Native American Symbolic Circles

“Love settles within the circle, embracing it and thereby lasting forever, turning within itself.” —Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux

Native American

The Sacred Circle


You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.

In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation; and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.The sky is round, and I have heard that the Earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood-to-childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tipis were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.
—Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux



The circle has always been an important symbol to the Native American. It represents the sun, the moon, the cycles of the seasons, and the cycle of life to death to rebirth.

Labyrinth mandalas have been used by Native Americans to represent birth, death, rebirth, and/or the transition from one world to the next.

Dreamcatchers, fashioned by tying sinew in a web around a circular frame of willow, were hung at the bedside to protect children from nightmares. According to Lakota legend: “Good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person; bad dreams are trapped in the web, where they perish in the light of dawn.

Also represented by the circle is the Medicine Wheel, an ancient and powerful symbol of the never-ending cycle of life, used by Native Americans for various spiritual and ritual purposes.

The Medicine Wheel

Bighorn Medicine Wheel near Sheridan, WY

The ancient Bighorn Medicine Wheel, located in Bighorn National Forest near Sheridan, WY,
is a national historical landmark and considered a sacred site by local Indians and New Age practitioners.
The markings of the wheel align with solstice sunrise and sunset and the rising locations of the three brightest stars
Photo: Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.

“It is perhaps the location of the [Bighorn] Medicine Wheel that contributes so powerfully to a feeling of sacredness and agedness. Lying atop Medicine Mountain at nearly 10,000 feet, the weather here is as wild as the towering crags and sheer cliffs that define the mountain. Sleet, rain, and snowstorms are common here, even in July. Streaks of jagged lightning, deafening thunder, and wind scream past the rocky embattlements. These are the forces that confronted the people who came here, ages ago, to build a place of ceremony and worship.” —Bighorn National Forest

The term “medicine wheel” was first coined by white men in the late 1800’s in reference to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. Traditional medicine wheels, like the one at Bighorn, were stone structures constructed by Native Americans for various astronomical, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes. The wheels followed a basic pattern—a stone center surrounded by an outer ring of stones with lines of rocks, or “spokes,” radiating from the center.

Medicine Wheel Park, Valley City State University, Valley City, ND Manataka Sacred Grounds, Hot Springs, AZ Haskell Wetlands, Lawrence, KS Medicine Wheel Garden (Photo: Ginny Shannon)

(Photo: Adam Garcia)

(Photo: Adam Garcia)

Medicine wheels, or “sacred hoops,” are a symbol of harmony, balance, and peaceful interaction among all living beings on Earth. They represent the sacred cycle of life (birth, death, rebirth), its four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), the elements (air, water, fire, earth), as well as connecting points for Mother Earth and Father Sky and a final point, the center, representing ourselves and how we connect with all of these elements. Each direction offers its own lessons, color, and animal spirit guide. The four animals commonly used for guides are the bear, buffalo, eagle, and wolf.

Spirits of the Four Directions (an excerpt)
by Roger “Thunderhands” Gilbert, The Native American Taoist

Part of the ritual associated with The Elders or Pipe carriers in the Lakota and other traditions is to call upon the spirits of the four directions.

"Medicine Wheel of the Four Directions" by Jodi Bergsma

“Medicine Wheel of the Four Directions”
by artist Jodi Bergsma

These are as follows Sapa, Luta, Gi, and Okaga Ska. This would be West, North, East, and South, respectively. The colors being black, red, yellow, and white. Each direction has its own meaning and power. West “Sapa” is a place the thunderbeings (wakinyan) reside and is considered a place of darkness. This darkness is in a good sense, like that of solitude or meditation and crossing into the spiritual realm. North or “Luta” is a place of renewal and represented by the color red. East “Gi” is a place of brightness, light, clarity, and fire with the color being yellow. And South (color white) is a place or door between the spirit world and the visible realm. This circle represents the cycle of life from birth, youth, to elder, and death.

Some tribes vary the colors, animal representations, and meaning; but one thing for sure is that the spirits of the four directions are powerful and are waiting to be called upon for direction and help. Walking the wheel of the four directions in this life can mean you have experienced many cycles of birth and death to former aspects of yourself. This is a natural thing from which we learn lessons and gain wisdom. When we gain enough wisdom we can help others walk the circle and follow ritual.

Yigaquu osaniyu adanvto adadoligi nigohilvi nasquv utloyasdi nihi
(May the Great Spirit’s blessings always be with you)
Top photo: Native American Wallpapers.
Medicine wheel garden photo: Ginny Shannon, Exeter Area Garden Club.