16 December 2012

Medicine Wheel Teaching a hoax

This was posted on Indianz.com and bears repeating:

Medicine Wheel Teaching a hoax

Andrea Bear Nicholas
Chair in Native Studies
St. Thomas University
Fredericton, NB, Canada
April 24, 2007

To Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy Peoples of the Maritimes:

It has been repeatedly brought to my attention how completely our people have been fooled into believing that the medicine wheel is somehow part of our traditions, especially our spirituality. While I had long had concerns about its origins, what woke me to the hoax was an event that occurred several years ago at a national conference of Aboriginal women scholars. It occurred when I raised the concern and prefaced my remarks with an apology to those whose tradition it might have been. Immediately a chorus went up with virtually everyone in the room saying loudly that it was not their tradition! And these were Aboriginal women scholars from across Canada!

Subsequent to that meeting, we in the Native Studies Program at St. Thomas University began researching the history of the medicine wheel, and what we have found is appalling!

Indeed, it was not even known by our people in the Maritimes until the last couple of decades. It is not anywhere in the oral traditions of Maliseet, Mi'kmaq or Passamaquoddy people collected as recently as the 70s and 80s. So how in the world could it represent the knowledge of our elders, if none of them ever heard of it until recently? The answer is that it was a totally invented tradition that was foisted on our people only as recently as the 1970s.

The following is an excerpt from a paper I have written which is due to be published soon. It is titled "The Assault on Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Past & Present." I include in this paper an analysis of the assault on our languages, as the most important of our oral traditions, specifically the fact that our languages have been deliberately targeted for destruction, not only by residential schools, but also by public schools and all schools taught only in a dominant language such as English. The paper also deals with the fact that so many of the stories of our people have been both distorted and often totally invented or fabricated by non-First Nations people. It is in connection with the destruction of our languages that I discuss the matter of invented traditions, especially the medicine wheel, as follows.

[Begin quote] "It is into this void [where so many people no longer speak their languages] that invented traditions have come with a vengeance. One such "tradition", the medicine wheel, is of particular concern for it is now widely promoted as the basis of Maliseet or Mi'kmaq traditions. In fact, it was invented as recently as 1972.

(1) by a man representing himself as Cheyenne, but who was immediately exposed as a fraud.

(2) The medicine wheel is not a Maliseet or Mi'kmaq tradition, nor, it seems, was it a Cheyenne tradition. Within two decades, however, it evolved into the form it is known today, thanks to the embellishments of several others, including the discredited "plastic medicine man" known as Sun Bear, who exploited the idea for their own personal gain.

(3) The irony is that this now very non-Native invention is seen as the essence of Native traditions, not only by the dominant society but also by First Nations people, even many who style themselves as "traditionalists", in spite of the fact that the enormity of the fraud has been known at least since 1983.

(4) With the 1996 publication of a Native Studies textbook that features the medicine wheel,

(5) the concept has been foisted upon a whole generation of Maliseet and Mi'kmaq high school students who now firmly believe that this invention is an old Mi'kmaq and Maliseet tradition.

Furthermore, Native Studies teachers in New Brunswick high schools are now provided with supplementary binders and curriculum materials that are totally focused on the medicine wheel. That this philosophy has effectively and almost totally displaced the oral traditions of our people in schools, makes it impossible to conclude that it does not serve the ends of the ongoing colonial assault on the traditions of our people. That this headlong rush for an invented tradition has occurred without critical attention to its origin as a hoax is a serious indictment of academia, and particularly those institutions that have taken on the responsibility of training First Nations teachers.

(6) The sad irony is that anyone who now voices objections to the medicine wheel as tradition is generally condemned for "messing" with tradition." [End of quote]

I put these comments out knowing that they will stir up much reaction and discussion, and that they will even be considered disrespectful, to say the least! I just hope that the discussion it provokes is respectful. As an indigenous academic my duty is to seek the truth, and to speak out against untruth, particularly with regard to our history. In fact, I now realize it would be disrespectful of me to hold my tongue on this matter any longer, especially when I know that young people are being taught this hoax as some sort of truth or legitimate tradition of our peoples, even in school.

I urge people to read the following footnotes to the excerpt quoted above, and the sources they cite before weighing in on this matter.

Andrea Bear Nicholas

(1) Storm, Hyemeyohst, Seven Arrows, New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

(2) Kehoe, Alice B., "Primal Gaia: Primitivists and Plastic Medicine Men", in James B. Clifton, ed., The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers, 1990, p. 200.

