A Medicine Wheel is a circle divided into parts (usually
four), which relate with and counterbalance one another to form a whole, and
is often used to represent Aboriginal wisdom in North America. Medicine
Wheels are not necessarily a tradition belonging to all Aboriginal peoples.
However, many cultures have some variation of the Wheel, and the Traditional
Knowledge and views of the various first peoples of North America are more
compatible with the circle concept than with linear, European-based forms of
The Medicine Wheel represents and unites various aspects
of the world, both seen and unseen, and emphasizes how all parts of the world
and all levels of being are related and connected through a life force
originating in the creation of the universe. Some wheels teach about the
four cardinal directions, the seasons, times of day, or stages of life;
others represent the races of people, animals, natural elements, aspects of
being, and so on. 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.
The centre of the Medicine
Wheel symbolizes the self in balance, and the perspective of traditional
philosophy. The central perspective is a neutral place where it is possible
to develop a holistic vision and understanding of creation and the
connections between all things.
Medicine Wheels made of
stones arranged on the Earth have been found in various places throughout North America, marking places of special significance, such as places of energy, ceremony,
meeting, meditation, teaching, and celebration. Some estimate that there
were about 20,000 medicine wheels in North America before European contact
occurred. Some Medicine Wheels on the prairies have been found to be 5,000
years old or more.
- Post a very large sheet labeled “Spring” on the eastern
wall of the classroom. Post a sheet labeled “Summer” on the southern
wall of the classroom, a sheet for “Fall” on the western wall of the
classroom, and one for “Winter” on the northern wall of the classroom.
As the students arrive for class, ask them to move to the side of the
room representing the season that is their favourite. Generate a
discussion based on which season is most popular among the class. Why
is this your favourite season? What do you like to do at that time?
What do you not like about the other seasons? Why?
- Each group can work as a team to decorate the sign that
is on their wall, drawing symbols to identify what the group likes best
about the season they chose. Then have them add the months of the year
when it is their season.
- Explain that Aboriginal people have traditional
teachings to share, given to them thousands of years ago and passed down
through the generations. Traditional knowledge is taught by older
people - or Elders - who have worked and studied many years to
understand it. Aboriginal people have always had a close relationship
to nature, having depended on it for survival. It was (and in some
places is still) important to know the seasons to know when to hunt, to trap,
to grow plants, to make shelters, etc. Different times of the year pose
different challenges. Aboriginal people have very highly developed
knowledge about the forces of nature and how we are all connected
through nature. Aboriginal elders teach that the four seasons are very
special and very important and not just to them but to everyone because
all of us share these same four seasons (at least in Canada). The seasons do not change. So Aboriginal people believe the four seasons are
sacred, or blessed, because each season has a spirit and gives us
special gifts. The seasons are interconnected. So they believe that we
must always respect the four seasons. What are the gifts of the
seasons? What are the challenges of the seasons?
- The Ojibwe use colours to represent the seasons. Guess
which colour the Ojibwe use to represent Spring? Yellow. Why yellow?
What things are yellow? Summer is red. Why? Fall is black. Why? And
why would they use white for winter? Every year spring follows winter,
and summer follows spring, etc. Four seasons makes the year complete,
balanced, a whole year. Now fill in the respective colours on the
signs. These are called the Four Sacred Colours.
- Explain that in addition to the seasons, the Ojibwe
people have traditional beliefs about the sacredness of the four
directions, as they depended on the sun each day for their survival.
Why? What are the gifts of the sun? To keep warm, to have light, to
grow food. So the Ojibwe respect the sun which rises each day in which
direction? It travels across the sky in which direction? It sets in
which direction? And the cycle repeats the next day. And the next
day. And the next day after that. So the Four Directions are
considered to be spirits that are sacred to traditional Aboriginal
people. And they respect the four directions every day, not just every
once in a while. The directions are interconnected. Where does the sun
rise? Everybody point in that direction. Ask the spring/yellow group
to add “East” to their poster. Now ask which direction does the sun
travel? Everybody point in that direction. Ask the summer/red group to
add “South” to their poster. Now ask which direction does the sun set
each night? Everybody point in that direction. As the fall/black group
to add “West” to their poster. Finally ask which direction does the sun
return to start the cycle again? Everybody point north. Ask the
winter/white group to add “North” to their poster. Four directions
makes the sun’s cycle complete, balanced.
- Face east again, as the cycle is complete. Did we change
our position? No, we stayed in the centre, because we are always in the
centre. Even if we move left or right, we are always in the middle of
the four directions. So this is important to remember according to
traditional teachings because it reminds us that we are spiritually
connected to the four directions. We cannot escape them. They are part
of us and we are part of them. That means everything around us is
connected to us, and we are connected to everything around us and to
each other. Post the four signs where they were before and have the
students tour the room like in an art gallery to look at the other
posters up close.
- Returning to the original seasons groups, explain that
Lillian Pitawanakwat is an Ojibwe elder who comes from Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Does anyone know where that is? Has anyone ever been there?
