Attunement comes from the three teachings that precede it and occurs on several levels: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. As you learn the lessons of the Medicine Wheel, you discover [connection] to all other living things on this planet.”
The Seven Stages of Life
The Seven Stages of Life from birth to death can also be found on the Medicine Wheel, and in a sense serve as a mirror for introspection and growth.
The Good Life During the first seven years of a child’s life, elders, grandmothers, grandfathers provide for the child’s needs offering unconditional love and discipline in order for a child to gain confidence.
The Fast Life From 7 to 14 years of age, a child prepares for rites-of-passage ceremonies, which include vision quests and fasting, to take place at the time of puberty.
The Wandering Life From age 15 to 21, young people question and challenge ideals and concepts as they strive to find themselves.
Truth During the fourth stage, from age 21 to 28, one finds their true self, gifts and strengths.
Planning From age 28 to 35, one begins to nurture the seeds planted throughout their life, questioning what they’re going to do with all the information they have and how they will accomplish their plans.
Doing From age 35 to 42, one practices what they have previously learned and aims to fulfill their purpose.
The Elder Life From age 49 on, one is focused on giving back and passing on knowledge to the young, as the physical being dissipates and your spiritual side grows stronger.
The Seven Grandfather Teachings
Native American wisdom often draws from the teaching of its elders. The Seven Grandfather Teachings can also be found on some Medicine Wheels. The Traditional Teachings Handbook, published by the Native Women’s Centre, Aboriginal Healing & Outreach Program, notes that “Each of the seven teachings must be used with the rest; you cannot have wisdom without love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth….If one of these gifts is not used with the others, we will not be in balance.”
1. Wisdom Listen and use the wisdom of elders, spiritual leaders and healers.
2. Love Love cannot be demanded…it must be earned and given freely from the goodness of your heart.
3. Respect Honor all of creation. You must give respect freely from the goodness of your heart if you wish to be respected.
4. Bravery Face life with courage. Be ready to defend what you believe and what is right.
5. Honesty Do not be deceitful or use self-deception. Honesty keeps life simple.
6. Humility Take pride in what you do, but the pride that you take is in the sharing of the accomplishment with others.
7. Truth Be true to yourself and true to your fellow man.
The web of life
The wisdom of Native American teachings can hold important lessons for all of us. As Chief Seattle states: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”