Native American Medicine Wheel: Symbols and Meaning – PowWows.com

Posted By Jamie K Oxendine April 8th, 2014 Last Updated on: August 6th, 2022

Note: this article is about the Native American Medicine Wheel symbol, color and design as opposed to the physical structure known as the Medicine Wheel that is visible as architecture across North America.

Universal truths can be found in this piece of information that is shared and accepted in not being overly protected or sacred.  The paper does not attempt to discuss or explain the many concepts of spirituality behind the Medicine Wheel as that is very specific, sacred and rather personal to Native American nations, tribes, clans, bands, families and individuals. The symbolism varies greatly from nation to nation.

In this post, we'll cover the Medicine Wheel meaning, related symbols, colors, images, seasons, directions, and more!

Native American Medicine Wheel Design

The term “Medicine Wheel” is not a Native American expression.  It is of course of European and American origin.  What the symbol has been called in Native America depends on the language of each particular Nation.  This is protected among some Native American Nations and therefore will not be discussed here.  For some this has often been lost and “Medicine Wheel” is the commonly used phrase.

Native American Medicine Wheel Design

The main characteristic design of the Native American Medicine Wheel is the most basic yet most perfect form – the circle.  This is one absolute not only in Native America for sacred hoops but also for most cultures that have some kind of Circle of Life symbol.  The second aspect of the Native American Medicine Wheel are the two intersecting lines that create a cross in the middle of the circle.  The lines separate the circle into four equal sector parts.

Now that involves what can be seen. The Medicine Wheel must be thought of as floating in space and its cardinal points as well as other points that cannot be seen create a perfect sphere.  Thus creating other points for directions up and down and of course perfect center.

Native American Medicine Wheel Colors

Native American Medicine Wheel Color Explanation

Color Explanation and Color Placement on the Medicine Wheel can vary based on various customs by Nations, Tribe, Clan, Band, Family and individuals.

While it is true that the most common colors of the Medicine Wheel in Native America are Red, Yellow Black and White, these are not the absolute colors for all Native American Nations.  Some Nations use, Blue in wake of Black, others have Purple instead of Black.  Yet some other Nations have used Green in lieu of Black.

Native American Medicine Wheel                                                                                               Native American Medicine Wheel Symbolism

So the four colors of Red, White, Black and Yellow are not set in stone as being for just one people.

Native American Medicine Wheel Meaning

It is widely accepted that the Medicine Wheel is a symbol of life and specifically the Circle of Life. As is well known, the circle represents perfection, as well as infinity, since the circle has no beginning or end.  There can many reasons behind the meaning of the circle itself among Nations. This can range from representing the Sun, Moon, Earth, and the Stars to representing concepts of life, continuity, consciousness, energy, and so much more.

It should be stressed that this is not the same from Nation to Nation and there can be some representation that is very secret.  The point at which the lines cross in the middle is extensively accepted as Center.  Like color, which point and which sector represents what can be debated and broadly contested instead of discussed and understood from one person to another.

The part points, as well as the four sectors, have been attributed to representing the following:

The Four Directions:  East, South, West, North

The Four Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter

The Four Stages of Life: Birth, Youth, Adult, Death

The Four Times of Day: Sunrise, Noon, Sunset, Midnight

The Four Elements of Life: Earth, Fire, Water, Wind

The Four Races of Man: Red, Yellow, Black, White

The Four Trials of Man: Success, Defeat, Peace, War

The Heavenly Beings: Sun, Moon, Earth, Stars

And there are many more!

The four points, as well as the four sectors, may also have animal, plant and celestial representations.  These also differ greatly from nation to nation and varies vastly also due to geographical location.  For example, the Buffalo used for some of the Plains Tribes Medicine Wheel does not have any representation among the Medicine Wheel of the deep South East as that animal was rare among them.

However, the Alligator that may represent in a sector among the South East Nations did not have any representation among the Plains Tribes as it was not among them.


No one Medicine Wheel works for all Native Americans.  The differences as mentioned are extremely wide. It's important to also remember that the Medicine Wheel is exceptionally individual.  A person can develop their own Medicine Wheel that has their own Animal/Spirit Helpers. This knowledge may happen in ceremony, visions, or dreams and other.  This type of Medicine Wheel can be so private that only the person and The Creator are aware of its existence.

Medicine Wheel

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About Jamie K Oxendine

Jamie K. Oxendine, of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, is the Native American Liaison and Education Consultant for Ohio University in Athens. Ohio. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Toledo teaching “Indians of North America” and at Lourdes University teaching “Native American Culture” for the Lifelong Learning Center. A frequent speaker on Native American topics, he serves as the director of the Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation in Ohio. As a recording artist, he was three times been nominated for a NAMMY (Native American Music Award).

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Interesting article, I am curious about the origins of the “common” wheel colours of red, white, black, and yellow. I understand they are not the same for all, but are these colours a more recent adoption or have they historically always been that way?

I have been reading about European philosophy and later alchemy and noticed that the four stages of the Magnum Opus (great work) are interestingly the same colours with similar interpretations. it’s likely a coincidence, but it makes one wonder since there are many symbols and concepts across the world that seem universal in culture.

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Sylvia Elrod

So much to learn AND unlearn !!!!………I am just learning about my real “mexica” roots. Yes I can say I have spainish in me BUT I also have indigenous peoples running thru me and that part of me is trying to teach me so much. I am 64 years old and was raised in CA. Was taught that Columbus was the end all,be all and that 1st, being Mexican was not a good thing, raised in white, English only schools and 2ndly, no one, not even my parents talked about our uto-Azteca side………I am slowly but surely letting my mind absorb all this new info and am SO glad and Proud to have native blood running thru me!

White Dove Woman

Your well written information is wonderful. l’m very grateful for myself and for my family.
We are Anishinabe and Cherokee.
White Dove Woman

Daryl Stangl

Thank you for sharing and helping me in my journey in the Rainbow Warrior Nation. Now is time of discovery of brothers and sisters in this portion of my rainbow journey. Too has come the time to reawaken our awareness of our earthwalk of years ago and return to some of our former beliefs and lifestyle that will honor and heal Mother Earth.


Can anybody tell me why my husband has been seeing…whether awake or alseep, a Native American spirit. He knows when there is something related to Native Americans coming into our view, life seconds to weeks before we actually encounter it. He tells me he sees a ‘medicine wheel’ but it is not quartered. It used to just have a bird, buffalo, turtle, and bear, now it has those same 4 animals but with trees and grass and a forked stream and he is told to enter and ‘walk amongst us’. In his mind he walks through the wheel into a village. This is a small example of what I refer to as visions, but he can’t explain what they are. He hears language that he can’t speak but he knows what it means. So many things have happened that are both amazing and unbelievable. It’s been happening for the last several years.


merci pour ce partage

Odile Jain

Thank You for this very informative article ! Thanks also to those who commented on it ! Some of those comments were also quite interesting !
I shared it on the Australian Facebook page “Indigenous Rise”, which often posts Native American news, as well as news from the Maori, and other relations across the globe.

Cee Cee

WoW, Enlightening, but as I read more & more I felt much separation & even a bit animosity in whites vs … But what then does that make me, my dna has so many bloodlines it would be impossible to decipher, yet still I am alive & created by God, the Great Spirit that created all of us. Truth, we are much more alike than we care to admit! Yes being raised in cultures with traditions have their influences, but we are all still born with nothing & die with nothing, & all breath & have essential needs to survive the time we are here upon this earth alive. its that simple! Therefore – Do unto others as u want them to do to u, no matter who they are or what color, religion, ethnic or race. God Bless in Jesus my Savior!

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