(3) Sun Bear and Wabun, The Medicine Wheel, New Jersey: Prentice-Hill, 1980. Judy Bopp, The Sacred Tree, Lethbridge, Alberta: Four Worlds Development Project, University of Lethbridge, 1988; and Lorler, Marie-Lu, Shamanic Healing within the Medicine Wheel, Albuquerque: Brotherhood of Life, 1989. For a critique of this idea and other New Age phenomena Aldred, Lisa, 2000. "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" in The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 24(3):329-352; and Jenkins, Philip, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

(4) Parkhill, Thomas, Weaving Ourselves into the Land: Charles Godfrey Leland, "Indians" and the Study of Native American Religions, Albany: State University of New York., 1997. p. 141, citing Alice Kehoe, "Primal Gaia: Primitivists and Plastic Medicine Men", p. 200-201, who in turn cites Castro, Michael, Interpreting the Indian, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982, p. 155; and Bruchac, Joseph, "Spinning the Medicine Wheel: The Bear Tribe in the Catskills", in Akwesasne Notes, 1983, vol. 15(5):20-22.

(5) Leavitt, Robert, Maliseet & Micmac: First Nations of the Maritimes, Fredericton, NB: New Ireland Press, 1995. .

(6) Dorson, Richard M., Folklore and Fakelore: Essays toward a Discipline of Folk Studies, Cambridge & London, Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 119.

Source: indianz.com

Edit: 22 May 2010 added image of 'Medicine Wheel'

Tags: aboriginal, bear tribe, canada, first nations, four, fraud, hoax, medicine, medicine man, medicine wheel, new age, pan-indianism, quebec, shaman, sun bear, symbol, tradition, traditional, wabun, young, youth


  1. What, for telling the truth? If you have a problem with it, then bring it up with the human who wrote the article.

    Pay attention to which Nation this speaks of; it doesn't talk about people who have a legitimate claim to a "medicine wheel", it talk about Maliseet and Mi'kmaq. I don't know which Nation you are J., but read it again, I think you might take that comment back when you do.

  2. The Peoples who do have a "medicine wheel", however, didn't get it from a fraud like "sun bear", and it isn't made up.

  3. Actually , Two things need be considered here . 1) the writer of this article is correct , in a grand majority of cases the medicine wheel was not apart of the Micmac View traditionally that is.
    Generally speaking it was a part of the western provinces of Canada first nations view (in some cases, I reiterate not all cases) now this is not to say that the wheel is a hoax , because there are many Native tribes throughout the north Americas that use it. But on the grand consensus it was not known of down here wildly until sometime into the mid 1990s. That much I know because I attended school here in Nova Scotia down in eastern passage . I went to school with a small amount of the natives from Caldwell. Two of which were very dear friends of mine.
    2) As stated above this is not to say that the medicine wheel is in any way a hoax , for many native tribes through out history have used it, or similar things to it. Its a very common practice actually , in one form or another. However, there is the chance that at some point regardless of elders position on the matter. It may well have been band members who thought it simplified things that may have chosen to incorporate it into things at a later date. If this is the case then I say go to it do what You feel is needed to explain the traditions of medicine , if the wheel is a good way of explaining then by all means use it. Though I do agree with the writer on the concern that it should not be referred to as "traditional to the Micmac people" because in this case it was added in much later.

  4. Very interesting. I often wondered how old the numerous Teachings associated with the Medicine Wheel could be when the four Colours represent, among other things, the Four races of mankind.
    I just figured it was designed as a visual teaching aide after the arrival of the Shoginosh.
    Gchi Miigwech.

  5. In the Territory of the Neheywin, Assinaboia, and Anishnabae peoples of the plains, known as the Last Mountain and Last Mountainn Lake is an ancient 2,000 year old Medicine Wheel site. The Medicine Wheel represents NATURAL LAW, when you pray to the west, the north, the east, the south, or when you turn your prayer pipe you are creating a natural/invisible medicine Wheel, The medicine Wheel is a universal symbol that can not be owned, but only understood!

  6. It is truly unfortunate that you create confusion as you do with this brief article. You should personally visit the Petroforms - a protected site in Whiteshell provincial park in Ontario - where there are numerous medicine wheels in rock formations which are dated back thousands of years; these all belong to the Anishinabe people who gathered there for various ceremonies. Check it out and investigate before writing such silly articles. Thank you.

  7. People that are calling this a crap article or in more polite terms, aren't reading the whole thing. Note that the article is SPECIFICALLY talking about MI'KMAQ traditions. Not anyone else's.

    Before you go criticising, at least read what you're criticising ;-).