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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 6

Medicine Wheel at Big Horn, Medicine Mountain.


Native Reflections from the Sacred Medicine Circle 

 The Medicine Circle, Ancient Mirror of the Universe and Human Nature 

Manidoo-giizisoons (Moon of the Little Spirit; December 27), 2018


Sterling silver Medicine Wheel pendant designed by Zhaawano Giizhik

Boozhoo, aaniin indinawemaaganidog, gidinimikoo miinawaa: Hello relatives, I greet you again in a good way! 

I am Zhaawano Giizhik. Welcome to part 6 of my blog series titled Teachings from the Tree of Life. Today I share with you a Teaching about the ancient symbol of the Medicine Circle and, along with it, the spiritual/philosophical principle of mino-bimaadiziwin that countless generations of ancestors handed down to us from the time our People, according to Ojibwe Midewiwin tradition, still lived in Waabanaki (Dawn Land), the old homeland along the Atlantic coast. 

The story, inspired by an Ojibwe Midewiwin Teaching called “The Tree of Life,” is woven around a sterling silver pendant that I created for a client a few years back. The design of the pendant is based on the sacred Medicine Circle and its ancient symbolism.

"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as hours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tipis were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the Nation's hoop."

Heháka Sápa (Black Wapiti), Oglala Lakota Nation


"Eventually one gets to the Medicine Wheel to fulfill one's life."

 - Old Mouse, Sahnish (Arikara) Nation  


Stone Medicine Wheel


The origin of "Medicine Wheels"

The original “Medicine Wheels” were circular constructions built of Grandfather stones by the First Peoples of Turtle Island, particularly by those who lived in what is now the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. The majority of these sacred structures, which are often constructed at or near the summit of a hill, can be found in the area nowadays called Alberta, Canada; some of those are said to be 4.000 years old. The original purpose and meaning of the ancient stone Medicine Circle, or Sacred Hoop, is unknown, yet it is no mystery that these stone circles, which were first called “medicine wheels” in the 1800s, were important tools for learning and teaching and used for vision quests and healing through meditation and reflection. The structures undoubtedly also served for astronomical purposes – as they relate very closely to the movements of the sun and therefore used as calendars showing accurate sunrises and sunsets on the solstices and observed equinoxes. 

“Medicine Wheels” are believed to have been built by the forefathers of the Nations that traditionally roam the Plains, including the Nêhiyawak/ininewak (Cree), Apsáalooke (Crow), Neme-Ne (Comanche), Chaticks-si-Chaticks (Pawnee), and various divisions of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Lakota, Dakota, Nakoda).


Medicine Mountain stone Sacred Hoop
Oral histories provided by Native Americans as well as “scientifical” archaeological evidence indicate that sacred sites similar to that of the “Bighorn Medicine Wheel” at Medicine Mountain (see image) have been visited by Native Americans for at least 5000, possibly even 7000 years. The Moose Mountain Wheel in Saskatchewan is estimated to be 2000 years old, and, due to the similarities between this wheel and the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, some have suggested that the former was used as a model for the latter. Another old medicine wheel can be found in Majorville in Alberta, and is said to be at least 5000 years old. Note the ribbons and tobacco ties that have been attached by Native visitors to the cord surrounding the stone Medicine Circle structure. Photo credit USDA website.


A traditional story of the creation of the first Medicine Circle

Once upon a time there was an Apsáalooke boy. The boy fell into the fire as a baby and was severely scarred. From that day on he was known by a name that translates to “Burned Face.”
When Burned Face reached his teen years, he went on a vision quest in the mountains, where he fasted and used stones to build the medicine circle. During his quest, he helped drive away an animal who attacked baby eaglets. In return, he was carried off by an eagle and his face was made smooth. This happened in the place that is nowadays called Bighorn on the Medicine Mountain, Wyoming.¹


The Bighorn Medicine Wheel

The Bighorn Medicine Wheel, located in Wyoming at an altitude of nearly 10.000 feet near the summit of Medicine Mountain, and thought to be at least 700 years old, is the southernmost, and probably the most well-known stone Medicine Circle formation of turtle Island (North America). The “wheel” measures nearly 80 feet in diameter and consists of 28 alignments of limestone boulders radiating from a central cairn; in addition, six smaller stone enclosures can be found around its perimeter.

