Medicine Wheel & the Four Directions

Medicine Wheel Poster

Medicine Wheel poster design by Kathy Alexander.

May the Warm Winds of Heaven
Blow softly upon your house.
May the Great Spirit
Bless all who enter there.
May your Moccasins
Make happy tracks
in many snows,
and may the Rainbow
Always touch your shoulder.

— Cherokee Prayer Blessing. 

Native Americans have a deep connection to nature that is referenced in helping establish and maintain balance, health, and wellness. Nature is referred to as “Mother Earth” and because of her significance, she has been adopted into numerous customs and traditions. One example of this concept is the medicine wheel, which symbolically represents perfection as well as the circle of life.

Most medicine wheels, also called sacred hoops, have four common compass points, each with a guiding spirit, that symbolize the four stages of life and offer lessons and gifts that support the development of a balanced life.

The four points as may also have animal, plant, celestial and other representations, which differ greatly from tribe to tribe. For example, the Buffalo that appears on medicine wheels of the Plains Indians is not represented on the wheels of southeastern tribes, as that animal was rare among them and alternately an alligator would not appear on the medicine wheels of northern tribes.

The number four is sacred to many Native American tribes as it represents the four seasons, the four human needs – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, the four kingdoms – animal, mineral, plant, and human; the four sacred medicines — sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar, and sage.

The chart below represents the various areas that might be integrated into a medicine wheel, as we have demonstrated in the photo above.

Direction Stages of Life Season Elements Animal Plant Heavenly Body Color
North Elders & Death Winter Wind Bear Cedar Stars White
East Birth & Children Spring Fire Eagle Tobacco Sun Yellow
South Youth Summer Water Wolf Sweetgrass Earth Black
West Adults & Parents Autumn Earth Buffalo Sage Moon Red
Bighorn Medicine Wheel courtesy Wikipedia

Bighorn Medicine Wheel courtesy Wikipedia

The Medicine Wheel can take many different forms in various types of artworks or it can be a physical construction on the land. For thousands of years, Medicine Wheels have been built on Native lands in North America.

One of the most notable is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel located in the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. For centuries, this sacred site has been used by Crow youth for fasting and vision quests, and for other Native Americans as a site to offer thanks and make prayers.

The Medicine Wheel, named by white men who discovered it at the end of the 1800s. The most southern and one of the largest in existence, this wheel is said to serve as a type of landmark to identify the sunrise of the summer solstice. In its most simplistic definition, the Medicine Wheel is a symbol of ALL creation, of all races of people, birds, fish, animals, trees, and stones. Its shape is that of a wagon wheel, made of stones. According to tribal beliefs, the circular shape of the wheel represents the earth, the sun, the moon, the cycles of life, the seasons, and day to night. Movement around the perimeter of the Medicine Wheel is in a clockwise direction, the rotation path of the earth. At the center of the wheel, at the hub, is Creator, who sits in perfect balance. Outside the center, there is an inner circle representing the Old Woman (the earth), Father Sun, Grandmother Moon, and the four elements. Four distinct rock mounds, set in the four directions, lay on the perimeter, separated by stones representing the moon’s cycles. Stones, laid from the perimeter, in straight lines, to the center (the spokes of the wheel) represent spiritual paths, leading us to the center, to perfect balance, to the Creator.

It was made a National Historic Site in 1996. A number of other stone Medicine Wheels are scattered across the plains of Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, and the northern United States.

Medicine Man Performing by George Catlin

Blackfoot-Siksika Medicine Man Performing his Mysteries over a Dying Man, by George Catlin, 1832.

Prayer to The Four Directions …

Great Spirit of Light, come to me out of the East (red) with the power of the rising sun. Let there be light in my words, let there be light on my path that I walk. Let me remember always that you give the gift of a new day. And never let me be burdened with sorrow by not starting over again.

Great Spirit of Love, come to me with the power of the North (white). Make me courageous when the cold wind falls upon me. Give me strength and endurance for everything that is harsh, everything that hurts, everything that makes me squint. Let me move through life ready to take what comes from the north.

Great Life-Giving Spirit, I face the West (black), the direction of sundown. Let me remember every day that the moment will come when my sun will go down. Never let me forget that I must fade into you. Give me a beautiful color, give me a great sky for setting, so that when it is my time to meet you, I can come with glory.

Great Spirit of Creation, send me the warm and soothing winds from the South (yellow). Comfort me and caress me when I am tired and cold. Unfold me like the gentle breezes that unfold the leaves on the trees. As you give to all the earth your warm, moving wind, give to me, so that I may grow close to you in warmth. Man did not create the web of life, he is but a strand in it. Whatever man does to the web, he does to himself.

By Chief Seattle, Leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2021.

Fill your medicine bag at Legends’ General Store.

Also See:

Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Lovell, Wyoming

Native American Medicine

Rituals and Ceremonies

Totems & Their Meanings

Native Americans – First Owners of America

Michigan State University Extension
Native Voices
US Forest Service