What is an Indigenous Medicine Wheel?

Bob Joseph

"The circle, being primary, influences how we as Aboriginal peoples view the world. In the process of how life evolves, how the natural world grows and works together, how all things are connected, and how all things move toward their destiny. Aboriginal peoples see and respond to the world in a circular fashion and are influenced by the examples of the circles of creation in our environment". [1]



There isn’t a simple answer to the question as medicine wheels (sometimes called hoops) come in more than one form, and their significance and use is culture-specific. There is, however, one fundamental similarity besides the shape - medicine wheels represent the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities. The circle shape represents the interconnectivity of all aspects of one’s being, including the connection with the natural world. Medicine wheels are frequently believed to be the circle of awareness of the individual self; the circle of knowledge that provides the power we each have over our own lives. 

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What is the Relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Animals

From time to time people ask me about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and animals. For some, the knowledge of the natural world - the land, plants, animals, seasons and cycles of nature - has been a central tenet of their lives and worldviews since the dawn of time. Their understanding of the natural world is sophisticated and comprehensive. The natural world, now commonly referred to as the “environment”, is not viewed as a separate entity but one, interconnected aspect of the whole. This interconnectedness equates to a moral responsibility to care for, live in harmony with, and respect the natural world.

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Indigenous Peoples Worldviews vs Western Worldviews

"Any individual within a culture is going to have his or her own personal interpretation of the collective cultural code; however, the individual's world view has its roots in the culture - that is, in the society's shared philosophy, values and customs. If we are to understand how Aboriginal and Eurocentric worldviews clash, we need to understand how the philosophy, values and customs of Aboriginal culture differ from those of Eurocentric cultures" [1]

The world we live in is multicultural with a corresponding plethora of worldviews. In this article we provide a definition of "worldviews" and a comparison of Indigenous and Western worldview perspectives. Understanding the core differences between Indigenous worldviews and Western worldviews is an important component in achieving cultural harmony and respectful relationships. We are speaking in very general terms in the description of these differences and are in no way indicating that individual Indigenous cultures share the same worldviews; ditto for generalizations of Western worldviews.

Chief Tony Alexis and Pope Francis in Vatican City 2016 | Vatican Radio Facebook


First of all, what is the definition of a worldview?

“A worldview can pertain to an individual, group, or society. Overall, a worldview is a set of beliefs and values that are honoured and withheld by a number of people. A worldview includes how the person or group interacts with the world around them, including land, animals, and people. Every person and society has a worldview. Many societies pass on their worldview to their children to ensure worldview continuity. As people interact and learn from one another, it is not uncommon for them to acquire the beliefs of other worldviews. Worldviews evolve as people and societies evolve” [2]

- Leroy Little Bear, professor

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The root of the difference between the worldviews is that they generally subscribe to opposite approaches to knowledge, connectedness, and science. Indigenous cultures focus on a holistic understanding of the whole that emerged from the millennium of their existence and experiences. Traditional Western worldviews tend to be more concerned with science and concentrate on compartmentalized knowledge and then focus on understanding the bigger, related picture.

Eight differences between Indigenous and western worldviews [3]

Indigenous worldviews (I) vs Western worldviews (W)

1.(I) Spiritually orientated society. System based on belief and spiritual world.
1.(W) Scientific, skeptical. Requiring proof as a basis of belief.

2.(I)There can be many truths; truths are dependent upon individual experiences.
2.(W) There is only one truth, based on science or Western style law.

3.(I) Society operates in a state of relatedness. Everything and everyone is related. There is real belief that people, objects and the environment are all connected. Law, kinship and spirituality reinforce this connectedness. Identity comes from connections.
3.(W)Compartmentalized society, becoming more so.

4.(I) The land is sacred and usually given by a creator or supreme being.
4.(W) The land and its resources should be available for development and extraction for the benefit of humans.

5.(I) Time is non-linear, cyclical in nature. Time is measured in cyclical events. The seasons are central to this cyclical concept.
5.(W) Time is usually linearly structured and future orientated. The framework of months, years, days etc reinforces the linear structure.

6.(I) Feeling comfortable is measured by the quality of your relationships with people.
6.(W) Feeling comfortable is related to how successful you feel you have been in achieving your goals.

7.(I) Human beings are not the most important in the world.
7.(W) Human beings are most important in the world.

8.(I) Amassing wealth is important for the good of the community
8.(W)Amassing wealth is for personal gain

It also has been suggested that in any society there is a dominant worldview that is held by most members of that society. Alternative worldviews do exist, but they are not usually held by a majority of a society. [4]

“We must learn to live together or perish together as fools.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Understanding and respecting the differences in worldviews will help in relationship building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. So, if you ever find yourself in a situation in which you encounter an opposing worldview and are perhaps not quite understanding it, we suggest you open the “curiosity” portal in your mind and try really hard to see across worldviews. This is what is meant by cultural competency.  

This is a very brief description of the basic differences between Indigenous Peoples worldviews and western worldviews. We encourage readers to do further reading to expand their knowledge on topics we present on our blog. 

[1] John Ralston Saul, The Comeback 

[2] Teaching Treaties website  

[3] Adapted from Working with Aboriginal Worldviews, Anne Mead

[4] Journal of Indigenous Voices in Social Work

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First Nation Sacred Sites

For First Nations, their identity, nationhood, and cultural survival are all interconnected to their relationship with the land and cannot be separated out from their specific lands. This inexorable connection is celebrated in oral histories, creation stories, ceremonies and cultural practices.

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First Nation Relationship to the Land

“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.” [1]

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Aboriginal Sacred Plants: Sage

This is the last in our series on Aboriginal sacred plants. Sage, along with sweetgrass,red cedar and tobacco, is one of the four plants considered sacred by First Nations and Métis Peoples. Sage is used broadly for many purposes by both First Nations and Native Americans - and is described here in only the most general of terms. Similar to sweetgrass, it is used in many geographical locations in North America, whereas red cedar is primarily used in ceremonies on the northwest coast.

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Aboriginal Sacred Plants: Tobacco

Tobacco, one of the four (sweetgrass, sage and red cedar being the other three) aboriginal sacred plants of Aboriginal Peoples has a very long history and a conflicted present. Considered to be a sacred medicine, it was used in religious ceremonies by Aboriginal Peoples in North and South America long before contact with Europeans. Sacred use of it is so entwined with some Aboriginal cultures that it literally is present at every stage of life: it is associated with birthing rituals, courtship, marriage, death and personal prayer. Sacred tobacco is sometimes not tobacco but is a blend of a variety of plants such as kinnikinick and the bark of the red osier dogwood.

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Sacred Red Cedar

Sacred Red Cedar, along with sweetgrass, sage and tobacco, is one of the Indigenous sacred plants used by First Nations and Métis Peoples (cedar does not feature in Inuit ceremonies as it does not grow in their region).

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Sweetgrass - Sacred Plant in Aboriginal Ceremonies

Sweetgrass is one of the four plants (tobacco, sage, red cedar and sweetgrass) considered as sacred to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. It is known for its sweet scent, which is intensified when it rains or when burned. It is usually associated with the Prairies but is found in many different growing conditions from low meadows, forest openings, along lake shores but also in subalpine and alpine zones. It is found across North America, Northern Europe below the Arctic Circle.

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Spirit Bear or Kermode Bear? That is the question.

 In my travels to deliver an on site training workshop earlier this week I was blessed to see a Spirit Bear or Kermode Bear up close and personal and even had a chance to take some pictures and a video.

 Spirit Bear on side of road   Spirit Bear on side of road 2

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