Navajo Medicine Wheel
Native American tribes heavily use symbolism in many aspects of their culture. One of the most recognizable symbols by those within and outside of tribal culture is the medicine wheel. A medicine wheel, which is also know as the “sacred hoop” can take many forms. It is sometimes seen as a work of art like a painting, a craft that can be bought in a gift shop or it may take on a physical form constructed on land, which can be found on Native American lands all over the United States and Canada.
The medicine aspects of the medicine wheel are not the medications that are prescribed today when people are sick, but Native American medicine refers to the power or force of nature. It also refers to the personal power that people have within themselves that enables them to be whole or complete. This medicine equals energy, power and knowledge.
What Does a Medicine Wheel Symbolize?
The medicine wheel is used by many Native American tribes as a source for health and healing. Most medicine wheels embody the four directions along with Father Sky, Mother Earth and the Spirit Tree. These symbols represent the dimensions of Earth and the cycles of life in Native American culture. Like most other medicine wheels, the Navajo medicine wheel is round, which symbolizes the never ending circle of life; birth to death, sorrow and happiness, rich and poor, good and bad. Inside of each circle are the four winds, the four directions, the four seasons and the times of day.
The Meaning of the Four Directions
The circle of the wheel are the four directions and each segment, or direction, is depicted with its own color, the movement of the circle is clockwise or also called “sun-wise.” For the Navajo medicine wheel, the colors are:
North is White
East is Yellow
South is Red
West is Black
The four directions can have different meanings attributed to them, such as:
The Four Stages of Life – Birth, childhood, adulthood, death.
The Four Seasons – Spring, summer, fall, winter.
Four of the Aspects of Life – Spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical
The Four Elements of Nature – Fire, air, water, earth.
Four Animals – Buffalo, eagle, mouse, bear.
Four Ceremonial Plants – Tobacco, sweet grass, sage, cedar.
The medicine wheel represents life in balance and when a person is ill, their life is considered out of balance. The role of a healer in Native American culture is to help the sick person get their life back in balance through prayer, represented by their spirit; meditation, which is the mind or intellect; herbal medicine, which are plants and getting in touch with their emotional self.
The medicine wheel is representative of the circle of life and when someone is ill or their life is out of balance, there are ceremonies held to help them get their life back into balance. The Navajo healing ceremonies, called “ways,” use chants, songs, sand paintings, sacred objects and dance to help restore balance to the person by linking them with their spirit world through recreating stories and events that connect them with their origins.
Ceremonies often take days and months of preparation are needed to bring everyone together to help restore balance within the social realm. A different design or model is used for different ceremonies, which are officiated by a singer called a hataali. Since these ceremonies can be expensive to put together and time-consuming, they are rarely held except when the need is dire.
Creating Medicine Wheels
Some of the oldest outdoor medicine wheels go back hundreds of years and the oldest one known in the United States was found in Wyoming that was said to go back 4,500 years. An outdoor medicine wheel can be any size, but preferably, it should be large enough for people to sit within it. Medicine wheels may also be made only big enough for the one person seeking healing to sit within it.
Stones are important for making an outdoor medicine wheel and large ones are usually used to make very large medicine wheels. A basic medicine wheel will have four smaller stones to represent the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) and sometimes there will be even smaller stones representing the ordinal directions, which are northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast.
The outdoor medicine wheels can be used in ceremonies or they can be used for personal contemplation in order to seek healing or become balanced again. People who are into alternative forms of medicine have tried to adapt the medicine wheel for use outside of Native American circles with varying degrees of success. Many people are skeptical of alternative medicines and this includes Native American forms that are filled with symbolism and, as some people see it, mysticism.