The Medicine Wheel, And Our Gatherings
In the late 1970's I had a vision of the Medicine Wheel, an ancient stone circle which has been used for thousands of years by Native people as a place for prayer, ceremony and self-understanding. At one time there were some 20,000 medicine wheels on the North American continent alone. Today the remains of a few of those old ones — in Wyoming, in Canada, in Minnesota — are studied by scientists and curiosity seekers. It sometimes makes me smile to think that there is such an air of mystery surrounding the old medicine wheels: How were they used? Why did they have a particular number of stones arranged in a certain way upon the ground? And so on. When you understand that the basis for all vision is your very personal relationship to the Creator, and that vision is a strong part of the medicine wheel, then you should understand, too, that there are probably only a few absolute rules for placing the stones into one of these sacred prayer hoops. Whatever guidance came through visions and dreams moved the builders of these circles to build them in accordance with the universal laws they represent and honor.
It's important, I think, for me to explain two things to you here. The first thing is that when I speak of the Medicine Wheel, I'm talking about two things simultaneously: a circle of stones placed on the ground ... and a set of symbols which have definite meaning in terms of your life. The second thing I want to make clear is that my vision of the Medicine Wheel, as I describe it to you, is highly personal. It came to me through the Great Spirit; through my observations (and those of other members of the Tribe) of our relationships with the human, animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms; and through some reading about the 6bservations of other medicine people. To the best of my knowledge, my version of the Wheel and how it's used is not the same as any other. In my version, for example, some major stones are placed to honor the Four Directions, and the Center of the Universe. In one of the ancient wheels in Wyoming, the major stones seem to be placed to honor six directions.
This Medicine Wheel was revealed to me, to Wabun and others, as a means to help with the healing of the Earth Mother at this time. Folks who don't know much about themselves, know very little about how to help save the planet. You'll see, as I describe the Wheel to you, that it seems to be similar to an astrology system, but that's really not the case. Astrology is based, mainly, on the position of the planets and the stars. The Medicine Wheel on the other hand, is based upon a person's relationship to the earth and to all of earth's kingdoms: the animals, the plants, the minerals, and the humans. A person moves about on the Medicine Wheel in his own way, and knows his position on the wheel through intuition, or through his or her changing relationship with the members of the animal, the mineral, and the plant kingdoms. We attribute any similarities between the Medicine Wheel and astrology to the fact that all truths come from the same Source, the Creator.
In my vision I saw a hilltop bare of trees. There was a soft breeze blowing and the prairie grass was moving gently. Then I saw a circle of rocks that came out like spokes of a wheel. I knew that what I was seeing in my vision was the sacred circle of life, the sacred hoop of my people.
Inside of the center circle was the buffalo skull, and coming up through ravines, from the four directions, were what looked like animals. As they came closer, I saw that they were people wearing headdresses and animal costumes. They moved to the circle and each group entered it sunwise, making a complete circle before they settled on their place in the wheel.
First people came to the place of the North, to the winter, the time of resting for ourselves and the Earth Mother, the place that represents the time when we have the white hairs of snow upon our heads, when we prepare to change both worlds and forms. Then there were those who ended up in the East, the place of awakening, of birth and of spring, the place representing mankind's birth and beginning. Next came those who would represent the South, thetime of summer, the years of fruitfulness and of rapid growth. Then there were people who came to the West, the time of fall, when we reap our harvest, when we have found the knowledge needed to center ourselves. The West is the home of the West Wind, Father of all of the Winds.
All of the people were singing the song of their season, of their minerals, of their plants, of their totem animals. And they were singing songs for the healing of the Earth Mother. A leader among them was saying, "Let the medicine of the sacred circle prevail. Let many people across the land come to the circle and make prayers for the healing of the Earth Mother. Let the circles of the Medicine Wheel come back".
In this vision were gathered people of all the clans, of all the directions, of all the totems, and in their hearts they carried peace. That was the vision I saw.