The “Medicine” in the term “Medicine Wheel” refers to the site and rock formations in that area, which are baaxpáa, or wakan (“sacred”) to the Native Peoples that live there or live in its vicinity. For at least 7000 years the land surrounding the Medicine Wheel has been visited by various Peoples that may now be extinct. In more modern times, the Lakota, Inuna Ina (Arapaho), Tsisistas (Cheyenne), Aamsskáápipikani Pikuni (Blackfoot), Newe (Shoshoni), Nimi Pan a'kwati (Bannock), Kootenai-Salish, Nêhiyawak (Plains Cree), and other Nations have also been known to come there from all directons for many generations to offer thanks for the Great Mystery that sustains them, and for centuries, the “Wheel” has been used by Apsáalooke (Crow) youth for fasting and vision quests. Up till now it is common practice to place a bison skull on the center cairn of the stone hoop as a prayer offering. Prayers are generally offered for healing and atonement is made for harm done to others and to Mother Earth.²

In recent years, Bighorn Medicine Wheel has attracted a big influx of New Age followers, who believe medicine wheels to be “centers of earth energy.” Many Native Peoples of the area resent the presence of pilgrims and tourists at the site, and some young warriors are now reluctant to go to the “wheel” because of the presence of non-Native visitors.³ 

Medicine Wheel is a New Age term

It is an ironic fact that the nowadays widely and popularly recognized term “Medicine Wheel” is not invented by the Original Peoples of Turtle Island, but instead by Americans of European descent to refer to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. Similar stone structures were later discovered, and the term “Medicine Wheel” was used to describe them as well.  Modern people, Native and non-Native alike, have been “creative” in applying their own interpretations to the “wheels.” Although most Native Peoples nowadays refer to the sacred Circle of Life as “Wheels,” some traditional Elders still prefer the terms “Medicine Circle” and “Sacred Hoop” since they better reflect our own concept of Life.


Sun Dance lodge structure
A typical Sun Dance Lodge structure


The Sundance Lodge

There is said to be a close spiritual connection, as well as a functional relationship, between the Medicine Circle and the Sundance Lodge. The geographic and natural spirit of the Bighorn Medicine Mountain and its sacred stone structure, for example, have similar characteristics as, and are oriented cosmologically in the same way as, the Sundance Lodges of various different First Nations (including those of the Anishinaabeg and Nêhiyawak), with places for camping, prayer, and vision questing. It is therefore no wonder that the old people used to bury their sacred items in the Circle, in the direction of where they arrived at. They understood that the many magnetic crystals on the earth and their medicine contents caused the circle to have an electromagnetic field around it...


Ojibwe Medicine Wheel
A comtemporary version of the Ojibwe Medicine Circle: 
ca. 1.968 inch/50 mm in diameter, porcupine quill wrapped. 

Niiwing endaso-ondaanimak waawiye-mashkikiiwaatig niwewaan gaa’inaabooteg inaabishkaagewaad gaa-niizhoogaadewaad.
"The four directions of the Medicine Wheel represent the four colours of two-leggeds: Yellow (East), Red (South), Black (West), and White (North). There are three other directions; Up, Down and Within."

What is the meaning and purpose of the Medicine Circle to the Ininiwak and Anishinaabeg Peoples?

From Nation to Nation, the details of the Medicine Circle/Wheel may differ but the basic teachings are the same. 

