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FOUR DIRECTIONS LEARNING ACTIVITIES

Elder

Lillian Pitawanakwat

Nation

Ojibwe/Potawotami

Lesson Plan Grade Level

Intermediate (Grades 7-9)

Time Required

3 – 4 hours

Traditional Teachings

  • Four Directions
  • Four Sacred Colours
  • Four Seasons
  • Four Sacred Medicines
  • Four Elements
  • The Centre of the Wheel

Student Summary

A Medicine Wheel is a circle divided into parts (usually four), which relate with and counterbalance one another to form a whole, and is often used to represent Aboriginal wisdom in North America.  Medicine Wheels are not necessarily a tradition belonging to all Aboriginal peoples.  However, many cultures have some variation of the Wheel, and the Traditional Knowledge and views of the various first peoples of North America are more compatible with the circle concept than with linear, European-based forms of thought.

 

The Medicine Wheel represents and unites various aspects of the world, both seen and unseen, and emphasizes how all parts of the world and all levels of being are related and connected through a life force originating in the creation of the universe.  Some wheels teach about the four cardinal directions, the seasons, times of day, or stages of life; others represent the races of people, animals, natural elements, aspects of being, and so on.  All parts of the wheel are important, and depend on each other in the cycle of life; what affects one affects all, and the world cannot continue with missing parts.  For this reason, the Medicine Wheel teaches that harmony, balance and respect for all parts are needed to sustain life.

 

The centre of the Medicine Wheel symbolizes the self in balance, and the perspective of traditional philosophy.  The central perspective is a neutral place where it is possible to develop a holistic vision and understanding of creation and the connections between all things.

 

Medicine Wheels made of stones arranged on the Earth have been found in various places throughout North America, marking places of special significance, such as places of energy, ceremony, meeting, meditation, teaching, and celebration.  Some estimate that there were about 20,000 medicine wheels in North America before European contact occurred.  Some Medicine Wheels on the prairies have been found to be 5,000 years old or more.

Learner Objectives

Knowledge/Understanding: 

  • To relate the Four Sacred Colours of the Medicine Wheel to the Four Cardinal Directions
  • To recognize the cyclical nature of the four seasons in relation to the earth’s orbit
  • To develop awareness of the natural environment through the identification of the Four Cardinal Directions and the Four Seasons
  • To identify the Four Sacred Medicines of the Medicine Wheel
  • To identify the Four Elements of the Medicine Wheel
  • To identify the Ojibwe as an Aboriginal people with traditional beliefs
  • To become familiar with the meanings of the terms “Medicine Wheel”, “sacred”, “traditional”, “perspective”, “orbit”, and “connection”

Inquiry/Values:

  • To appreciate the unique gift of each of four directions
  • To recognize the Medicine Wheel as an ancient Aboriginal symbol
  • To appreciate that the four directions are as consistent and everlasting as the earth’s orbit and that each individual has a central perspective to these forces of nature
  • To relate the concept of spiritual connection as it applies to the Medicine Wheel

Skills/Applications: 

  • To physically identify the Four Cardinal Directions
  • To navigate the internet with control
  • To produce a Medicine Wheel graphically or physically
  • To demonstrate the earth’s orbit around the sun

