A prayer from the Oglala Holy Man Black Elk;
“Hear me four quarters of the world, I am a relative.
Give me the power to walk the soft Earth, a relative to all that is.
Give me eyes to see and the strength to understand that I may be like You.
With your power only can I face the winds.”
The Medicine Wheel symbol is a central spiritual and philosophical device used by many Native American communities. It consists of an equal-armed cross placed inside a circle. This is also a universal symbol that can be found throughout the nations of the world from the ancient days to today. It has been called by many names; the medicine wheel, sacred hoop, solar disk and sun circle, just to name a few. This symbol is central to Muskogee philosophy and is the basis for the layout of traditional ceremonial dance grounds.
As a symbol, the Medicine Wheel is made up of two symbols; the circle and the compass cross.
The circle is the most basic symbol for life and divinity. It is also the most perfect metaphor for God in geometry. The circle, like the Creator has no beginning and no end and therefore it represents eternity. Geometrically it is the essential symbol of balance and equality. And as the perfect symbol of the Creator, you could expect it to be apparent in creation.
The circle is also the perfect metaphor for Nature, which is the manifestation of the Creator. We find the circle everywhere in nature. Natural things tend to be round or function cyclically. The most obvious examples are the sun, the moon and the earth, all which are round. The earth and other planets revolve around the sun in a circular motion. On the earth, the circle can be seen like the signature of the Creator in the rings of a tree or the fruit growing upon it. The seasons of the year follow a cyclical pattern with winter turning into spring, summer, autumn and then returning to winter. The Oglala holy man Black Elk explained the meaning of the circle in this manner;
You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of our hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion. 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 the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. 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 tepees were always round like nests of birds, and those were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
The Pawnee Indians regarded the circle with much the same philosophy. According to one Pawnee priest;
The circle represents a nest, and it is drawn by the toe because the eagle builds its nest with its claws. Although we are imitating the bird making its nest, there is another meaning to the action; we are thinking of Tirawa making the world for the people to live in. If you go on a high hill and look around, you will see the sky touching the earth on every side, and within this circular enclosure the people live. So the circles we have made are not only nests, but they also represent the circle Tirawa-atius has made for the dwelling place of all the people. The circles also stand for the kinship group, the clan, and the tribe.
The sun which we depend on so directly in our lives has served as another great metaphor for the Creator throughout history. It is round and therefore the Medicine Wheel is also symbolic of this solar enlightenment. For this reason the medicine wheel symbol is often displayed within a solar motif with the rays of the sun extending outward in eight directions. With the sun circle and compass cross both being direct metaphors of the divine nature of the earth and the celestial respectively, the Medicine Wheel as a spiritual and philosophical tool is therefore an unparalleled tool for use in coming to knowledge of Nature and of Nature’s God.
The cross is a four cornered compass. Each one of the four arms of the cross is attributed to a particular compass point, which is in turn associated to a particular philosophical or spiritual principle.
In contemporary society the four directions tend to be taken for granted and with little regard. But to the elder ancestors they represented the very survival of the people. Our ancestors did not have the crutch of a GPS on which to rely. Instead they watched the sky, the path of the sun, moon, stars and even the shadows in order to keep track of the directions to avoid becoming lost or disoriented in the forest or on the prairie, something that could quickly result in death. In fact the very meaning of the word ‘disoriented’ is to be incapable of locating the east.
Living in tune with the directions, the seasons and nature in general kept the elder ancestors alive, so naturally a system of philosophy developed about life and the hereafter as demonstrated through that symbolism. Each direction is thought of as a separate land, world or dimension, symbolically if not literally. Therefore each direction has its own natures, associations and inhabitants. In some ways each direction is thought of individually as separate Heavens and their inhabitants are spiritual beings like angels, ancestors and medicine powers.
While the specific associations of each direction can vary greatly from people to people and from age to age, the following cardinal directions and their associations are based heavily off those that are most commonly encountered in native circles, with special emphasis placed on associations identifiable within Muscogee, Yuchi and Cherokee traditions.
East — place of the sun
The east is associated with light and knowledge, because the sun comes up from the east and travels across the sky. The sun is the source of life on earth and its light removes the cover of darkness, revealing what was previously hidden from view, therefore the east is associated with revelation, illumination and enlightenment.
In Muskogee lore it is the Hawk which flies highest of all creatures. He is the messenger of the Creator, like an angel delivering prayers to Him and knowledge and revelation from Him. It is traditional in Muscogee as well as many other traditions to face east when praying.
North—place of wind
The north is the land of wisdom, the breath of life and inspiration. This is a land of elders, the source of ancestral wisdom and so the north is sometimes referred to as the “place of the white hairs.” It is associated with the buffalo and the deer who live closely to nature and know her ways intimately. The bald eagle is said to be stationed here, guarding the health and cleansing wind.
In the Creek Migration Legend, the people took the red and yellow fire from the north and mixed it with fire from the sacred mountain and this is said to be the fire that Creeks use to this day, which sometimes sings.
West—place of earth
West is the place of darkness and introspection. The sun sets in the west and therefore this direction is associated with sleep and the subconscious. The spirits of departed are said to travel to the western world and so it is associated with death and the afterlife. The nature of the west’s earth association also connects it to the underworld caverns from whence tradition tells us the Muskogee people emerged. This is the womb of creation as well, and therefore represents life at its most primal state and incubation.
The black bear is associated with this direction as is the panther. The bear’s penchant for residing in caves and sleeping through large portions of the winter make him a skilled adept of navigating the womb of creation and the world of dreams. Black Elk taught that the west is the home of the Thunderbird, which in Muscogee tradition is the Thunder being who brings the rains and lightning.
South—place of water
The south is associated with warm purifying waters and virtue. These waters are specifically the deep bodies of water aside from the storm and rains. For the most obvious reasons water is the element of cleansing. Not only is it essential in daily hygiene but it is also vital in the human body’s natural process of purification and detoxification. Water also represents change over time by the process of erosion which reshapes old landscapes and renews the earth.
Water is also intricately connected with the underworld. Muskogee tradition tells us that the Great Snake guards the southern waters.
Together, the sacred circle and the compass cross portray the divine in both the ethereal and the physical sense. It is important to understand that these are considered to be integrated and whole, not separate perceptions. Each person must come to fully understand and integrate the teachings of each direction, one by one until they have traversed the entire compass in order to attain a life of wisdom and fulfillment. All together it teaches us balance and provides us with the tools to build a healthy spiritual life.
The integration of these attributes and principles into a person’s spirit is achieved by diligent efforts in meditation, contemplation and daily application of these principles. When we consider our relationship on the medicine wheel, we truly consider our circumstances; literally where we stand inside the circle. These efforts can be heightened by living close to the earth and taking part in our native traditions. This Medicine Wheel philosophy is a root philosophy which has influenced the lives of native people for centuries. It is practical, logical and metaphorical. It connects us to our time and place, instills our perception of the world with wonder and provides us with a basis by which we can contemplate our own nature and that of all creation.
 Neihardt, John J., Black Elk Speaks, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1932-1961 Pg 195-6
Alice C. Fletcher, The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony (22nd Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, part 2; Washington, 1904), pp. 243-244. Cited by Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces