Below are several examples of medicine wheel icons from the Lakota tradition.1
Notice that the colors are in different directions on the wheel. Is there a correct placement of the colors on the wheel and what do they mean? Is there such a things as “ The right or wrong Medicine Wheel?” One internet author wrote:
“So which is correct? How can you tell bogus interpretations from time honored ones? Well, you can’t. The metaphysics and religion of the Lakota are as subjective as those of any religion; maybe even more so because of the emphasis on individualism, i.e. one’s own vision. Nowhere is this more true than among the Lakota holy people and interpreters. The variations in the colours for the directions can easily and readily differ from individual to individual, as each is guided specifically by their own visions.”2.
I find there is some truth to this perspective, however much confusion with respect to the wheels comes from non-Indians not understanding some fundamental principles about the types of medicine people and the representation of these medicines and colors on the wheel. There are medicine people who work with herbs and roots. These medicine people, called Pejuta Wakan, have a core wheel with a core set of four colors.The placement of the colors on the wheel may vary from individual to individual however the core colors remain the same. The Heyoka, the Sacred Contraries also have a different set of colors indicative of their medicine. Similarly the Wicasa Wakan, the Holy People, have a different wheel with a core set of colors. The lay person also uses particular wheels whose colors and placement on the wheel are determined by band and by clan then personal vision.
There are wheels which represent the higher powers and knowledge obtained only by the Medicine people ; those trained to approach that energy. There are wheels for the layperson which represent knowledge that can be obtained by anyone willing to learn how to access that information. An individual may use one medicine wheel for finding guidance in day to day living. The same individual may approach a Pejuta Wakan ( herbalist- family doctor) who uses a different core. The Pejuta Wakan may refer the individual to a Wicasa Wakan ( holy man, medium, surgeon). When one understands the core colors one knows what type of medicine person, that one is working with. When one understands this concept the issue of right and wrong medicine wheels disappears.3
If one grew up in the culture one would learn many variations of the wheel and their meanings by virtue of living in the environment. This is akin to a student learning the colors of the various schools, their mascots and slogans, group personalities and values as they matriculated through the education system. It is important when studying these icons and teachings to study and learn one system well, then learn others. These iconic wheels represent and define reltionships within a culture and within communities. The spiritual teachings can generalize if one takes the time to learn the symbols and teachings.
In our next article, Cangleska Wakan: the Sacred Hoop of Life, we will discuss the relationship between the Black Hills and various constellations in the sky. This relationship formed the basis of Lakota spiritual thought and guided their daily living. These earthen and stellar wheels give birth to all other possible wheels and possible relationships. In the interim we invite you visit the link on reference 4 for one particular interpretation of a medicine wheel.
3. For those familiar with Ifa the difference is akin to the use of obi abata, dilogun and Ikinfor divination. Anyone can use obi and obi abata to talk to their ancestors to inquire about the daily activities and affairs. The priest use dilogun to approach the deities with regard to information on the worldly plan. The awo’s approach Ifa for understanding of one’s destiny and how forces are impacting the individual.