It would be pretty hard for me to sum up for you here, what all the totems, elemental clans, and directions are, or what they mean, so on page 184 I'll let you see a chart which was first published in the MEDICINE WHEEL book, which I wrote with Wabun, in 1980:
Using these you can place yourself on the wheel. Then, if you like, you can look in the MEDICINE WHEEL book at each one of the animal totems, or the mineral or plant totems relevant to you, and find out what your place on the Medicine Wheel means, according to my vision. You see, each totem at each position on the wheel possesses different powers, different weaknesses, which you can benefit from or watch out for. When you know where you are on the Wheel, or where somebody else is, you can, in a sense, understand how to relate to the Earth, or to those around you.
At the Bear Tribe, we have our Medicine Wheel set on a hilltop to the East of the longhouse. We go to it to contemplate, to feel, to smoke a pipe or to do ceremonies. The first thing we usually do when we go to be by the Wheel is to walk around it in a sunwise manner, like the people in my vision did. If we are having a ceremony, people who have places of responsibility on the Wheel stop at their spot. For instance, Wabun would stop at the eastern stone, and Shawnodese, at the southern.
The right spot will change for a person as time goes on because, even though we are born under specific totems or signs, during our lifetimes we are constantly moving around the Wheel. For example, you may have been born under the sign of the otter, but you don't stay there all of the time. You may go through a period of time when you are constantly seeing the Red Hawk, or the Raven. Then you know that your place on the Medicine Wheel has shifted. A few weeks or months or years later, when the energy is right, you may shift again, say to the position of the Brown Bear, or the Cougar. That is a good thing. It's important for a person to keep moving around the Wheel, to learnlife's lessons from the various animals, plants, and minerals, so they can constantly grow. To be still on the Wheel is to grow stagnant. Even those with places of permanent, ceremonial responsibility will sometimes be drawn to other spots.
When we meditate or do our ceremonies at our wheel, we use the stones which form the spokes of the Wheel as spiritual or mental pathways, which lead us to the center-point. When we sit down and pray, we close our eyes, and we send ourselves into the center of the Wheel; it is when we are there that we may have visions, we may learn more about ourselves, or others, or the Mother Earth. There is really no limit to what the Medicine Wheel can teach us, or how that teaching may come about. Sometimes, if we want to heal a particular loved one, in our minds and hearts we carry that loved one to the center of the Wheel; then we pray to the Creator. On Vision Mountain, the center of our Medicine Wheel is a very large and beautiful quartz crystal stone. Shawnodese, Wabun and I mined that stone in Arkansas, and carried it back to Vision Mountain with us.
It is a very powerful experience simply to be near the Wheel. The energy is always very high. Although we've written out the Medicine Wheel Reference Chart, and the circles which show the seasons and the major animals of the Four Directions, we've mainly done that for the folks who want to read about what we do, and can't come to be with us. When you actually sit by the Medicine Wheel on Vision Mountain, you rarely need a reference chart. Once you understand the principles of the Wheel, then the animal, or mineral, or plant which you have a special relationship with at any particular time often manifests itself to you, without books or words. You may close your eyes and see that animal; it may fly overhead during a ceremony. The medicine is good, and it is always changing.
As I've already said, the Medicine Wheel has been used by most Native people, in one form or another, for thousands of years. The Medicine Wheel is a magic circle which encompasses all of our relations with the natural world. It is a sacred tool which can teach us how to eat well; how to heal ourselves and others; how to hear the songs and stories that the wind and the water bring to us. It can teach us, too, the most important lesson, which is that we are each a small, unique part of the universe, and that we are here to learn harmony with the rest of the Creation. When people feel that something is missing in their lives, they often find part of it by working with the Wheel, because it helps them to grow closer to nature, and to the elemental forces.
I'll tell you a little story, about a visitor who came to be with us recently, and about his relationship with the Medicine Wheel. It will show you, I think, just how powerful the magic circle is.
