Native American Inspired Design
John Stuart Leslie
The Circle - lacking a beginning or end, represents infinity,
perfection and the eternal, often a symbol.
In our lives and our various cultures, the circle is articulated in many symbolic
· The universal symbol of the wedding band as a sacred link of
protection and unity.
· Hindus represent the great Wheel of Existence within a
· The Yin Yang symbol in eastern philosophies is based on the
interconnectedness of the balance of energies represented within a circle.
· Tibetan Buddhism represents many of its paths to enlightenment
within the symbolic artistry of mandalas represented as artwork and in the form of sand
· Ancient Labyrinths were based on the circle with the center
representing the Universe, or the “Creator-God” that the culture revered, with the paths leading towards the center
representing a form of pilgrimage to God (Christian Labyrinths).
· Native American culture was mindful of the sacred hoop and
circle as explaining their relationship with the cosmos and the Creator.
For Native Americans and tribes of lower Canada, the circle of the Universe provided the
sacred model for all human activities. All of life was given ritual meaning by incorporating the circle into
everyday tasks and behavior. Gatherings for ceremonies, eating, dancing and their living quarters in the form
of a tipi (Plains Indians) were circular.
Native Americans believed the circle to be a symbol for not just a representation of the
cosmos, but to represent the cycles of growth, death, and rebirth in the suns and moon’s rising and setting,
the planting and harvesting of the crops, and the birth and death of each
Thus, the medicine wheel became a tool to focus the honoring and celebration of nature’s
cycles through ritual, song, dance, and the making of offerings.
Native American culture was imbued with ceremony in all aspects of life. The ordinary acts
of daily living were in some ways, performed in a ritualized fashion, to honor the cycles of
Everyday living became a sacred act as each inhabitant of Mother Earth cherished that which
it was provided by plentiful food, crops, water and co-existence with Nature.
Their connection to the Earth was that of a human being having a spiritual experience with
the Earth itself and therefore, everywhere they walked, ate and slept, became sacred space for which they
developed ceremonies and ritual to honor and respect.
The sacred circle was used as a stylized template to illustrate the cosmos and how various components were
interrelated including the four cardinal directions and the corresponding elements. Animal totems serve as
guardians for each of the four directions.
Since the ancient medicine wheels left no clear
purpose of their use, archaeologists and historians have speculated widely as to the ritualistic and
ceremonial use of medicine wheels, especially the designated locations of the animal
Roy Wilson, Cowlitz Chief and Spiritual Leader
in Washington, combines Sun Bear’s Zodiac system(outer circle) and his own vision:
“The Four Pathways are used to experience the God within. It is important to note that
all Pathways go through the Creator, which includes the Creator in the center, surrounded by seven
Spirit Messengers: Cougar, Hawk, Coyote, Wolf, Bear, Raven, and Owl; the four Gatekeepers:
Buffalo in the East, Bear in the South; Eagle in the West; and Cougar in the North; the twelve Spirit
Helpers: Turkey, Turtle, and Owl on the East Pathway; Beaver, Ant, and Squirrel on the South
Pathway; Butterfly, Bat, and Grouse on the West Pathway; and, Hawk, Goose, and Wolf on the North
In the Medicine Wheel of the Hopi prophecy of the four
peoples of the Earth, the cardinal direction North represents the body, plants and animals, the color white and
'white skinned peoples, and Childhood. The East was held to represent the mind, air, the color yellow and
'yellow skinned peoples', and Adolescence. The South holds the heart, fire, the color red and ‘red skinned
peoples', and Adulthood. Finally West holds the spirit, water, the color blue or black, and 'black-skinned
peoples', and Elderhood.
West also represents the final life stage in the wheel,
being an elder and passing on knowledge to the next generation so that the wheel may start again just like the
circle it takes after.
The circle with its four directions,
corresponding to four elements of nature and the Four Original Tribes were all given by the Creator to all
peoples originating from the four different directions.
Each culture developed their own rituals and
methods for representing the circle as an expression of how they viewed their relationship with the Universe.
They used Medicine Wheels, Mandalas, Sacred Circle Teachings, Labyrinths, stone megaliths, etc. to learn
about and express their relationship and connect them with the cosmos or their Creator.
Gardening relates to this concept of the sacred circle beyond the physical shape. The circle
represents a cycle of life. Just as the directions correspond with birth, adolescence, adulthood and death,
plants and flowers experience the same cycle.
From the seed comes germination, then growth, blooming/flowering, seed development and
eventually plant mortality. Of course, some plants live very long lives, but the cycle of nature is seen more
apparent in annual flowers which last only a season.
The Medicine Wheel can be adapted for garden use without all
the traditional and sacred ritual and ceremony. To call your garden a “Medicine Wheel Garden” implies you are
adhering to sacred traditions. Doing so can only make the process of design and utilization much more
A garden that is designed with a strong circular
shape so that the cardinal directions can be honored, so that animal totems in the form of stones or boulders
resembling animals can be used and that has four basic spokes intersecting through the center to reinforce
movement of the spirit of that which you are embodying can serve to create a unique, personal sacred garden
Customizing it to fit your needs and belief systems will
make it sacred. Sharing the vision of the sacred form of the circle and incorporating the four quadrants will
form the basic structure upon which you can add other elements that make it powerful.
So I am suggesting that we try not to emulate or recreate
traditional medicine wheels and call them so, but rather, take the Universal Sacred Form of the circle and
embellish it with meaning using the earth, the elements of nature and other symbols to design a sacred
This can be done by accessorizing your sacred circle by
using such items as crystals, feathers, flowers, spheres, garden art, etc. Further, you can design a sacred
circle so that it fits the space of your garden, thus you don’t have to walk through it or across it, violating
its sacredness. You create the rules in keeping with how you choose to interpret the traditions upon which you
are using create your design.