To the Anishinaabeg and Nêhiyawak/ininiwak Peoples, Mashkiki Waawiyeyaatig, which means Medicine Circle in Ojibwemowin (Ojibwe language), is a sacred symbol. Originally represented by grandfather-stones or pebbles laid down on the earth in a circular form, resembling a wheel with twelve to twenty-eight spokes, a Medicine Circle/Wheel is basically a cross within a circle. This cross symbolizes the concept of quadrinity of all life that lies at the base of Creation, or the Cosmos. The circle of the “wheel” is WAAWIYEKAAMIG, the Universe itself.
A Medicine Wheel, or the four circles of the Medicine Wheel, are always viewed in a clockwise direction, starting in waabanang (the east), rotating to zhaawanong (the south) and ningaabii'anong (the west), and arriving at giiwedinong, the north circle on top. Giiwedinong literally means: "Place of Home Coming."
The Medicine Circle, or rather the schematic, graphic representation that we often see today containing four differently colored quadrants (called "circles"), is not a symbol that is native to the Great Lakes Anishinaabeg - but the idea behind it certainly is. The Anishinaabeg are traditionally oriented to think and operate in a circular way" of relating and looking at bimaadiziwin, or life. Our ancestors referred to the concept of “Medicine Wheel” as wayaawiyeyaag bimaadiziwinining (The Circle Of Life), symbolizing the natural cycles of birth, growth, death, and regeneration. This is the meaning of quadrinity as the ancestors perceived and understood it: everything in life comes in fours and every living being exists of four parts.
The Medicine Circle generally consists of Seven Teachings, or Lessons. The Elders of the Ojibweg and other Anishinaabe Peoples teach us that there are seven teachings within each direction on the Medicine Circle, and all these have sub-teachings to them, such as where all the medicines like tobacco, cedar, sage, and sweetgrass came from, and what they mean to us.
The Teachings begin in the East and move across the Circle to the West. These Lessons, are: The Four Directions (East, South, West, North), The Four Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter), The Four Elements (Fire, Earth, Water, and Wind), The Animals (Four- and two-leggeds, Winged Ones, Swimmers, Crawlers), the Medicinal Plants (Tobacco, Cedar, Sage, Sweetgrass), the Sky Spirits (Sun, Moon, Earth, Stars), and the Stages of Human Life (which I will dwell on below). The Seven Grandfather Teachings are also represented on the Medicine Circle. They, too, begin in the Northern direction and move down to the Center of the Circle. These gifts are the Teachings of Wisdom, Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Humility, and Truth.
Ojibwe Medicine Wheel symbolism

"We are all at different places in the Circle of Life. Imagine the wheel with 12 spokes, each spoke represents the month/date of our birth. That's where we are on the Medicine Wheel. We go around the wheel, the Creator has invited us to walk the wheel, to walk this path of life."

-  The late Anishinaabe spiritual teacher Chii-Ma’iingan (Larry Stillday), Bear Clan.

The circle and the four stages of human life

The four directions, or quadrants, of the Medicine Circle provide many healing tools and can be used as moral and psychological guidelines, such as the need for balance in the world, and the balance we must strive for everyday within ourselves. Knowledge about the center of the Medicine Circle and its cardinal points can give us direction and helps us to understand the old Midewiwin Teaching that James Mishibinijima, an artist from Manitoulin Island, once described as “Spiritual Paths.”
According to him, Spiritual Paths, also called “Tree of Life,” is a simple Teaching to understand; “all you need to do is to take a good look at yourself and see what you truly need. When you try to get things that your neighbours have, this is where your Spiritual Path and design gets confused and ultimately fail. This is where people get confused and create problems in their life. When confusion sets into your life, you have the ability to choose another branch from the tree of life and follow that branch towards discovery. When you stand back and take a good look, you have so much branches to choose from.”
So, the way I understand it, once you understand the Teaching or concept of the Tree of Life, that is where the Teaching of the Medicine Circle comes in; this is where we look into this circular mirror that shows us the way to self-reflection and self-discovery – and, ultimately, to emotional and spiritual nurturance. It paves the path to what our ancestors called mino-bimaadiziwin: an upright, long, and prosperous life (literally: “to live the good life”). Sandy Beaulieu, an Ojibwe author from the Sandy Bay First Nation, Manitoba, says the following about it:

“The eastern section (of the Medicine Wheel), colored yellow, represents the beginning of life, birth, and early childhood. It is a time of innocence and purity. The east is where people come from. The east represents new life being brought into the world.