We show respect for our Medicine Wheel by never accidently stepping inside of it. This particular visitor was not watching where he was going, and by mistake he stepped into the Wheel in the West, at the sign of the Snake. He stepped out of the Wheel then, unconsciously, at the sign of his birth totem, the Otter, and he made his apologies and an offering to the Spirit Keepers of the directions he might have offended.
As the group this visitor was with left the Medicine Wheel, there was a gentle rattling in the bushes. A small rattlesnake had come to say hello to the group. The following morning, when our visitor stepped outside his tent there was a small, coiled rattlesnake sitting on the ground, facing him. The rattlesnake was very docile; after a few moments it stretched out and moved off a little way. We made our prayers, explained to the snake that we had a lot of visitors on Vision Mountain, and that we needed the space for ourselves; then we put him in a sack and moved him to a remote place on the Mountain.
I should explain to you here that what happened was very rare; in the past six years, we hadn't seen more than four other rattlesnakes on Vision Mountain. In addition, we look on such events as very positive things; we are not frightened by brother rattlesnake ... all wildlife is a part of us. Our visitor had simply stepped into the Medicine Wheel at the sign of the snake, and the brother, I believe, came to say hello to him. It was very powerful snake medicine, and during that summer our visitor felt very strongly — because of certain things that were going on around him — that he was very closely aligned on the Wheel with the sign of the Snake.
That kind of thing happens here frequently.
It's important to tell you here, too, that we attempt not only to understand the Medicine Wheel, but also to live by the principles it honors. We use it often in our daily lives, so we can remember all of the things that it can teach us.
There's an old Native saying which is that everything in nature tries to be round, and that is true. The circle is sacred to the Native people in every aspect of their lives; it represents to us the journey from birth to death, and then to rebirth. When Native Americans built their homes, most often they were built in the form of circles, whether they were tipis, wigwams, or hogans. When they went to purify their bodies and their minds, they did that in the circle of the sweatlodge, which symbolized both the womb of the human mother they came from and the womb of the Earth Mother herself. When they came together in council, they sat in a circle, so that everyone was included, as an equal, with an equal voice.
Life, as I said, was seen as a Sacred Circle, from birth to death to regeneration. The Native people knew how to acknowledge and celebrate the circles of their own lives, so that they were able to flow and change with the changing energies that came to them at different ages. They knew that they, like the seasons, were always moving around the Medicine Wheel, the wheel of time. They immortalized the Sacred Circle in many other ceremonies and structures besides the Medicine Wheel itself. The mounds of the mound-building cultures were round. The calendars of the Aztecs were round. The examples of this could go on and on.
In order to participate in the lessons of the Medicine Wheel, you must remember that you are always travelling around it. You enter the circle at the point of the moon, (or month), during which you were born. This entrance gives you the powers, gifts, and responsibilities of that particular moon. The different starting points are governed by different elemental clans, and these clans tell you the various elements to which you are attached.
These clans have nothing to do with the clans of kinship that exist in most tribes. Those were determined by the clans of your parents, and they, in turn, could govern the earthbound responsibilities you would have, as well as who you could marry. The elemental clans, instead, determine your relationship to the elements only, and, like all of the other points on the Medicine Wheel, they are always changing as you move through life. By learning about these clans, about all the totems and the Spirit Keepers on the Medicine Wheel, you can learn how to keep your own life in balance, how to keep the life force beating within your heart.
Most important of all is using the magic circle to remind us we're a small part of the Creator. By remembering this we are sometimes able to do away with our arrogance and pride, and it is arrogance and pride which tell us we are alone in a hostile universe. It is pride, I think, that tells us that we are the most important specks of dust in a vast universe. It is fear of that vast universe, of our aloneness in it, which can make us feel very much unloved.
If you open your heart to the lessons of the Medicine Wheel, then the light of the Great Spirit, of the Creator, will shine on you and brighten your existence. It will give you the gift of a happy life.
