Assignment 3.5 – The Medicine Wheel as a Thought Model

This blog post will address the following (question seven):

“Describe how King uses the cyclical paradigm of the Medicine Wheel (and a little help from Coyote) to teach us to understand, or at least to try to understand the power behind the stories we tell ourselves” (Paterson n.p.).


The Medicine Wheel is a First Nations thought model that can be recorded as a circle with four quadrants, expressing concepts and relationships in sets of four that signify things such as seasons, stages of life, directions, and elements, among many others (Bell 15). It emphasizes “the importance of appreciating and respecting the ongoing interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all [these] things” (Bell 14). By taking those concepts or subjects which lay on their own as separate and uniting them in a wheel, the Medicine Wheel demonstrates their interplay, and, ultimately, the “encompassing relatedness between everything” (Calliou 50; see also Walker 19).

File 5529

A Medicine Wheel created by Nicole Bell as an Indigenous education framework (Bell 14).

Clearly, the Medicine Wheel exhibits a highly “complex system of [Indigenous] knowledge” (Walker 19). In a seemingly simple way, it shows that the meanings of concepts themselves are necessarily co-constituted, their identification and operation relying on the existence and operation of other concepts. This is a system of thought that prizes a harmonious wholeness – that one should look at entireties as a greater sum of parts while simultaneously realizing that those parts are not identifiable without seeing the whole they create (Bell 15). The production of knowledge in any sense, then, “is a holistic, self-constructed process” (Calliou 53). The grandest of theories and smallest concepts are mutually defined, co-constituted, and reliant on interrelationships to create meaning. This closely follows the post-modern concept of intertextuality, which posits that, as pieces of knowledge are pulled from various places to create a new theory, the stories, narratives, and theories of those original pieces remain connected. Such a concept shows us, as does the Medicine Wheel, that most of all the theories (and stories) we come up with are interconnected and dependent upon each other.

Most importantly, the Medicine Wheel allows one to surpass the binary thought models of a “discourse of differentiation” (Calliou 70), sacrificing the ‘other’ label that invariably results in socio-cultural tension and conflict (Calliou 47). It shows us that “our lives are lived relationally, ‘as a relation among relations'” (Calliou 51). Harming any one of these relationships has a ripple effect that will harm all relationships. Bell alludes to this reliance upon relationships, saying that “interconnections create an environment which is mutually sustaining; where there is a transcending of logic and linear thought to reveal synthesis and dynamic interdependence” (15). Breaking connections within the Wheel means that the constituent parts can no longer be sustained by each other, and the harmony of the system falls apart.

Under such a model of thought, human interaction and morality are guided by a law of relations (Calliou 51), where instead of conceptualizing the self as an autonomous individual or as a cog in a larger community, the self is defined and sustained by its relationships with all other things. Those relationships must invariably be maintained and expanded through “continuous and ongoing reflection of oneself in relation to others” (Bell 15). In this way, balance is maintained and change is embraced by the Medicine Wheel, creating a system of knowledge that is not only “complex,” as Walker says (19), but flexible – universal, communal, and individual at once.

King makes various allusions to the Medicine Wheel throughout his novel, most obviously in the headings of the four sections of the book, which translate into a direction and colour (north is blue, east is red, south is white, and west is black), but also with the Four Old Indians and the four mythical women who fall from the sky who are named to represent the four stages of live (Paterson n.p.). As a thought model that focuses on relationships within and between concepts in groups of four, some of King’s allusions are fairly obvious given that he creates several of these groups for us. However, King also gets at the heart of the Medicine Wheel as First Woman’s call to “mind your relations” appears early in the novel (Green Grass 39). Not only does this explicitly hint at the law of relations, but the idea of relationships and relational meanings carry throughout the book as narratives cross over and affect each other, and as the real/ideal binary is broken down (most often by Coyote).

