Many First Nations refer to the Medicine Wheel as the Circle of Life, the Sacred Circle or the Cycle of Life.
The Medicine Wheel is not to be considered a sacred icon; it is simply a symbol used as a teaching tool.
The Medicine Wheel is a circular symbol equally divided into four parts, east, south, west and north. The number four is a sacred number used in Indigenous culture. Many aspects are seen in terms of four. The sacred mystery, the source of all creation reveals itself as the powers of the four directions and these four powers provide the organizing principles for everything that exists in the world, i.e.: the four seasons, the four races, the four elements of the universe, the four stages of life, the four aspects of human behaviour, the four medicines, etc.
The cultural concept or teachings of the Medicine Wheel are based on the Anishnaabe way of life, their value systems and interrelationships and connectedness to the universe/cosmos. We believe the Creator gave us borrowed time on earth therefore we must respect mother earth and all her elements, i.e.: respect for the preservation of water, trees, animals and our fellow human beings. We do this by following or living the teachings of the Seven Grandfathers and passing these teachings on to our children.
Figure 1. Medicine Wheel (adapted) – Loretta McDonald
Spiritual (Expression) – We all learn best when we can express ourselves effectively in different ways…through our bodies, with materials and/or with words.
Mental (Engagement) – We learn best when we are given environments and experiences that captivate our attention – through relationships with people who help us explore ideas, investigate our theories and interact with others in play.
Physical (Well-Being) – We learn better when we feel physically healthy, safe, able to take care of ourselves and able to deal with stress and recover.
Emotional (Belonging) – We all learn best when we feel seen, heard, safe and connected to others, when we are valued as having our own unique perspective, and when our contributions are appreciated.
The Seven Grandfather teachings have been passed on to each Anishnaabe Nation for generations. They tell us to take care of mother earth, respect her and not destroy her. They tell us we all share in this responsibility. We need to make sure that the earth and everything the Creator put on the earth will always be here for future generations.
To take care of the mother earth and the communities of life we need to follow the teachings of the Seven Grandfathers which are: Bravery, Honesty, Humility, Love, Respect, Truth and Wisdom (refer to Emotional aspect for full description). Each of these teachings must be used together, for example, you cannot have wisdom without love, respect, humility, honesty, bravery and truth.
Tobacco is the first plant that the Creator gave to the Anishnaabe people. It is said to be the activator of all the plant spirits. The three other plants, sage, sweet grass and cedar follow tobacco and together they are referred to as the “four sacred medicines”. The four sacred medicines are used in everyday life and in ceremonies. All of them can be used to smudge with, although sage, cedar and sweet grass also have many other uses.
Tobacco sits in the eastern doorway, sweet grass sits in the southern doorway, sage sits in the western doorway and cedar sits in the northern doorway.
When a smudging ceremony is performed one of the four sacred medicines is burned in an abalone shell; glass, stone or copper bowls may also be used. It is believed that we are cleansing or washing ourselves. We usually smudge the following places: our eyes so we can see clearly; our minds so we can think clearly; our ears so we can hear what is being said; our mouths so we can speak the truth from our heart and our body so we can walk in a good way.
When one seeks the advice and help of an Elder, tobacco is given as an offering of good faith and respect to the Elder. When you ask for help from the Creator, as in hunting, fishing, planting or a personal favour, tobacco is laid down on the earth, preferably under a tree. This is done as a sign of gratitude for all things the Creator has given to man, i.e.: we thank the Creator for the deer who gives his life so that our family may have food, clothing and shelter.
Tobacco was given to us so we can communicate with the great Creator in the spirit world. When we make an offering of tobacco, we communicate our thoughts and our feelings through tobacco as we pray for ourselves, family, relatives, the community and the world. Traditional people make an offering of tobacco each day when the sun comes up to say thank you for another day.