Back in 1978, the Bear Tribe published the Medicine Wheel Circle. It's a small wheel which tells about the characteristics of the various totems, as they relate to the calendar year. Wabun sent a Medicine Wheel Circle to Oscar Collier, her agent, who was then an editor at Prentice-Hall Publishers, Inc., and it arrived on his birthday. He read it and related it to his own life at that time. He felt that it could do a lot more for people than astrology could. He was so impressed that he contacted us, and, in 1980, Prentice-Hall published THE MEDICINE WHEEL. It's been very successful, and distribution grows every year. THE MEDICINE WHEEL book has also been published as DAS MEDIZINRAD by Trikont Publishers in Munich, Germany.
In 1980, we began to organize and put on Medicine Wheel Gatherings that allow hundreds, sometimes a thousand, people to come together and help to fulfill the vision I had. They help to build a Medicine Wheel, and they participate with us in ceremonies around it. From us and from other teachers they learn more about the Earth Mother, and ways to heal themselves and the earth.
We held our first Medicine Wheel Gathering in August of 1980, near Seattle, Washington. It was held in a Forest Service campgroundat the foot of Mount Rainier. Since then, we've had a second Medicine Wheel Gathering near Seattle, and others in the Los Angeles area, in San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, and in New York state.
Each Gathering has been wonderful in its own way. The one that was the biggest surprise, thus far, was our first New York Gathering which took place in September, 1982. We had some apprehension about biting into the Big Apple. New York is very far away from Spokane, and we had to make several trips back there to find a campground that could accommodate 1000 people indoors, just in case of rain. With the help of Glenn Schiffman, who coordinated our 1982 Gatherings, and Jaya Huston, who coordinated this particular one, we had just about 1000 people who attended, and really enjoyed and learned from the ceremonies. We also had two New York television stations on hand, videotaping much of what was happening during the weekend. This showed us that our teachings are of interest to people all over this country, and gave us the confidence to begin planning our first European Medicine Wheel Gathering.
What we do, basically, at these Gatherings is to re-enact my vision of the creation of a Medicine Wheel.
Gatherings usually begin on a Friday night, and end on Sunday evening.
Before the Gathering begins, Wabun and I, with the help of some other people, bless the land where we'll build the Medicine Wheel. We begin building the Wheel by placing a stone at its energy center, the vortex; that stone marks the center-point, and the place of the Creator. Next, we place seven stones around the center one. Those represent the Earth Mother, Father Sun, Grandmother Moon, and the four elemental clans. We place a rock at each of the Four Directions, to honor the spirit keepers, (Waboose, Wabun, Shawnodese, Mudjekeewis), then place the rocks which represent the twelve totems we honor in each of the kingdoms (animal, plant, mineral). After that, we place the stones which radiate out like spokes from the energy center; they are the spirit paths between each direction and the place of the Creator.
On Friday night, we welcome those who have come to be with us. We explain the meaning of the Medicine Wheel, the purposes of the Gathering itself, and the meaning of the ceremonies we're going to be performing. We ask people to be relaxed, and to enjoy the ceremonies, to remember that we are all beginners at ceremony, and that the important thing is that we do everything with as much love, respect, humor and humility as possible. Usually, too, we'll have some guest speakers there to talk to participants, and we'll share a dance or some stories with our new friends. Every Gathering is a little bit different from the others, as we grow and learn the most effective ways to teach and share our medicine.
On Saturday morning, we consecrate the Medicine Wheel. Before beginning any of our ceremonies, anywhere, we smudge (purify with smoke from certain sacred herbs) the folks who are going toparticipate, and we also smudge our medicine objects.
