The Sioux Nation comprises several tribes and three major dialects: Lakota, Dakota and Nakota. A constituent of the Plains Indians from the "Great Plains of North America," the Sioux dwell today in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Montana, as well as in parts of Canada (e.g., Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan and Alberta).
While there are numerous tribes belonging to the Sioux Nation, the four colors of the medicine wheel, or "Sacred Hoop," connect them. If fact, the medicine wheel represents the interdependence of all people, the four directions, aspects of the cosmos and the individual. The wheel's white, red, yellow and black quadrants signify the north, south, east and west winds, respectively.
The Sioux medicine wheel is depicted as a cross inside a circle. Though the design seems rudimentary, the medicine wheel has complex and varied meanings. For example, rather than only four directions, the wheel can be said to represent seven. As a three-dimensional sphere, there is also the "up to the sky" direction, "down to earth" direction and the center direction. The center, or seventh direction, may be viewed as the location within the individual or the axis mundi connecting the opposing aspects of the cosmos.
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The black, white, yellow and red quadrants are also rich in meaning. Representative of different world races, the medicine wheel may at first glance seem limiting in our multicultural world. However, the Native Americans emphasize the function of the design to depict four opposing entities and the innumerable variations the model makes possible. The layout of the wheel varies across tribes and even individuals as they journey through life. A common variation is to have black and white, and red and yellow, flipped.
For many tribes, red symbolizes the east wind, sunrise, birth, spring and beginnings generally. Its symbol is the eagle and its element is the earth. Red represents people of the earth, Native people who uphold Native tradition. Again, people of any race may be red, earth people. It is really up to the individual to know where he belongs. And no one is confined to one quadrant of the wheel. In fact, the individual moves around the wheel through the course of his life. He may revisit aspects, but the overall direction is around the wheel, clockwise. Red welcomes the being into existence. It is about creation, creativity and newness. A child begins here, but everyone draws on the power of red and his relationship with nature for renewal and inspiration.
Yellow is regarded as a symbol of light, the high-noon sun and warmth. The south wind brings heat, and with it summer and a time of growth. The deer and elk spirits guard the south; these animals represent sexuality and love, as well as the feminine. Individuals using the four winds medicine wheel know yellow as adulthood, a period of life that bridges childhood and the next stage in life, old age. According to the Sioux, the tribal band yellow stands for Asian people. Some experts on Native American medicine and spirituality, such as Kenneth Cohen, say that tribes' use of color in conjunction with ethnicity in the medicine wheel speaks to their clairvoyant understanding of other races' existence. Yellow people, it is said, have mastery over the breath -- in meditation, for example. For this reason the south is also the direction of faith, spirit and air, or breath.
Black signifies the west wind, autumn and the shadow side, or dream world. For the Brule Sioux, west is home of the Great Thunderbird, Wakinyan Tanka, a mythological figure that guards the Black Hills.
West is also home of the sunset, a daily event that also marks the transition from light and warmth to the black, cool night. The spirit of the bear resides in the west. The actions the bear takes to turn in for winter hibernation represent the individual's stages of turning inward as she reflects in her old age. This is a time of dreaming and introspection. Because spirit life begins to awaken in the fall, the Sioux use this time to go on the vision quest. Those who chose this path are soul-searching, perhaps preparing to become healers. In the vision quest, individuals may sacrifice food, warmth and other comforts on their journey into nature alone for days to come closer to the Great Mystery.
Black also symbolizes African people, grandparents and others who are given great respect by the tribe for their age and wisdom. Water is the symbolic element of the west; it assists in purification.
Finally, we come to the north, the medicine wheel's white quadrant. White symbolizes winter, a season of cold temperatures, harsh conditions, snow and ice. Interestingly, the symbolic element is fire, which is associated with the intellect. People from the north, or so-called "white people," were viewed by the Natives as valuing mental facility over the spiritual (represented by the south wind and yellow).
Winter is the season when the spirit world is most active and the animal and plant kingdoms are asleep. The spirit of the White Buffalo guards the north, and is said to symbolize the wisdom of the ancestors and the Great Mystery.
Individuals have power over the center of the Sioux Four Directions Medicine Wheel. They are in charge of all its aspects. Every individual possess the gifts of the medicine wheel, and has the power to strengthen gifts, always working toward balance. Imbalance of the aspects results in illness. As a universal symbol, the wheel represents the interdependence of all people, animals, earth elements and spirits.