The Medicine Wheel, then, multiplies the power of the story, expanding its relevance not only to literature itself (see Frye 234), but to all things. By using the Medicine Wheel as a thought model, we can easily see that stories are related to each other, and King makes this very clear through his narrative structure in Green Grass Running Water. However, by taking the model a step further, we gain insight on the relationships between stories and reality, history, ideology, science, and, in fact, all dialogues. Stories themselves are no longer stories, but instead pieces of a larger knowledge base that function in relation to all other theories and pieces of knowledge. The Medicine Wheel shows us that every story we tell, as well as every story we are told, becomes “loose in the world” in both senses that it cannot be recalled, and that it expands to interact with all facets of life, just as all facets of life interact with it (King Truth About Stories 10).

The power of a story with the aid of the Medicine Wheel is that it is capable of reaching and interacting with all things, affecting change both in the imaginary, spiritual, and emotional realms, but also in reality. This power is demonstrated foremost in Green Grass Running Water by Coyote, a Native trickster character. Coyote jumps between all narratives in King’s novel, engaging with the ‘I’ speaker in the novel’s meta-narrative, meeting the Four Old Indians, and then using his stories and movements to affect the real world occupied by King’s (strictly) human characters. Using the power that stories hold with the Medicine Wheel, Coyote is able to alter every realm of the novel, resulting in a cheeky reply: “‘You are one silly Coyote,’ I says. ‘No wonder this world is a mess'” (King, Green Grass 238).


Works Cited

Alfaro, María Jesús Martínez. “Intertextuality: Origins and Development of the Concept.” Atlantis 18.1 (1996): 268-285. Web. 18 July 2016.

Bell, Nicole. “Teaching by the Medicine Wheel: An Anishinaabe Framework for Indigenous Education.” Education Canada 54.3 (2014): 14-16. Web. 18 July 2016.

Calliou, Sharilyn. “Peacekeeping Actions at Home: A Medicine Wheel Model for a Peacekeeping Pedagogy.” First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Eds. Marie Battiste and Jean Barman. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995. 47-72. Web. 18 July 2016.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Introduction by Linda Hutcheon (1995). Concord: Anansi Press, 1971. Print.

King, Thomas. Green Grass Running Water. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 1993. Print.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Tornoto: Anansi Press, 2003. Print.

Laframboise, Sandra and Karen Sherbina. “The Medicine Wheel.” Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society. Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 3.2.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. University of British Columbia, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.

Walker, Polly. “Journeys Around the Medicine Wheel: A Story of Indigenous Research in a Western University.” The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 29.2 (2001): 18-21. Web. 18 July 2016.


Filed under Unit III

3 Responses to Assignment 3.5 – The Medicine Wheel as a Thought Model

  1. claudia gillard

    It does seem unknowable, but I must compliment you on how well you’ve explained it. You’ve really helped me understand it better: good job! Thanks,

  2. claudia gillard

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for this really informative and yet concise account of the Medicine Wheel paradigm! It makes me re-think the question I asked in my 3:5 post, which was why First Woman was so accepting of GOD when he says the garden is his, and she just says she’ll go looking for a new home (69)…maybe it’s that the law of relations necessarily leads to the acceptance of ‘the other’ – and maybe even denies the fact of otherness? Interested to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks! Claudia

    • NickBabey

      Within the Medicine Wheel as a thought model, the law of relations leads to the acceptance and denial of the ‘other’ simultaneously.

      The other is accepted upon the “mind your relations” principle I talk about above. This is based on the co-constitution of self and other – for the self to exist, it must have an other to relate to. Thus, duality is part of the Medicine Wheel.

      However, the fact that all things are related and are constantly shifting in their dynamic relationships with each other denies the existence of the other. The other and the self become the same thing because they are simply both equal points in an endlessly complex system. Within the system, all things relate to everything, meaning that the concept of ‘self’ expands to include all of those things.

      This is why the Medicine Wheel is such a complex model of knowledge. Within it, the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ both exist and cease to exist. I would love to meet someone who truly understands the Wheel, if such an understanding is achievable. Perhaps it is like Plato’s philosopher leaving the cave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *