The Medicine Wheel
HEN WE STUDY A CULTURE, we compare that culture with our own. Of course, we will find similarities and differences. This is a result of our �perception.' There is always a risk, when comparing another culture with our own, of judging the culture we are studying, unfairly. We may comment in a judgmental way on things like what the people eat, or on some of their beliefs and habits.
Comparing other cultures using our own standards or beliefs is called, ethnocentrism. This is an unfair form of judgement. It is a much better idea to explore other cultures. By exploring, we collect information without judgement. We should try and think of that culture as a mirror. We reflect on that culture, think about it in depth and try to make balanced conclusions about it. When we have sufficient information, we can ask questions like:
- "I wonder why they think that way?"
- "What would we do in the same situation?"
- "Is there a reason for that sort of behaviour?"
This resource comes from a book called Seven Arrows. The author was a Canadian Plains Indian. The resource begins with an introduction to the Medicine Wheel and what it means to the Sioux culture. The story of Jumping Mouse, is one of the Plains Indian legends shared with the children who sat around the Medicine Wheel in the prairie The resource ends with some exploratory questions and time is set aside for designing some new concepts about Sioux beliefs and our own.
Time For Questions
We have studied some aspects of the Netsilik culture using videotape resources.
Use the three questions on p1 of this resource to explore any part of the tapes. For example:
"I wonder why they think that way?"
I wonder why the women put the ash from the fire on to the eyes of the dead Char, thinking it would stop the fish warning others of the hunters in the river? I am still not certain what she was trying to achieve.
When we judge something, we usually come up with an answer.
When we explore something, we may not come up with an answer.
If your explored another culture, like the Netsilik, and couldn't decide about some aspects of their behaviour, would you find this frustrating? Why?
What is a Medicine Wheel?
If we came upon a Medicine Wheel in the prairie, what would we see? We would see a simple circle of stones about two paces across. The stones are like those that come from a river. When the prairie flowers bloom, the stones are almost covered. In the middle of the Medicine Wheel, there is a smaller circular space.
Sometimes, the Teacher will place an object in this space.
Radiating out from the centre of the 'wheel' are four 'spokes' of smaller stones.
To our minds, a Medicine Wheel looks like a compass. As we will see, this is an accurate perception. Because the Medicine Wheel played such a major role in the lives of the Plains Indians, it is surprising it was so small. We could call the Medicine Wheel, a symbol.
A Medicine Wheel looks like this:
This is what the author of Seven Arrows says about the wheel;
"If you and I were sitting in a circle of people on the prairie, and I was then to place a painted drum or an eagle feather in the middle of this circle, each of us would perceive these objects differently. Our vision of them would vary according to our individual positions in the circle, each of which would be unique.
Our personal perceptions of these objects would also depend upon much more than just the different positions from which we looked upon them. For example, one or more of us might suffer from colour blindness, or from weak eyesight. Either of these two physical differences would influence our perceptions of the objects".
Mr Storm goes on to suggest:
- We need to be aware that each of us will have different perceptions or 'see things' differently because we all have different experiences of life.
- One person may find an object fearful, another enjoyable whereas a third person may be completely uninterested.
- "Love, hate, fear, confusion, happiness, envy, and all the other emotions we feel, act upon us to paint our perceptions of things in different colours."
- We can have different perceptions of things or ideas. These perceptions may change suddenly or over a period of time.
- "In many ways this Circle, the Medicine Wheel, can best be understood if you think of it as a mirror in which everything is reflected. 'The Universe is the Mirror of the People,' the old Teachers tell us, 'and each person is a Mirror to every other person.'
Any idea, person or object can be a Medicine Wheel, a Mirror, for man. The tiniest flower can be such a Mirror, as can a wolf, a story, a touch, a religion or a mountain top. For example, one person alone on a mountain top at night might feel fear. Another might feel calm and be peaceful. Still another might feel lonely, and a fourth person might feel nothing at all. In each case, the mountain top would be the same, but it would be perceived differently as it reflected the feelings of the different people who experienced it."
