The Medicine Wheel Teachings

There are many versions of medicine wheel teachings. These teachings vary from one community to another but there are some foundational concepts that are similar between the various medicine wheel teachings. For example, Medicine Wheels are usually depicted through four directions but also include the sky, the earth and the centre. For Ojibwe people, the colours are yellow (east), red (south), black (west), white (north), Father Sky (blue), Mother Earth (green) and the self (Centre, purple). The medicine wheel reminds us that everything comes in fours – the four seasons, the four stages of life, the four races of humanity, four cardinal directions, etc. The seven stages of life and the seven living teachings (Benton-Banai, 2010) are also represented by these seven directions. According to Toulouse (2018), it was not until the 1960s that the use of colours (red, yellow, black, white, blue, green) appeared in contemporary medicine wheels. Traditional medicine wheels (sacred circles) were often depicted using stones set out in the form of a wheel and included at least two of the following three traits: (1) a central stone cairn, (2) one or more concentric stone circles, and/or (3) two or more stone lines radiating outward from a central point (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018). Indigenous people used medicine wheels to mark significant locations such as places of energy, spiritual and ceremonial grounds, as well as meeting locations, places of meditation, teaching and celebration (Pereda, n.d.).

“All parts of the wheel are important and depend on each other in the cycle of life; what affects one affects all, and the world cannot continue with missing parts. For this reason, the Medicine Wheel teaches that harmony, balance and respect for all parts are needed to sustain life” (Elder Lillian Pitawanakwat, Ojibwe/Potawotami, as cited in Pereda, n.d.)

The circle describes various aspects of life, both seen and unseen. It provides us teachings about how to live life in a good way. Aboriginal people understand the connection to creation and all living things. The four directions remind us of the need for balance in our lives and that we must work on a daily basis to strive for that balance. The following teachings are a synopsis of the medicine wheel teachings provided by Lillian Pitawanakwat-Ba from Whitefish River First Nation (Four Directions, 2006).

The Center

According to Pitawanakwat (as cited in Four Directions Teaching, 2006), the centre represents the fire within and our responsibility for maintaining that fire. Pitawanakwat recalls that as a child, her father would ask at the end of the day, “My daughter, how is your fire burning?” In recalling the events of the day, she would reflect on whether she had been offensive to anyone, or whether or not she had been offended. This was an important part of nurturing the fire within as children were taught to let go of any distractions of the day and make peace within ourselves in order to nurture and maintain that inner fire.

The story of the Rose, as told by Pitawanakwat (2006), serves as a reminder of the value of nurturance and the essence of life. According to this story, the Creator asked the flower people, “Who among you will bring a reminder to the two-legged about the essence of life?” The buttercup offered but the Creator refused on the basis that the buttercup was ‘too bright.’ All of the flowers offered their help but were refused. The rose finally offered, stating “Let me remind them with my essence, so that in times of sadness, and in times of joy, they will remember how to be kind to themselves.” So the Creator, planted the seed of the rose and as it grew a little, it sprouted very, very sharp little thorns and eventually it bloomed into a full rose. This teaching reminds us that life is like a rose with the thorns representing life’s journey; the experiences that make us who we are and the rose representing the many times in life when we decay and die only to bounce back again through reflection, meditation, awareness, acceptance and surrender.

The East – Waabinong

According to Pitawanakwat (as cited in Four Directions Teachings, 2006), the springtime, and the spring of life are represented in the east. All life begins in the east; we begin our human life as we journey form the spirit world into this physical world. When we are born into this physical world, the Creator grants four gifts: to pick our own mother and father, and how we are to be born and die. The spirit enters the physical level at conception and is carried in its mother for nine months. When the mother’s water breaks, the spirit enters into the physical world.

The teachings from the east remind us that all life is spirit (the wind, earth, fire, and water – all those things that are alive with energy and movement) and that to honour that life, we offer tobacco in thanksgiving. Prayers of thanksgiving honour all those things that we cannot exist without, for the breath of life, the cycles of time and to be grateful for life. We are especially grateful for natural law. All our teachings come from the natural world around us.

