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 The medicine wheel

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Join date : 2012-02-01

PostSubject: The medicine wheel   Mon Feb 06, 2012 9:48 am

Hao Mitakuyapi! this first post is a subject that's very close to my heart and I'd like to share with you the Meaning of the Circle & the Medicine Wheel in Lakota Philosophy

As Lame Deer points out, it is actually the circle which is fundamental in Lakota philosophy:
"...the Indian's symbol is the circle, the hoop. Nature wants things to be round...With us the
circle stands for the togetherness of people...The camp in which every tipi had its place was also a ring. The tipi was a ring in which people sat in a circle and all the families in the village were in turn circles within a larger circle, part of the larger hoop which was the seven campfires of the Sioux, representing one nation. The nation was only part of the universe...circles within circles within circles, with no beginning and no end. To us this is beautiful and fitting, symbol and
reality at the same time, expressing the harmony of life and nature".

The circle and the Medicine Wheel are closely related, however, since the Medicine Wheel is also circular. But let us begin with the fundamental meaning of the circle itself, as Lame Deer
suggests, and proceed from there.

The circle expresses an inclusive rather than exclusive philosophy. It brings things together
within progressively larger contexts rather than separating them from one another. Each family
resides in a circular home, which is part of a circular encampment or village. Each of the several
Lakota villages were also a larger, or more inclusive circle, representing the Lakota people. And
importantly, in Lakota philosophy, people were a also just a small part of the larger context of
the natural world.
Thus, one of the fundamental teachings of the circle is that it expresses a participatory
philosophy, in which people are a part of the natural world. There is no separation between the two as there often is in modern Western traditions.
In the social sphere the circle represents two things. The first is the egalitarian political
philosophy typical of many domestic scale cultures, while the second is the ideal of generalized
reciprocity, or the practice of freely sharing food and other necessities within the group. They
are closely related, since generalised reciprocity is a fundamental way of achieving one of any
egalitarian political philosophy's main goals, an equitable distribution of wealth within society.

As already mentioned, Lakota philosophy is both participatory and egalitarian. When you
combine the two, it follows logically that Lakota philosophy would extend egalitarianism in order
to include all living things within an even greater circle of reciprocal relations.
Gregory Cajete, a Tewa scholar, describes such a pattern of beliefs as a philosophy of "natural
democracy." What this implies is that Native philosophies generally did not reserve a special
place for humanity. Instead they considered all living things to be equal, and equally deserving
of respect.
Jenny Leading Cloud, a Lakota elder, once expressed this philosophy in the following manner:
"...we Indians think of the earth and the whole universe as a never ending circle, and in this
circle man is just another animal. The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our
cousins. Even the tiniest ant, even a louse, even the smallest flower you can find-they are all
Like all tribal societies, Lakota society was organized in terms of kinship among the people. But
the participatory philosophy of the circle implies that relationship between humans and other
species are also understood in terms of kinship.

This sort of participatory and egalitarian philosophy was also closely connected to the fact that Native American philosophies, like many tribal religions, tended to be animistic. What this implies is that spirit was considered to be immanent within all things. Spirit, like humanity, was seen as part of nature.
This is very different from Western traditions, where spirit tends to be seen as transcendent or
supernatural. Both the soul and God in Christian traditions, for example, tend to be portrayed as
beyond nature. As outside it.
The same was not true of Lakota traditions, as Luther Standing Bear relates: "Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit) breathed life and motion into all things, both visible and invisible. He was over all, through all, and in all, and great as was the sun, and good as was the earth, the greatness and goodness of the Big Holy were not surpassed. The Lakota could look at nothing without at the same time looking at Wakan Tanka, and he could not, if he wished, evade His presence, for it pervaded all things and filled all space".
One of the implications of such an animistic philosophy is that Creation did not happen in 7 days,
long ago, after which the Creator rested and watched. Rather, in Lakota philosophy, the creation
is a continuous process. In this view the world is continuously being created and sustained by
the immanent presence of the Great Spirit within all things.