- "Among the People, the Teachers usually constructed the Medicine Wheel from small stones or pebbles� Each of these tiny stones within the Medicine Wheel represents one of the many things of the Universe. One of them represents you, another represents me. Others hold within them our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and our friends. Still others symbolize hawks, buffalo, elks and wolves� All things are contained within the Medicine Wheel, and all things are equal within it."
- "Our Teachers tell us that all things within this Universe Wheel know of their Harmony with every other thing, and know how to Give-Away, one to the other, except man."
- "Of all the Universe's creatures, it is we alone who do not begin our lives with knowledge of this great Harmony."
- "All the things of the Universe Wheel have spirit and life, including the rivers, rocks, earth, sky, plants and animals. But it is only man, of all the Beings on the Wheel, who can be a determiner. Our determining spirit can be made whole only through the learning of our harmony with all our brothers and sisters, and with all the other spirits of the Universe. To do this, we must learn to seek and to perceive. We must do this to find our place within the Medicine Wheel. To determine this place, we must learn to Give-Away."
- "The Vision Quest, or perceiving quest, is the way we must begin this search. We must all follow our Vision Quest to discover ourselves, to learn how we perceive of ourselves, and to find our relationship with the world around us.
Some More Questions
If we all have different perceptions about a situation or thing, how do we ever make decisions?
The Indians saw the Medicine Wheel as a "mirror" of the world and how the world 'works'.
We study cultures other than our own so that their thoughts, feelings and actions can be reflected on.
Were the Indian children and the Social Studies students at Burnside High School involved in the same quest?
Consider the concept, "Give-Away".
From what you understand at this point, how would you define the term in your own words?
We often hear wise people suggesting there should be balance in our lives. "Do not burn the candle at both ends!" they say.
The Indians called this balance, "Harmony".
What sort of harmony were they seeking?
Children are taught the Four Great Powers of the Medicine Wheel.
To the North on the Medicine Wheel is found wisdom.
The colour of Wisdom in the North is White and its Medicine Animal is the Buffalo.
The South is represented by the Sign of the Mouse. Its Medicine colour is green. The South is the place of Innocence and Trust and for perceiving closely our nature.
In the West is the Sign of the Bear. The West is the 'Looks-Within Place', which speaks for the Introspective nature of man. The colour of this Place is Black.
The East is marked by the Sign of the Eagle. It is the Place of Illumination, where we can see things clearly and widely.
Its Colour is the Gold of the Morning Star.
At birth, each of us is given a particular Beginning Place within these Four Great Directions on the Medicine Wheel. This Starting Place gives us our first way of perceiving things that will then be our easiest and most natural way throughout our lives.
But, for any person who perceives from only one of these Four Great Directions will remain just a partial person. For example, a person who possesses only the Gift of the North will be wise. But, he will be a cold man without feeling. If a person has only the Gift of the South, he will see everything with the eyes of the Mouse. He will be too close to the ground and too near sighted to see anything except whatever is right in front of him, touching his whiskers.
There are people who have two or three of these Gifts but they are still not whole.
After each of us has learned of our Beginning Gift, our First place on the Medicine Wheel, we then must Grow by Seeking Understanding in each of the Four Great Ways. Only in this way can we become Full, capable of Balance and decisions in what we do.
Yet More Questions
The North Stone of the Medicine Wheel represented, the colour White, the Buffalo and Wisdom.
What is the difference between 'wisdom' and 'cleverness?
Why is green, the colour of the South, a good choice for people who lived in the Northern Hemisphere?
The Colour for the West is Black because this is where our star ends its daily Sun Dance.
Explain this statement another way.
Suggest what the Plains Indians were referring to when they spoke about and demonstrated the 'Sun Dance'.