Subject Strand Links

  • Geography
  • Natural Science
  • Botany
  • Astronomy
  • Art

Strategy

  1. Post a very large sheet labeled “Spring” on the eastern wall of the classroom.  Post a sheet labeled “Summer” on the southern wall of the classroom, a sheet for “Fall” on the western wall of the classroom, and one for “Winter” on the northern wall of the classroom.  As the students arrive for class, ask them to move to the side of the room representing the season that is their favourite.  Generate a discussion based on which season is most popular among the class.  Why is this your favourite season?  What do you like to do at that time?  What do you not like about the other seasons?  Why?
  2. Each group can work as a team to decorate the sign that is on their wall, drawing symbols to identify what the group likes best about the season they chose.  Then have them add the months of the year when it is their season.
  3. Explain that Aboriginal people have traditional teachings to share, given to them thousands of years ago and passed down through the generations.  Traditional knowledge is taught by older people - or Elders - who have worked and studied many years to understand it.  Aboriginal people have always had a close relationship to nature, having depended on it for survival.  It was (and in some places is still) important to know the seasons to know when to hunt, to trap, to grow plants, to make shelters, etc. Different times of the year pose different challenges.  Aboriginal people have very highly developed knowledge about the forces of nature and how we are all connected through nature.  Aboriginal elders teach that the four seasons are very special and very important and not just to them but to everyone because all of us share these same four seasons (at least in Canada).  The seasons do not change.  So Aboriginal people believe the four seasons are sacred, or blessed, because each season has a spirit and gives us special gifts. The seasons are interconnected.  So they believe that we must always respect the four seasons.  What are the gifts of the seasons?  What are the challenges of the seasons?
  4. The Ojibwe use colours to represent the seasons.  Guess which colour the Ojibwe use to represent Spring?  Yellow.  Why yellow?  What things are yellow?  Summer is red.  Why?  Fall is black.  Why?  And why would they use white for winter?  Every year spring follows winter, and summer follows spring, etc.  Four seasons makes the year complete, balanced, a whole year.  Now fill in the respective colours on the signs.  These are called the Four Sacred Colours.
  5. Explain that in addition to the seasons, the Ojibwe people have traditional beliefs about the sacredness of the four directions, as they depended on the sun each day for their survival.  Why?  What are the gifts of the sun?  To keep warm, to have light, to grow food.  So the Ojibwe respect the sun which rises each day in which direction?  It travels across the sky in which direction?  It sets in which direction?  And the cycle repeats the next day.  And the next day.  And the next day after that.  So the Four Directions are considered to be spirits that are sacred to traditional Aboriginal people.  And they respect the four directions every day, not just every once in a while. The directions are interconnected. Where does the sun rise?  Everybody point in that direction.  Ask the spring/yellow group to add “East” to their poster.  Now ask which direction does the sun travel?  Everybody point in that direction.  Ask the summer/red group to add “South” to their poster.  Now ask which direction does the sun set each night?  Everybody point in that direction.  As the fall/black group to add “West” to their poster.  Finally ask which direction does the sun return to start the cycle again?  Everybody point north.  Ask the winter/white group to add “North” to their poster.  Four directions makes the sun’s cycle complete, balanced.
  6. Face east again, as the cycle is complete. Did we change our position?  No, we stayed in the centre, because we are always in the centre.  Even if we move left or right, we are always in the middle of the four directions.  So this is important to remember according to traditional teachings because it reminds us that we are spiritually connected to the four directions.  We cannot escape them.  They are part of us and we are part of them.   That means everything around us is connected to us, and we are connected to everything around us and to each other.  Post the four signs where they were before and have the students tour the room like in an art gallery to look at the other posters up close. 
  7. Returning to the original seasons groups, explain that Lillian Pitawanakwat is an Ojibwe elder who comes from Manitoulin Island in Ontario.  Does anyone know where that is?  Has anyone ever been there?  She has traditional teachings to share with the class about the four directions and the four seasons and the four sacred colours.  She wants to teach the Medicine Wheel to the class from the internet.  What is medicine?  We use medicine to heal us; it is good for us; it keeps us strong and healthy.  This looks like a wheel because it is round and each part is the same size.  Aboriginal people originally placed rocks in a formation on the ground to mark places of special spiritual significance and to use for prayer.  The Medicine Wheel has been a symbol for generations to remember and respect the Four Directions and the good things that the sun and the seasons bring us every day.  The Medicine Wheel represents all that is interconnected.  Read the summary above.
  8. Visit www.fourdirectionteachings.com together as a class to:
    1. Read the Elder’s biography.  Who can pronounce her name?
    2. Read “Medicine Wheel Overview” of traditional teaching (PDF).** reading in transcript version*
  9. Individually or in pairs have students listen to Lillian’s teachings, “The East – Waubunong”, “The South – Zhawanong”, “The West – Epingishmook”, “The North – Kiiwedinong.”
  10. Now ask the class to move to the side of the room representing their favourite colour of the four available.  Why is that their favourite?  Ask the groups to discuss what they learned from the elder.  The elder discussed the four directions, the four seasons and the four colours.  And being in the centre of the wheel.  What other things did she mention?  What other elements do the Ojibwe include in the Medicine Wheel?
  11. Have the yellow group report back to start off:  What did Lillian say about the elements?  What are they?  Which element is represented by the East?  Add a symbol representing water to the yellow poster.  Continue with the red group.  What element is represented by the South?  Add a symbol representing earth to the red poster.  Continue with the black group.  What element is represented by the West?  Add a symbol representing fire to the black poster.  Continue to the white group.  What element is represented by the North?  Add a symbol representing air to the white poster.  Four elements are interconnected and make the planet complete, balanced.  What happens when we do not respect the elements? 
  12. Now have the students move to the side of the room representing their favourite element.  Lillian had one more teaching to share about the Medicine Wheel.  There are four plants that Aboriginal people consider sacred, spiritual, and they burn them in ceremonies following ancient practices.  Start with the water group.  What did Lillian say about their sacred plant?  Add “Tobacco” to the yellow poster.  Continue to the earth group.  Add “Cedar” to the red poster.  Continue to the fire group.  Add “Sage” to the black poster.  Continue to the air group.  Add “Sweet grass” to the white poster.
  13. Wrap up lesson with a guided reading of the summary above and select from discussion topics and optional exercises below.

