The Medicine Wheel

By Sandra Laframboise and Karen Sherbina


The term "Medicine Wheel" is not a native term. Initially it was used in the late 1800's and early 1900 by Americans of European descent in reference to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel located near Sheridan, Wyoming. Later, research on the Plains identified other features characterized by a variety of stone circles and spoke configurations. Because of general similarities to the Bighorn Wheel, the term "Medicine Wheel" was extended to describe them as well.

The Big Horn Medicine Wheel consists of a central circle of piled rock surrounded by a circle of stones, "Rays" of stones travel out from the central core of rock and its surrounding circle. The whole structure looks rather like the wheel of a bicycle from the air. There is no real consensus as to when the medicine wheel began to appear in Native American Culture except to say that some of the wheels date back two to four thousand years BC, the time of the Great Egyptian Pyramids. Some archaeologist and geologist even go as far as saying that The Big Horn Medicine Wheel is as old as a few million years.

Big Horn Medicine Wheel Reprinted from internet (aged between 1 million to 65 million years)

Alberta, Canada has about 66% of all known medicine wheels (a total of 46) this suggests that Southern Alberta was a central meeting place for many Plains tribes who followed Medicine Wheel ceremonies. A majority of these ceremonies were to celebrate the Summer Solstice - June 21st, while other ceremonies would carry out through the summer season.

These ceremonies would make it correct to say that a Medicine Wheel is a physical manifestation of our Spiritual energy. In other words an outward expression of our internal dialogue with the Creator (God) and the spirit within.

The individual or community can see what is going on within by examining what has manifested outwardly in the mirror like situation the Medicine Wheel shows us. It is also a wheel of protection and it enables us, and allows us to gather surrounding energies into a focal point and to commune with Spirit, Self and Nature. Thus, it is a model to be used to view self, society, or anything that one could ever think of looking into. Medicine Wheel teachings are vast and limitless and form the basis of most First Nations beliefs - The great circle of Life.

These teachings are among the oldest teachings of First Nations people. The teachings found on the Medicine Wheel create a bio-psychosocial and spiritual foundation for human behaviour and interaction. The medicine wheel teachings are about walking the earth in a peaceful and good way, they assist in helping to seek; healthy minds (East), strong inner spirits (South), inner peace(West) and strong healthy bodies (North).

As mentioned earlier, a Medicine Wheel can best be described as a mirror within, which everything about the human condition is reflected back. It requires courage to look into the mirror and really see what is being reflected back about an individual's life. It helps us with our creative "Vision", to see exactly where we are in life and which areas we need to work on and develop in order to realize our full potential. It is a tool to be used for the upliftment and betterment of humankind, healing and connecting to the Infinite.

Today, the Medicine Wheel has become a major symbol of peaceful interaction among all living beings on Mother Earth... representing harmonious connections.

Scattered across North America there are a number of stone Medicine Wheels. Some are extremely large circles greater than 12 meters in diameter. They are the remains of special ceremonial dances and spiritual events celebrated by the Plains First Nations people.

Despite their physical existence, there is a lot of mystery that surrounds the Medicine Wheel. Without written records, little is understood about their meaning. The ancient medicine wheels themselves contain significant stellar and cosmological alignments as the Plains people believe that Star Woman fell to the Earth to help create Turtle Island. One such alignment is that the wheel points towards the rising sun or to certain star nation constellation(s).

Over time, Medicine Wheels have changed and evolved into many different kinds and have provided a tangible mechanism upon which the healing of people,communities and nations can be focused.

The term "Medicine" as it is used by First Nations people does not refer to drugs or herbal remedies. It is used within the context of inner spiritual energy and healing or an enlightened experience often referred to as "spiritual energy's"... The Medicine Wheel and its sacred teachings assist individuals along the path towards mental, spiritual, emotional and physical enlightenment.

There have been many books written about the Medicine Wheel, and they often differ as to the placement of some of the teachings. For example, there are some Lakota teachers who place the yellow race in the west and the black race in the east; others suggest the wheel is walked in a counter-clockwise direction. So little is really known about the original teachings of this ancient tool, however, it is safe to say that there is probably no wrong way to build a wheel. It is more of a question of what resonates within each individual as he/she studies the teachings. I can only speak about the Medicine Wheel according to my teachings and that I have come to know through out my spiritual walk. Within this paper I am describing three types of Medicine Wheels which I have worked with over the years.

Directions and their Meanings

The Cree/Algonquin/Plains Medicine Wheel

The Medicine Wheel teachings are based on a circular pattern and cyclical set of four: the four Seasons, the four stages of Life, the four Bio-psychosocial and spiritual aspect of a person.

The Medicine Wheel always centers on the individual. The Ceremonial Medicine Wheel that I use incorporates all of these aspects. They can be drawn on paper or made out of rocks in the corner of a room or in a garden.  The important thing to remember is that this is an exercise in finding out about you.

The Medicine Wheel in the diagram above incorporates many of the teachings I have received over the years from the various Elders I have met and have received teachings from.

My family also has its own medicine wheel. Our family uses dark blue in the direction of the West. The animal in the South is also different as we put the Wolf there.