The East is the place of the Eagle and of Illumination. The South is the place of the Mouse and Innocence.
What is the contrast between these two places?
What would Plains Indian children learn by comparing the Medicine of the East and the Medicine of the South?
To Touch and to feel is to gain experience. Many people live out their entire lives without really Touching or being Touched by anything. The Sun Dancer believes that each person is a unique living Medicine Wheel, powerful beyond imagination, that has been limited and placed upon this earth to Touch, Experience and Learn.
According to the Teachers, there is only one thing that all people possess equally. This is their loneliness. No two people on the face of the earth are alike in any one thing except for their loneliness. This is the cause of our growing but is also the cause of our wars, Love, hate, greed and generosity.
Each of us has as his personal Medicine a particular animal reflection. The characteristics of this reflection are determined by the nature of the animal itself and also by our individual beginning Place on the Medicine Wheel.
For example, there are Eagle People, Elk People, Bear People, Wolf People, Pheasant People, Otter People, Buffalo People, Mice People, Rock People, Cloud People, and as many other kinds of People as there are living beings on this earth. And within each of these different kinds of People, there are the other differences of the Four Great Directions.
Take a Mouse person. Mice live all their lives next to the ground, building their nest and gathering their food among the roots of the tall grass and bushes of the prairie. Because of this, Mice never see things at a distance. Everything they see is right in front of them, where they can sniff at it with their noses and Touch it with their whiskers. Their lives are spent in Touching things in this way, and in gathering seeds and berries to eat.
A Mouse Person would be one who saw everything close up, and whose vision would be limited to the immediate world around him. He would be a gatherer of things. He would gather facts, information, material objects or even ideas. But because he could not see far enough to connect his world with that of the great prairie of the world around him, he would never be able to use or understand all that he saw or gathered.
If a Mouse Person were to be born into the North, his Beginning Gift would be the Gift of the Mind. His name might be White Mouse. He would be a wise Mouse Person but he would not yet be Whole. But, his growth would have begun.
Ancestors teach about shields. To understand the Sun Dance, the Shields must also be understood. This includes knowledge of shield construction, painting, and Medicine Ways of other shields: Men's Shields, Women's Shields, Children's Shields, Peace Shields and Sacred Shields. By learning about shields, the Plains Indians believed they would become Sun Dancers with their ancestors.
There were originally Twelve Sacred Shields. At the time of renewal, these shields were brought together, and placed inside the Twelve Forked Poles which formed the inner circle of the Sun Dance Lodge, the Peoples' Lodge. This was the only time these shields were together.
They were never kept by one tribe. They were passed from one People to the other. If a man or a woman wanted high honour, they might hope to be a Keeper of one of these Sacred Shields. At any one time, there could only be Twelve Keepers of the Shields of Light. These people were the most powerful and respected among all of the People. They were the Healers, Diviners and Teachers. They carried the Sacred Shields from camp to camp, from tribe to tribe. The Plains Indians believed, 'over the Earth there are Twelve Great Tribes. Two of these Peoples are the Indian People. The Other Ten are the Other Peoples of the Earth. These Twelve Peoples are the Sacred Shields.'
The Chiefs Shields were tied to the Sacred Shields. There were Forty-Five of these because these shields were used for Teaching about the Sacred Shields and the Sun dance Way. The Chiefs Shields were also known as the Peace Shields or the Teaching Shields.
Among the People, each person possessed a Shield of one sort or another. These were never intended to give protection in battle. They were too fragile. Sometimes they were made from tough skins like that of the buffalo but most often, they were covered with the soft skins of the deer, antelope, coyote, otter, weasel, or even mice. They were hung with plumes of feathers or fur. They were painted with various symbolic figures. These Personal Shields represented the individual Medicines and Clan Signs of the men who carried them. These signs told who the man was, what he sought to be, and what his loves, fears and dreams were. Almost everything about him was written there, reflected in the Mirror of his Shield.