 

Discussion Topics: 

  • “Some indigenous people don't even have a word for the forest or the environment, but regard the outer world as an extension of themselves. To say, as we do, 'I am going into the forest' would be as absurd to them as to say, 'I am going into my skin', - they are already in it and a part of it. We have lost this ability to relate directly with the nature that surrounds us, have become alienated and are suffering a mass-psychosis because of it. Perhaps Ethnobotany can help to heal the dichotomy between spirit and matter that is afflicting the 'civilized world' and provide a lifeline through which we can again begin to relate to nature and value the gifts of Mother Earth for what they truly are - the roots of our culture and the source of life.” (Kay Morgenstern, 2001, http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotanyportal.htm).  To what extent has modern man lost this ability to relate directly with nature?  What does Morgenstern mean when she suggests that ethnobotany can help to heal the dichotomy between spirit and matter?
  • When the Ojibwe say that each race was given special gifts, what does that mean?  Is this ancient belief meant to be taken literally?** change to 7 stages?*
  • Aboriginal people have always recognized humanity’s dependency on the elements but modern society has a different view of the importance of the natural elements.  What happens when we lose respect for the elements?  What are the effects of polluting our water systems and the air we breathe? 

 

Optional Exercises:

  • Draw a Medicine Wheel which captures all of the teachings above in brief.  Start with a circle, then the four quadrants.  Divide the circle into six rings, one within the other like the ripple effect of a pebble in a pond.  Label each ring accordingly.  How does one ring connect to the next?  Relate in writing the relationships between the rings of the Medicine Wheel ** - pdf?*
  • Choose the part of the Medicine Wheel most interesting (eg. the four seasons, the four directions, the four colours, the four colours of man, four sacred medicines or four elements) and, in a journal, summarize the teaching. What was surprising about this information? Was it confusing?  
  • Bring in potted plants of cedar, tobacco (or a package of pipe tobacco), sage, and sweet grass (or a sweet grass braid) to view in class or visit a garden centre together.  Examine the differences between the plants in size, shape, colour, feel and smell.  Grow these plants in class or plant outside in a special garden marked “Four Sacred Medicines”. 
  • Research the vocabulary words in a dictionary and study the meanings.
  • Create medicine wheel models using leather, paints, yarn, etc. ***
  • Invite an Aboriginal elder to the class to discuss the Medicine Wheel from his/her perspective
  • Listen to Vivaldi’s concerto “Four Seasons”.  Ask students to describe the differences in the sounds in each season in a poem. Type the poems and create a class book, “The Four Seasons”.  Make a copy for each student.
  • Take a walk in a conservation area, park, wetland, etc. Collect samples of earth and water to do an in-class study of microscopic life forms.
  • Do an internet search of literary/poetic quotes pertaining to the elements.  Print them out with the poets’ names and post them on the respective walls of the classroom with art design illustrating the respective elements.
  • Execute a different seasonal exercise each month highlighting natural materials such as food products in season or leaves (see links below).
  • Visit related websites that explain the solar system and the changing of the seasons from a scientific perspective (see links below).

Vocabulary

  • Medicine Wheel
  • Sacred
  • Traditional
  • Perspective
  • Orbit
  • Spiritual
  • Connection

Materials Required

  • Very large sheets of paper, tape, markers or crayons.
  • Other arts and crafts materials.

Evaluation

  1. Self evaluation of participation by students.  Did I share ideas with my groups?  Did I listen to others?  Did I make the effort to understand the elder?  Did I give others a chance to speak?  Did I complete the reading?
  2. Teacher evaluation of poems.  Did the student identify four related Medicine Wheel elements?  Did the poem capture the essence of the teaching?  Was the spelling correct?
  3. Parent evaluation of journal writing.  Did the parent understand the teaching based on the student’s summary?  Was the summary clear?  Which part did the parent find interesting?

Additional Resources

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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