The southern section, colored red, represents youth and adolescence, a time of growth and the beginning of knowledge. It is a time of learning and represents the mental development of self.

The west, colored black, is the time of adulthood and parenthood, when responsibilities and nurturing are one’s main occupations. The west represents the emotional self and meeting the fulfillment of life as we find our meaning and place.

Finally, the northern section of the wheel represents Elders, grandparents, and death. The white symbolizes the hair of the Elders and their years of learning. This is the place of wisdom and of imparting the knowledge gained from a lifetime of living in the physical world to the younger generations. It is a time of reflection, rest, and increased understanding of the aspects of the spiritual world.”

The circle of seasons and of sharing the gifts from the earth 

Simone McLeod All Nations' Feast
Acrylic on canvas "All Nations' Feast" by Simone McLeod ©2014 Simone McLeod

The Anishinaabeg and Ininiwak as well as all other Nations of Original Peoples of Turtle Island have always lived according the cyclical rhythm set by the seasonal changes. Traditionally, survival and economic well-being depend upon being in balance and harmony with the plant world, the animal world, and the world of the supernatural. Mother Earth, the Great Mystery, and the animals provide us with the gifts of food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and dreams and we, the people who live on the land, complete the circle of giving through ceremonies, offering asemaa (tobacco) and a myriad of other gifts in gratitude, and by sharing with each other. These lessons, too, are a part of the Sacred Medicine Circle that we discuss today.

The symbolic meaning of the silver medicine circle pendant


A silver Medicine Wheel by Zhaawano Giizhik
Click on the image to view details of the silver Medicine Circle pendant


What is the symbolic meaning of the custom-made, Medicine Circle pendant titled “Zhooniyaa Mashkiki Waawiyeyaatig,” which I crafted by hand from sterling silver and stone? Which four spirit animals/beings are represented in the quadrants and what do they represent? And why did I place four images of eagle feathers in the design?
To start off with, the Medicine Circle pendant has a personal nature and therefore contains personalized symbols. The animals, the winged ones, the spirits, and the Great Mystery are represented by the oxidized symbols and by the stone, which I depicted and placed in the center of the big circle. Each symbol tells a part of the big story, as does the turquoise stone in the center. The circle of the “wheel” stands for all cycles that exist in nature: day and night, ebb and flood, the seasons, the moons (months), the cycles of human life, and the orbits of the moon and the planets. In a metaphorical sense, this silver Medicine Circle is a physical instrument, a life-guiding compass, and a mirror of nature reflecting certain life aspects that are important to the person whom I made the pendant for.
The Four Cardinal points on the Medicine Circle are the Four Sacred Directions. These Directions are traditionally represented among the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg by the colors yellow, red, black and white. Blue represents GIIZHIG or Father Sky in the upper realm, green represents AKI or Mother Earth below, and purple represents INJICHAAG, the core of self, our spirit/soul that journeys in this physical world, at the center of the Circle. However, since it isn’t the Native Way to consider ceremonies – including the ceremony of the Medicine Circle/Wheel - to be prescribed static events, but rather a living, breathing extension of the participants and the feelings in their heart, I took the liberty of not using the above-mentioned colors. Instead, I restricted myself to tones of silver and black (the oxidized, cut out areas). I also placed a blue turquoise stone in the center with four oxidized, cut out eagle feathers attached to the four corners of the Earth; the feathers in themselves representing injichaag, or spirit and the blue stone in the center symbolizing our Inward Journey as well as GICHI-MANIDOO’s (Great Mystery’s) omnipresence and power over all living things.


Click on the image to view details of the silver Medicine Circle pendant.


