A R O U N D T H E W H E E L :
Indigenous Studies at NCS
by Kevin Otter
The Medicine Wheel
The medicine wheel is “an ancient symbol used by almost all the Native people of North and South America” (Lane et al., 1984, p. 9). At Northumberland Christian School (NCS), we have followed the teachings of the Ojibwe medicine wheel to develop an understanding of the journey learners need to go through when approaching Indigenous studies. Student work is even graded according to the wheel (see West/Understand for more information), and I have adopted it to format this website.
The purpose of this is twofold: First, it disrupts a Euro-centric approach to formatting a project like this. In order to embrace an indigenist way of learning, one needs to first loosen the comfortable bonds of the traditions and practices that have shaped their life thus far. To decenter themselves and embrace their role in a bigger whole. When formatting her own publication, Michele Tanaka struggled to find an approach that reflected her learning journey, “My frames were always too hierarchical or linear in nature. I consciously tried to let go of my own Euro-Western-oriented mindset, but I couldn't find a structure that felt right … I did not yet feel comfortable embracing an indigenist stance” (2016, p. 19). With the help of a wisdom keeper, Michele chose a Métis medicine wheel. Following our approach at NCS, and my familiarity with it and teachings about it, I chose the one from Ojibwe tradition.
The second reason I have used the medicine wheel to format this project, is because it genuinely represents the journey I am reflecting on in the best way possible.
This website weaves my personal story along with that of the institution I work for and, hopefully, will serve to support yours as well. Begin in the East, learn how my eyes were opened and NCS began their journey in Indigenous studies. Then move South, see how we connected and tried to understand. West will show you what we did with our learning, how it shaped us and how we shared it. Finally, go North, and see how we are taking what we’ve learned and diving back into the wheel to shape the Indigenous studies program for the future. Either before or after, click Off the Wheel and see what we have learned about reactions and stances that are not part of this learning journey.
The circle is never completed, but the wheel continues turning as new doors are opened, new insights gained, new relationships are built, new understandings are forged, and new ideas are acted upon.
“As we journey around the wheel, reflect on your own qualities and gifts. Certainly, the fundamental value of this tool (the medicine wheel) is a way of measuring our own progress and development, and a means for assessing what we must work on next in our journey through life” (Lane et al., 1984, p. 40).
Remember, the medicine wheel is not a static allegory, rather, a symbolic image, fluid and reflective. It does not prescribe, only helps us to describe where you are in your learning journey. “It is dangerous to categorize yourself as a ‘northern person’ or an ‘eastern person’. In order to use the wheel correctly, you must visualize yourself in the center of the wheel connected equally to all points by the power of your will. Our journey around the wheel is a symbolic one. What we are really doing is using the patterns found in nature, such as the turning of the seasons, to understand our own selves” (Lane et al., 1984, pp. 40–41).
“The medicine wheel is a simple, reflective tool that helps a person situate him- or herself amidst relationships”
(Tanaka, 2016, p. 19).
“The wheel can serve as a reflexive practice that helps one recognize and clarify their personal beliefs as their understanding is shifted along with their sense of self”
(Tanaka, 2016, p. 20).
“Decentering describes the process of discovering and assimilating that one's racial or cultural experience is not normative but particular and therefore provides a personal rather than complete perspective”
(Ramsay, 2005, p. 18).
“Indigenist thinkers encourage the recovery and promotion of ‘Traditional Indigenous Knowledge systems as an important process in decolonizing Indigenous nations and their relationships with settler governments’, by critiquing and then creating alternatives to present social, political, economic, and philosophical conditions. Indigenist is not synonymous with Indigenous, because ‘Indigenous scholars may not work from an Indigenist or decolonizing theoretical framework, and similarly it is possible for a non-Indigenous scholar to work from within an Indigenous framework’”
(MacDonald, 2017, para. 7).