A common philosophical tradition among Native Americans is the belief system called the Medicine Wheel. The symbol of the wheel represents the cycle of life, both macrocosmically (the world) and microcosmically (the individual). The four spokes of the wheel are the four directions of the compass — north, south, east, and west. Each direction has its own philosophy, a symbolic animal, and a color.
The Meanings of the Spokes
East is considered the beginning, because the sun rises in the east. The color is gold, and the animal is a golden eagle. The philosophy is one of seeing the world as it really is, with clarity and without illusion.
The south is represented by the color green, and the symbolic animal is the mouse. The mouse represents the striving and curious nature that is to be encouraged. Most of us think of the mouse as an icky nuisance, but the traditional Native American sees a shrewd, savvy, and dogged explorer. Think about that the next time you see one of the poor little critters on a glue trap.
The Native American concept of the Medicine Wheel is similar to Carl Gustav Jung's notion of individuation, which is the successful integration of all the disparate aspects of your body, mind, and spirit to create a wholeness and harmony.
The west is where the sun sets, and the color is black. The animal is the bear. The bear is a nocturnal creature and hibernates in a cave. These Native American amateur psychologists saw the bear as the symbol for introspection. Most of our minds are subconscious, and those who traverse these darkened realms, as the bear prowls the night, indulge in introspection and are more likely to find illumination. This indicates a highly sophisticated understanding of the human mind.
Finally, the north represents winter. The color is the whiteness of the snow and the totem animals are the wolf and the buffalo. These animals represent intelligence and insight, things that often come too late, in the winter of one's life.
All four spokes come together at the center. If you reach the center in your life, you will have incorporated in a perfect balance all these qualities. The concept of the Medicine Wheel is similar to Carl Gustav Jung's notion of individuation, which is the successful integration of all the disparate aspects of your body, mind, and spirit.
Some Native American nations have a very enlightened sense of criminal justice. The Navajo regard a criminal as a sick person, not an evil person, and healing rituals and ceremonies and rehabilitation are encouraged and the person is welcomed back into the tribe. This is not the primitive form of knee-jerk liberalism, however. A repeated offender who is deemed beyond redemption and remains a threat to the lives of the rest of the tribe is usually dispatched with finality.
The Native American philosophy can be summed up as follows. Everything is connected, and humans are just one small part of the cosmic Big Picture. Like Heraclitus, the Indians believe that the cycle of life is one of constant change, but not chaotic or meaningless change. Everything is happening for a purpose, even if we do not understand what that purpose may be. People have a body and a spirit, and there is a spiritual world that is as real as the world we see and experience with our five senses.
Some Native American nations had an enlightened sense of criminal justice. The wrongdoer was treated as a sick person and an attempt was made to heal them and reintegrate them back into the tribe. Of course, the extremely violent, murderous members incapable of rehabilitation were dispatched with finality.
We are here on this earth to learn. The optimum conditions for learning require a balance of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our nature. We will be given help from the spirits if we ask for it. Achieving your maximum human potential is where it's at, and the only real sin against God is failure to use whatever gifts God has given you for your own good and the good of the community.
A Famous Letter from Chief Seattle
We will close with a famous letter from Chief Seattle to the “white man” about selling the land to them. It distills the Native American philosophy with poignant eloquence and reminds us of the crimes committed against this noble race of deeply spiritual philosophers.
“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy ourland. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea isstrange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and thesparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the earthis sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know thesap which courses through the trees as we know the blood thatcourses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part ofus. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the greateagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in themeadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the samefamily. The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is notjust water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, youmust remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clearwaters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of mypeople. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father. Therivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoesand feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness thatyou would give any brother. If we sell you our land, remember that theair is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life thatit supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath alsoreceived his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit oflife. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as aplace where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by themeadow flowers. Will you teach your children what we have taught ourchildren? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befallsall the sons of the earth. This we know: The earth does not belong toman, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely astrand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. Onething we know: Our God is also your God. The earth is precious tohim and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. Yourdestiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are allslaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secretcorners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and theview of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will thethicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to saygoodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and thebeginning of survival. When the last red man has vanished with thiswilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud movingacross the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will therebe any of the spirit of my people left? We love this earth as anewborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, loveit as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold inyour mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us. As weare part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth isprecious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know — there isonly one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.”
Black Elk Speaks is a wonderful twentieth-century interpretation of Native American spirituality. It is the memoir of a shaman, or medicine man, as told to a noted American poet. It should be considered required reading for anyone who wants to understand Native American culture.