Native Americans hold the Medicine Wheel highly sacred and refer to it as the Circle of Life or Sacred Hoop. It does not denote healing, but rather spiritual significance and hallowed ground where sacred rituals are performed and is symbolic of the never-ending cycle of life. The circle is seen within all life, as a cycle or actual shapes. Mother Earth, celestial bodies, the journey of Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon, the Four Winds which travel to all directions, in the seasons which repeat. It is seen in Nature and humanity in the birth and death cycle and all cycles within Creation.
The Medicine Wheel symbolizes this Circle of Life with a cross within the circle. The cross represents the Four Sacred Directions and their powers: East, South, West, and North. These directions in turn symbolize the four stages of life, and are designated with the sacred colors of yellow, red, black and white, which is symbolic of all races and the Four Elements.
East: Yellow, Spring, Water, Birth and childhood. The Morning Star that Creator makes to shine upon us in the beginning.
South: Red, Summer, Fire, Adolescence. The Warmth of Grandfather Sun whom we turn to for growth.
West: Black, Autumn, Earth, Adulthood, Growth and maturity. The Thunder Beings who speak to us.
North: White, Winter, Air, Elders, Wisdom, Spirituality, Death.
Looking at these Four Directions and their symbolic meanings, it is easy to see how the Medicine Wheel becomes such a powerful teaching tool. The circle itself embodies all these powers and enfolds us within, as if Mother Earth holds us in her arms and nurtures us, from birth to death. Within the circle (life) is the cross (all peoples), where all directions (journeys) come from and return to the center of the Universe (Creator, Great Spirit, Great Mystery, God).
In the state of Wyoming in the United States, there is a Native American sacred site and National Historic Landmark, where Big Horn Medicine Wheel can be found, in the Big Horn Mountains. Hiking up to nearly 10,000 feet near the summit of Medicine Mountain, one can see this amazing structure. The stones used for the circle and the cross are roughly the size of a loaf of bread and were gathered from the surrounding area. The outer rim of the circle is 25 yards round. The center cairn is almost 10 feet in diameter.
Big Horn Medicine Wheel, a Native American sacred site and National Historic Landmark in Wyoming.
This image is a work of the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.
There are several other cairns within the circle. One pair is aligned in the direction of the summer solstice sunrise and another pair in alignment with the summer solstice sunset. Other cairns correspond to the rising points of stars: Sirius, Aldebaran, and Rigel. This would have helped to determine the time of the coming of summer solstice. A piece of wood found in one of the cairns was carbon dated to over 250 years ago, to the mid 18th century. This is considered only as a minimum age for the Medicine Wheel, since the wood could have been placed there long after the original construction. This site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
When holding ceremonies, prayers are always said to each of the Four Directions, below to Mother Earth, then above to Great Spirit, making six Sacred Directions in all.
The beliefs for the purpose of a Medicine Wheel may vary from tribe to tribe, but the basics are the same. This teaching tool helps one with their visions, their self growth, their spirituality; to know where they are in life, where they stand in the Universe, or what cycle they are in and what journey one must take to find their own truths.
Phyllis Doyle Burns is BellaOnline’s Native American Editor and has a true heart for all things pertaining to the Native American culture.