Simon Kytwayhat, a Cree elder who lives in Saskatoon, says he learned his Cree perspective on the meaning of the medicine wheel from elders. Kytwayhat’s interpretation of the meaning of the medicine wheel associates the four directions represented on the wheel with the four races and their attributes — the circle and the number four are sacred symbols in First Nations’ spirituality.
South, says Kytwayhat, stands for the color yellow, the Asian people, the Sun, and intellect, while west represents the black race, the color black, the Thunderbird, and emotion.
North is associated with the color white, the white man, winter and physicality — “white people sometimes rush into things without considering the consequences” — and east is identified with the color red, the Indian person, spirituality and the eagle.
“The eagle has great vision, and so do those who follow the spiritual path in life.”
Kytwayhat said he used to blame the white man for all the troubles experienced by Indians.
“In time, I came to see the real meaning of the medicine wheel is the brotherhood of man. How you treat others comes back to you around the circle,” says Kytwayhat.
If First Nations’ peoples have divergent views on the meaning of the medicine wheel, and members of the non-Native community, including scientists, are often poles apart.
The Mormon Church believes the wheels were built by the Aztecs
The Mormon Church believes the wheels were built by the Aztecs, and Swiss author Erich von Daniken contends they’re a link to pre-historic astronauts. New-Agers, meanwhile, embrace them as spiritual symbols and construct their own near existing sites.
In the 1970s, Colorado astronomer John Eddy proposed wheels like Moose Mountain and Bighorn, in Wyoming, were calendars whose cairns and spokes aligned with celestial markers like Rigel, Aldebaran and Sirius to forecast events like the return of the buffalo.
“It’s all over the map,” says Ernie Walker, head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“We don’t know whether some have astronomical alignments or not — if some do, they’re very much in the minority. A lot of (archaeologists) doubt it.”
Brace says the astronomical theory is easily debunked by simply imagining someone trying to carry out celestial alignments over the 17-foot crest that separates one side of the Moose Mountain wheel from the other.
“Even standing on a horse, you can’t see the other side.”