The medicine wheel is a sacred symbol used by the Lakota and others to represent spiritual knowledge and a connection to everything in the universe. It is a symbol of unity, good health, well-being, honor, and recognition. The medicine wheel consists of a circle through the center of which is drawn a horizontal and vertical line. There are four quadrants in the medicine wheel which oftentimes represent various entities (buffalo, elk, lightening +), the four seasons, and symbolized in colors of black, red, yellow, and white, and in contemporary times represent the diversity of nations.
The north to south line represents the Canku Luta, or the good Red Road, on which the Lakota people walk. By walking the Red Road, the people strive to live a positive, good life, one without alcohol, drugs, or negativity. This path usually includes praying with a Cannupa (Sacred Pipe) and the traditional spiritual ceremonies that accompany this road of stability. The East to West Line represents the path of enlightenment, learning, and healing—it represents the changes that occur in our lives which hopefully make us better human beings. The crosswinds represent the path of indecision, confusion, destruction, and negativity. Sometimes humans veer off of the Canku Luta, but through prayer and support from our relatives, we are brought back to the Red Road with our own work and our relatives’ help. The Lakota believe in free will and that one must take responsibility for one’s actions. The choices we make affect not only our personal lives but those of our family and our tiospaye—extended family.
The circle symbolizes the continuing cycle of life, from birth to death, no beginning and no end. This never-ending cycle of life symbolizes wholeness or wolakota—peace, interdependence, and being in balance with everything in the world. We strive to be in balance –physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—and each of these four quadrants represent these realms. When we are not in balance, our lives suffer and we are again, brought back to the circle by, and for our loved ones.
In addition to being a spiritual symbol, medicine wheels are also looked upon as sacred art forms, which are presented in ceremonies or given as gifts. Traditionally made out of rawhide, they may be painted, quilled, or beaded and adorned with feathers, plumes, or other ornamentation. The use of various colors may symbolize different entities, beings, spirits, or animals. When medicine wheels are attached to feathers or plumes, they are most often placed on the individual recipient’s head/hair in a ceremony. These honor feathers are associated with various ceremonies, including the giving of sacred names, Tatanka Lowanpi (coming of age for females), Hunkapi (making of relatives/adoption ceremony), and honoring elders as teachers, for graduation/commencement or any other honor/recognition (both male and female). For the Lakota, males are usually given feathers, and females are usually presented with plumes.
The medicine wheel, an ancient sacred symbol for the Lakota people, is now recognized and honored by many other tribes and non-Natives, for it is a representation of all that is good and holy—a positive image that is much needed in today’s tumultuous times
Jace DeCory, Asst. Professor Emeritus, BHSU
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