She has traditional teachings to share with the class about the four
directions and the four seasons and the four sacred colours. She wants
to teach the Medicine Wheel to the class from the internet. What is
medicine? We use medicine to heal us; it is good for us; it keeps us
strong and healthy. This looks like a wheel because it is round and
each part is the same size. Aboriginal people originally placed rocks
in a formation on the ground to mark places of special spiritual
significance and to use for prayer. The Medicine Wheel has been a
symbol for generations to remember and respect the Four Directions and
the good things that the sun and the seasons bring us every day. The
Medicine Wheel represents all that is interconnected. Read the summary
- Visit Four Directions homepage together as a class to:
- Read the Elder’s biography. Who can pronounce her
- Read “Medicine Wheel Overview” of traditional teaching
(PDF).** reading in transcript version*
- Individually or in pairs have students listen to
Lillian’s teachings, “The East – Waubunong”, “The South – Zhawanong”,
“The West – Epingishmook”, “The North – Kiiwedinong.”
- Now ask the class to move to the side of the room
representing their favourite colour of the four available. Why is that
their favourite? Ask the groups to discuss what they learned from the
elder. The elder discussed the four directions, the four seasons and
the four colours. And being in the centre of the wheel. What other
things did she mention? What other elements do the Ojibwe include in
the Medicine Wheel?
- Have the yellow group report back to start off: What
did Lillian say about the elements? What are they? Which element is
represented by the East? Add a symbol representing water to the yellow
poster. Continue with the red group. What element is represented by
the South? Add a symbol representing earth to the red poster. Continue
with the black group. What element is represented by the West? Add a
symbol representing fire to the black poster. Continue to the white
group. What element is represented by the North? Add a symbol
representing air to the white poster. Four elements are interconnected
and make the planet complete, balanced. What happens when we do not
respect the elements?
- Now have the students move to the side of the room
representing their favourite element. Lillian had one more teaching to
share about the Medicine Wheel. There are four plants that Aboriginal
people consider sacred, spiritual, and they burn them in ceremonies
following ancient practices. Start with the water group. What did
Lillian say about their sacred plant? Add “Tobacco” to the yellow
poster. Continue to the earth group. Add “Cedar” to the red poster.
Continue to the fire group. Add “Sage” to the black poster. Continue
to the air group. Add “Sweet grass” to the white poster.
- Wrap up lesson with a guided reading of the summary
above and select from discussion topics and optional exercises below.
- “Some indigenous people don't even have a word for
the forest or the environment, but regard the outer world as an
extension of themselves. To say, as we do, 'I am going into the forest'
would be as absurd to them as to say, 'I am going into my skin', - they
are already in it and a part of it. We have lost this ability to relate
directly with the nature that surrounds us, have become alienated and
are suffering a mass-psychosis because of it. Perhaps Ethnobotany can
help to heal the dichotomy between spirit and matter that is afflicting
the 'civilized world' and provide a lifeline through which we can again
begin to relate to nature and value the gifts of Mother Earth for what
they truly are - the roots of our culture and the source of life.” (Kay
Morgenstern, 2001). To what extent has modern man lost this ability to relate directly
with nature? What does Morgenstern mean when she suggests that
ethnobotany can help to heal the dichotomy between spirit and matter?
- When the Ojibwe say that each race was given special
gifts, what does that mean? Is this ancient belief meant to be taken
literally?** change to 7 stages?*
- Aboriginal people have always recognized humanity’s
dependency on the elements but modern society has a different view of
the importance of the natural elements. What happens when we lose
respect for the elements? What are the effects of polluting our water
systems and the air we breathe?
- Draw a Medicine Wheel which captures all of the
teachings above in brief. Start with a circle, then the four
quadrants. Divide the circle into six rings, one within the other like
the ripple effect of a pebble in a pond. Label each ring accordingly.
How does one ring connect to the next? Relate in writing the
relationships between the rings of the Medicine Wheel ** - pdf?*
- Choose the part of the Medicine Wheel most interesting
(eg. the four seasons, the four directions, the four colours, the four
colours of man, four sacred medicines or four elements) and, in a
journal, summarize the teaching. What was surprising about this
information? Was it confusing?
- Bring in potted plants of cedar, tobacco (or a package
of pipe tobacco), sage, and sweet grass (or a sweet grass braid) to view
in class or visit a garden centre together. Examine the differences
between the plants in size, shape, colour, feel and smell. Grow these
plants in class or plant outside in a special garden marked “Four Sacred
- Research the vocabulary words in a dictionary and study
- Create medicine wheel models using leather, paints,
yarn, etc. ***
- Invite an Aboriginal elder to the class to discuss the
Medicine Wheel from his/her perspective
- Listen to Vivaldi’s concerto “Four Seasons”. Ask
students to describe the differences in the sounds in each season in a
poem. Type the poems and create a class book, “The Four Seasons”. Make
a copy for each student.
- Take a walk in a conservation area, park, wetland, etc.
Collect samples of earth and water to do an in-class study of
microscopic life forms.
- Do an internet search of literary/poetic quotes
pertaining to the elements. Print them out with the poets’ names and
post them on the respective walls of the classroom with art design
illustrating the respective elements.
- Execute a different seasonal exercise each month
highlighting natural materials such as food products in season or leaves
(see links below).
- Visit related websites that explain the solar system and
the changing of the seasons from a scientific perspective (see links