There are no fixed rules about what animals are associated with the Medicine Circle/Wheel or in which quadrant they must be shown; this is merely a matter of choice and tradition. The most common spirit animals that are associated with the Circle/Wheel are the eagle, the bison, the wolf, and the bear. I chose different spirit-animals to represent certain virtues in this Medicine Circle that I crafted by hand from sterling silver.

To be able to “read” this silver Medicine Circle pendant it is important to understand that the standard north-south-east-west compass orientation is different in European and Anishinaabe cultures. The Anishinaabeg traditionally orient themselves to the East, which is why the East should appear at the top (or graphically, in the northeastern section) of a Medicine Circle/Wheel. However, since I regard the Medicine Circle/Wheel as a mirror of nature and human life, I took the liberty to depict the traditional Anishinaabe compass orientation in reverse (i.e. a mirror image). So I constructed this sterling silver Medicine Circle as follows:

Southwestern quadrant: Footprint of Migizi the Bald Eagle. Migizi represents the eastern direction, where the Sun rises. The eagle symbolized the eagle’s vision, power and ability to see the bigger picture of the world from above. Eagle is the instrument, the living prayer of mino-bimaadiziwin, the Law of GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery, that tells us to live in balance and cooperation with nature. The eagle is the bird that flies closest to GICHI-MANIDOO and is therefore the messenger between people and GICHI-MANIDOO. Eagle stands for the virtue of Love.

Northwestern quadrant: The Spider. In this silver Medicine Circle the spider represents the southern direction. Asibikaashi, or Spider woman, once helped the supernatural hero Wiinabozho to snare the Sun and return it to the Anishinaabeg. And each morning at sunup Asibikaashi weaves her special wiigiwaam for Grandfather Giizis before he pours his magic rays over the land and she inspires mothers in the morning to weave protective spider web charms. She is a helper of the People as she protects our dreams and our sleeping children. She particularly stands for the virtue of industriousness.

Dream catcher
Photo by Olivier Bataille


Northeastern quadrant: Gichi-misaabe, in this Medicine Circle, represents the western direction, where the sun sets. Gichi-misaabe is a friendly, four-legged giant from the forests who, when he is among humans, walks on two legs, and reminds us to be honest to the Great Mystery and to ourselves and not to be someone we are not. An honest person is said to walk tall like him.

Southeastern quadrant: Footrint of Makade-makwa the Black Bear, a brother and a mother to humans. Makwa-makade represents the northern direction where biiboon the winter spirit dwells. Makade-makwa is strong and confident and is a powerful image of healing for both the physical and emotional. She/he stands for  the virtue of Bravery and, in this silver pendant, as bears are teachers of plant medicine, represents the Earth.
The turquoise stone in the center: Each of us carries a unique gift and certain talents within. The round stone with the color of a bright blue sky embodies the Four Aspects of Self; manidoo waadiziwin (spiritual), inamanji'owin (emotional), niiyaw (physical), and inaandamowin (mental). We as human beings start the Circle of Life as an abinooji, (baby) then we grow to oshkiniigi (youth), followed by gichi-aya'aa (adult), and finally gete-ayaa (elder). The stone is therefore a reminder of our own life’s journey and also of its gifts and it reminds us to nurture this gift and talents. At the same time the stone denotes GICHI-MANIDOO, the infinitely Great Mystery of Life of which we, as human beings, are only a small, but nevertheless valuable part.