If all things are manifestations of the Great Spirit's power, which flows through them and
within them, it then follows logically that all things must be respected if the Great Spirit is to be
respected. In other words, to respect nature and its ways is to respect "God" because the Great Spirit is not separate from the world. As Standing Bear continued, this attitude of respect for the creator/creation imposed certain duties upon people: "The animal had rights, the right to man's protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man's indebtedness...This concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance for all. The Lakota could despise no creature, for all were of one blood, made by the same hand, and filled with the essence of the Great Mystery".
Not only does Wakan Tanka continuously breathe life and motion into the entire creation in this
view, but all things are again related through its immanent presence within the world. The idea of seeing all things as relatives in Lakota philosophy was also represented in the symbolism of picturing the Sky as a Father and the Earth as a Mother. As Charles Eastman, a Lakota author who published several books on their culture and beliefs in the early 1900s explained:
"...the Indian no more worshiped the Sun than the Christian adores the Cross. The Sun and the
Earth, by an obvious parable, holding scarcely more of poetic metaphor than of scientific truth,
were in his view the parents of all organic life. From the Sun, as the universal father, proceeds
the quickening principle in nature, and in the patient and fruitful womb of our mother, the Earth,
are hidden embryos of plants and men. Therefore our reverence and love for them was really an
imaginative extension of our love for our immediate parents".
Importantly, both the male and female powers are pictured as equally necessary to life. In other
words they are pictured as complementary principles. Just as the life of a human infant is only
made possible through the coming together of its mother and father in sexual intercourse, the
same is true of the analogous relationship between powers of Earth and Sky. All living things are
once again represented as being related to one another by being children of Father Sky and
Mother Earth.

Having learned something about the general implications and meanings of the circle in Lakota
philosophy, we are now ready to come back to the Medicine Wheel. In sum, the Medicine Wheel
brings together the teachings of the circle, such as egalitarianism, reciprocity, natural
democracy, complementarity, and a participatory view of the relationship between humanity and
nature, with the central importance of balance as an ideal in Lakota philosophy.
The Medicine Wheel is sometimes represented as a cross inscribed within a circle. The Four
Directions are represented as points on this circle. The particular directions are often associated
with different animals, colours, or characters in specific traditions, but these vary widely cross-
culturally. The cardinal points are also connected by two lines from North to South and East to
These lines are often described as two paths, as they were by Black Elk. He described them as
"the good red road" (east to west) and the black "road of difficulties" (north to south). The first
was a harmonious or balanced path, and the second was an inharmonious or imbalanced path.
Note especially that the balanced path follows the pattern of celestial motion, or the patterns of
nature itself, while the north/south direction is contrary to this pattern.
To quote Black Elk, in this symbol: "we see that everything leads into, or returns to, the center,
and this center which is here, but which we know is really everywhere, is Wakan Tanka".
The ideal, the sacred, is represented by the center, the point of balance between all the natural
forces, and by the place where balance and imbalance meet. And this center represents Wakan
Tanka, or the "Power of the World", the Unity behind and within all things, and the ideal of the
parts and whole moving together in harmony.
Finally, due to the fact that the sacred is seen as immanent within the natural world, it follows
logically that one must also model one's own style of life after the ways of all living things. As
Eastman described the teachings he received as a child, before being educated in one of the first American boarding schools:
"After arriving at a reverent sense of the pervading presence of the Spirit and giver of Life, and a
deep consciousness of the brotherhood of man, the first thing for me to accomplish was to adapt
myself perfectly to natural things, in other words, to harmonise myself with nature."
What this implies is that both one's own behaviour and the patterns of relationship in the social
sphere generally, have to be adapted to those which can be observed in nature among other
forms of life.

And since society is considered to be a part of nature, it must move according to
the same patterns as those in nature if it is to be successful.
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