The South – Zhawanong

The summer and youth are represented in the southern direction. Summer is a time of continued nurturance. Youth are at a stage in life where they are no longer children and are not quite adults. They may be searching for what they had to leave behind in their childhood and also struggling with their identity. Who am I? Where do I come from? Youth are in the wandering stage of life – wandering and wondering about life. In this direction, we are reminded to look after our spirits by finding that balance within ourselves and to pay attention to what our spirit is telling us. If we listen to our intuition, then the spirit will help to keep us safe. Youth who grow up without spirit nurturance have no direction and are at risk of being exposed to all kinds of dangers and distractions; their spirits have not been nurtured. Youth often search for those people that can provide that nurturance such as Elders. They are starved for the teachings, especially those teachings that provide meaning and purpose. Youth need nurturance, guidance and protection to help them through this transitional phase of their lives.

As youth begin to journey into the next stage of life, they begin to become more accountable and start the planning stage of their lives – planning to be parents, to have a career, etc.

The West –  Epangishmok

The western direction represents the adult stage of life. Death is also represented in this direction. Death comes in many forms – the end of our physical journey and crossing back into the spirit world; the setting sun and end of the day; or recognition that as old thoughts and feelings die, new ones emerge.

The heart is also represented in the west. The heart helps us to evaluate, appreciate and enjoy our lives. By nurturing our hearts, we create balance in our lives.

The North – Kiiwedinong

The teachings of the north remind us to slow down and rest. The north is referred to as the rest period, a time to be respectful of the need to care for and nurture the physical body. It is also referred to by some as a period of remembrance – a time for contemplation of what has happened in life. Winter is represented in the north – it is a time for rest for the earth. It is also a time of reflection – on being a child, a youth and an adult. Elders, pipe carriers and the lodge keepers, reside in the north. Their teachings help us to embrace all aspects of our beings so that we can feel and experience the fullness of life. Wisdom also resides in the north. Elder’s share their stories in the winter months.

Pitawanakwat relates the story of the first sweat lodge ceremony that happened at Dreamer’s Rock, a sacred place in the Whitefish River First Nation territory, after the ban was lifted that prohibited ceremonies from taking place there. It was at this time that Pitawanakwat was reminded that the spirits (ancestors) were hungry and that they needed to be fed. This was when she organized a community feast and prepared a spirit plate. She offered her tobacco and prayed:

“Grandfathers, grandmothers, ancestors, all our relations: please hear us. We
are here now, have pity on us. We had forgotten to feed you. You have lived a
long time without food, and now we are here to honour you. Please come and
feast with us.” (Pitawanakwat as cited in Four Directions Teachings, 2006)

For Pitawanakwat, this is when she became reconnected to the circle and to her ancestors, and was reminded of her responsibility to nurture her inner spirit and to acknowledge the beauty of the original teachings.

Learning Activities

  1. Take some time to explore the Four Directions Teachings:
    Ojibwe people pay respect to the four directions through the offering of a gift of tobacco. Why is this custom considered by Ojibwe people to be an act of humility? Why is tobacco considered to be a medicine? What view does modern society have of tobacco?
  2. Ojibwe people recognize that humanity is dependent on nature. However, today’s society has a different view of the importance of the natural elements. Why is it important that we not lose respect for nature? Describe the importance of ensuring safe water systems and breathable air?

Interesting Facts:

Did you know…

Turtles are featured in many folktales the world over. African folklore views the turtle as the smartest animal. The turtle is viewed as a very powerful symbol in Chinese mythology. For the Lakota, the turtle (ke-ya) spirit symbolizes health and longevity (turtle symbols contained within medicine bags are believed to protect and prolong life). The earlier traditions of the tribe put a beaded turtle on the umbilicus or the crib of newborn girls for protection and long life.


Expanding Your knowledge

  1. Learn more about the teachings shared by Lillian Pitawanakwat-ba of Whitefish River First Nation by visiting the following link:
    Four Directions Teachings


Share This Book