Medicine Wheel Miskwaabik Animikii Copper Thunderbird
"Medicine Wheel," acrylic on canvas by Miskwaabik Animikii (1979) Source: Norval Morrisseau Blog


The great bravery to face yourself 

As was stated in the beginning of this story, the original purpose and meaning of the ancient stone Medicine Circle, or Wheel, is unknown; yet I like to believe that today, many thousands of years after the first Grandfather-Stones were laid out in circular patterns, it hasn’t lost any of its deep and universal wisdom. No symbol in the world can compete with the simple beauty of its ancient design, and this beauty resides within the perfect balance of its circular design. The Medicine Circle testifies of the old wisdom that everything in life tries to be harmonious and round. It is a universal mirror that reflects GIIZIS the Sun, WAAWIYEKAAMIG, the Universe, and GICHI-MANIDOO, the Great Mystery of Life itself. At the same time it sheds light on our own behaviors as humans as it reflects our private thoughts, passions, and motives. Aahaaw! It takes great bravery to look into the Medicine Mirror because it will confront us with some things we’d rather not see. Yet, it not only tells us where our individual and collective vices lie; it also shows us where our talents and strength lie and it reminds us to strive to better understand the concept of mino-bimaadiziwin – which means taking responsibility for our own lives and always  live in harmony with All Our Relations.

It is as Timothy C. Thomason so eloquently stated in his article “The Medicine Wheel as a Symbol of Native American Psychology”:

“… The archetypal circular shape of the medicine wheel could be interpreted as a reminder that it is important to see life and all creation as a whole. The center of the wheel can be seen as representing the unitary self, while the spokes reach outward to other people and the rest of the world. The cardinal points on the perimeter of the wheel imply the great diversity of creation, and the opposition of the points implies the need to integrate the opposites to find harmony. In its evocation of balance the medicine wheel reminds us to focus on what is most important in life.”

In conclusion, I’d like to respectfully cite the late Anishinaabe Elder Lillian Pitawanakwat (Nimkii Biness Mijissi Kwe of the Thunderbird Clan) who shared with us the following Midewiwin Teaching about the Medicine Circle:

And so as I share this story (about the Medicine Wheel) with you, I am sharing how I became reconnected with my ancestors. It is through them that we learn the sacred teachings that they carried. I cherish this story because it is not only about an awakening inside of me, but an awakening of a community that came together to celebrate a way of being and spiritual nourishment. We still go back to our original teachings, because that’s where our food for life comes from, to nurture that spirit that is forever searching in life’s journey. And so I am grateful to all of my teachers and all of life’s teachings.

This is what we learn from the four stages of the Medicine Wheel: that all of life’s cycle is beautiful - the sadness and the joy, life and death; and that they are all one, and there is life in death, death in life - and that beauty itself resides within the balance of the whole circle.

And so now we have come full circle, and I give thanks. To the Eastern Doorway I say Miigwech, to the Southern Doorway, I say Miigwech, to the Western Doorway, Miigwech, and to the Northern Doorway, Miigwech.


Click on the image to view details of the silver Medicine Circle pendant


Lakota Medicine Wheel


So the story goes...

Giiwenh. So goes the Teaching Story about the Medicine Circle and what it means to the Peoples of the great Turtle Island...Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidaadizookoon. Thank you for listening to my storytelling today. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon...

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 >  Read part 7 in the series Teachings from the Tree of Life

About the author and his sources of inspiration:

Trouwringen ontwerper Zhaawano Giizhik


My name is Zhaawano Giizhik. My clan is waabizheshi, the marten.

As an American artist and jewelry designer currently living in the Netherlands. I like to draw on the oral and pictorial traditions of my Ojibwe Anishinaabe ancestors from the American Great Lakes area. For this I call on my manidoo-minjimandamowin, or "Spirit Memory"; which means I try to remember the knowledge and the lessons of my ancestors. 

The mazinaajimowinan or ‘‘pictorial spirit writings’’ - which are rich with symbolism and have been painted throughout history on rocks and etched on other sacred items such as copper and slate, birch bark and animal hide - were a form of spiritual as well as educational communication that gave structure and meaning to the cosmos. 

Many of these sacred pictographs or petroforms – some of which are many, many  generations old - hide in sacred locations where the manidoog (spirits) reside, particularly in those mystic places near the coastline where the sky, the earth, the water, the underground and the underwater meet. 

It is these age-old expressions that provide an endless supply of story elements to my work  be it graphically, through my written stories, as well as in the context of my jewelry making. 


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