A person can also develop their own Medicine Wheel and put their own Animal/Spirit Helpers in the directions once they have gotten in touch with them. This knowing may happen in ceremony, visions, or dreams. I have developed my personal Medicine Wheel in which I put a different animal representing the same meaning. and which has different animal but same meaning: In my personal Medicine Wheel the directions and animals are as follows: East – Eagle, South – Red Tail Hawk, West – Owl, North – Blue Heron. These birds are a reflection of who I am and what gifts were granted to me. They are the animals that have revealed themselves through my walk in life.

A Medicine Wheel of Life's Learning

with Southern Plains /Sioux/Plains Cree and Lakota Colors

The above Medicine Wheel recognizes that Aboriginal people are spirit, heart, mind and body.

Historically, mainstream education systems focussed on the mind, and in some cases, the body (physical education, dance...). It has not acknowledged the spirit and the heart, believing those to be the purview of the church. Today many Aboriginal People are feeling the effects of only having 50% of them taken into consideration in the classroom. Because of this, there is a large drop out rate, high levels of illiteracy and dyslexia in Aboriginal People who did not fit into the formal school systems. Aboriginal people recognize the importance of using methodologies that addresses all four elements of being.

Building the Medicine Wheel

Rock Medicine Wheels

Picture Reprinted from internet

One of the main stone medicine wheels that is practiced consists of 36 stones laid in a certain way creating the beautiful circle above.

The stones are laid beginning in the center, with the first Rock being the Creator, the second in the East being Mother Earth, and going clockwise the third in the South-West for Father Sun, the fourth in the North-West for Grandmother Moon, the fifth a little more to the North-West for Turtle, the sixth in the North for Frog, the 7th in the North-East for Thunderbird, the 8th in the East corner near to the South for Butterfly. This arrangement completes the inner circle.

Then we continue by laying down the corner stones of the four Cardinal Directions, the 9th being in the East representing the Eagle, the 10th being in the South representing Mouse/Wolf/Coyote/Red Tail Hawk, the 11th stone laid down in the West representing Brown Bear, and the 12th stone in the North representing White Calf Buffalo Woman.

The next to last process of a laying down rocks in the circle is the outer circle beginning again in the North-East beside the 9th rock we laid down the 13th rock and I put the Snow Geese, the 14th rock I put the Otter, the 15th rock I put Cat and it goes on in a circle till we meet the 9th rock of the East.

By then you have laid your inner circle and your outer circle. It is time to make your criss-cross inside the outer circle to touch the inner circle.

The criss-cross on the inside of the outer circle but not inside the inner circle is your final step. Again you begin this one in the North-East stone number 9 and going down the south just touching the inner circle till it becomes rock number 27. Again in the East you would begin the criss-cross starting with rock number 28 until all the rocks laid down touch the inner center marking rock number 30. Then you lay more rocks from the south to the inner circle rocks till it becomes number 31 keeping in mind that no criss-cross stones is to enter the inner circle. Lastly, starting from the number 12 going inside the outer circle towards the inner circle you would lay down rock number 34 to 36, keeping in mind that each rock has a special representation for you and an animal spirit helper.

You can build a medicine wheel out of all kinds or rocks which has special meaning to you and place it in your garden, the corner of a room or you can draw a medicine wheel on paper. What ever the venue, it is important to remember that this is another tool to be used on your healing and spiritual journeys.

Working the Medicine Wheel

The Medicine Wheel can be called a mental construct. It orients us on a time-space continuum. The Wheel divides our world into different directions and applies specific meaning and significance to each direction. This directional orientation is achieved by simple observation of the natural world. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Regardless of where we sit on the globe there are four phases of the moon and typically four recognized seasons. These phases and seasons follow each other in a circular and sequential rotation, because of this, our personal medicine wheels are a reflection of our relationship to the natural circular evolvement of the world.

The Wheel can be used practically to help an individual understand and deal with specific life circumstances (e.g. jobs, relationships, and illness). One example is the hormonal cycles manifesting from the brain, ovaries, and uterus. These are easily understood in terms of the Wheel. It ties these events to natural lunar rhythms both physically and energetically. Within the framework of the Medicine Wheel we see ovulation and conception occur in the full moon of the east while, menses and birth occur in the new moon of the west. This framework allows one to look at these experiences in a new way, a way that is more easily understood because it is related to our experience of the natural world. Working the Medicine Wheel Archetype empowers the individual. It gives one new tools with which to embrace the chaos of life. It serves as a way to focus and reconnect to the rhythms of the natural world.

The Wheel can also be used to contemplate the flow of events unfolding over months, years or a lifetime. One could even apply this to familial patterns and past lifetimes.

Our consensual experience of the physical world determines a lot of what goes where on the Medicine Wheel. Working the Wheel is accomplished in both consensual reality and through personal introspection.


In conclusion, there are many different ways to utilize or set up a Medicine Wheel. Despite this, the philosophies/principals and effective outcome are the same. It teaches us that we have four aspects to our nature; the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. Each of these aspects must be equally developed in a healthy, well-balanced human being through the development stages of our life. To bring ourselves into balance in each area puts us in balance. Equal emphasis needs to be given to each of the directions of the Wheel. This can be accomplished through sheer will power or methodical introspection and action. However, if we do not do this, then we, Aboriginal People, believe that we are not walking in balance.