After everyone is smudged, we share some chants; then I place a buffalo skull over the center stone in the Wheel, to represent the Creator and the center of life. Next, people chosen ahead of time to represent the powers of the thirty-five stones in the wheel come to honor and consecrate them. Some of these folks wear animal hides; others carry feather fans, or wear masks to represent the different powers of the totems. They make their prayers and sprinkle corn meal on their individual stones; we sing songs for each of the powers that we honor. It's hard to put into words the power of a ceremony like that. There's drumming and chanting; there's dancing, and the wind and the earth sounds often come to join us. Some of the dancers don't just acknowledge a power while they're there. For a time, they become that power. You can see it, and you can feel it. Before the weekend begins we ask all of the participants to bring some special stones with them, rocks which they have a strong feeling about, to put into the Wheel. After the thirty-five center stones have been consecrated we ask all participants to put their stone in a protective circle about a foot back from the center circle. These rocks receive many blessings during the weekend, and, at the end of the ceremonies, we ask the participants to take them home with them, to use in their own contemplations, or in building their own medicine wheels. Thus, the circles grow.
Much of the Medicine Wheel Gathering weekend is spent performing ceremonies. Either after the consecration, or later Saturday afternoon, we have a pipe ceremony.
Sometimes we have as many as six different medicine people, from six different traditions, join together in a pipe ceremony. It is a very powerful and wonderful thing, to see such unity and harmony between these brothers and sisters.
Later, we talk about and demonstrate how to use the Medicine Wheel as a ceremonial center. We have a Blessing Way Ceremony, in which all the people at the Gathering may receive a blessing, and give their blessing to the universe; and we sometimes perform marriages for couples who have made that request of us. There are traditional sweats in sweatlodges which we've built ahead of time. I remember, at one of the early Gatherings, Nimimosha conducted twelve sweat ceremonies in two days. Wabun walked a mile in pouring rain, between ceremonies she was helping me to conduct, to tell Nimimosha how good we all felt about what she was doing for the people.
On Sunday morning Wabun invites participants to join us in a crystal healing ceremony. In this ritual, the people present use a large crystal to transmit their healing energies to the Earth, and all of their relations upon her. We aren't healing those present at the ceremony, necessarily; what we're doing is sending our joined medicine power out to others. It's a good ritual, one where a lot of folks can voice their prayers together for all of their relations in all of the kingdoms on the earth.
There are many more things that go on at a Medicine WheelGathering: there is the blessing of children who attend, and a blessing by the children upon the adults; there are workshops on self reliance, the Path of Power, healing, herbs, feminine energy, prophecies, community, and many other topics.
There are many important people, both Native and non-Native, who have joined us for these Gatherings. All of them have shared so generously with all those attending the Gatherings that we would like to honor them here. Alphabetically, we list here those who have been major speakers at our Gatherings through 1983.All of these folks, and more, who have generously given of their time to lead workshops, have become our dear friends, and have inspired untold numbers of people through their participation in our Medicine Wheel Gatherings.
We meet at the Medicine Wheel Gatherings to understand one another, and to celebrate the Earth Mother. During Gathering weekends we make the Medicine Wheel our focal point, the center of our lives, our ceremonies, and our temporary community. The Gatherings often make lasting changes in the lives of those who attend them.
We have giveaways, too, during the gatherings. A giveaway is a traditional Native American celebration, in which one gives something of special value to another person. The giveaway has been used by the Native people for many generations, as a means of reminding them that, in reality, they own nothing. In giving away your material goods, even some medicine objects, you will sometimes feel a certain freedom, and you'll acknowledge the fact that everything in the universe belongs to the Creator, that whatever you might own is, in reality, something you were only given temporary custody of. Possession requires some heavy responsibilities.
We have a giveaway of items people have brought for that purpose. We encourage people to make their giveaway to a stranger or to someone who was a stranger when the weekend began. This giveaway, we tell them, is a way of sharing their good feelings for the events of the weekend. We also make our own giveaways to our guest speakers, and to the many volunteers who have given their time to help organize and run the Gathering. Then we have a giveaway of the stones in the Medicine Wheel. We ask folks to either take their own stone back, or let somebody else take it home with them. When these folks go back home, we hope that they use these sacred stones to build medicine wheels of their own. Many of them, we are told, do just that.
Gathering we give, and sometimes these folks will bring the same stones with them, time after time, to put into the new Wheel that we're building. That's good medicine.