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.
|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.
|A comtemporary version of the Ojibwe Medicine Circle: |
ca. 1.968 inch/50 mm in diameter, porcupine quill wrapped.
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
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.
"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.”
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.”⁴
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.”⁵
The circle of seasons and of sharing the gifts from the earth
|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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
|Photo by Olivier Bataille|
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.
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.
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).⁶ 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
The great bravery to face yourself
As was stated in the beginning of this
original purpose and meaning of the
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.
“… 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.”
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.”⁷
Post a Comment