The Native American Medicine Wheel

A guide to balancing the elements


Ojibwa tea is a formula that was given to a Canadian nurse named Rene Caisse by an Ojibwa medicine man (whose name seems lost to obscurity) as a cure for her mother’s cancer. It is also called Essiac, which is Caisse spelled backward.

The medicine man was probably a member of the Mide (the Grand Medicine Society). Perhaps he envisioned the formula; perhaps it had been passed on for generations. Whichever the case, it is a remarkable example of how the wheel may be used to create an herbal formula. The blend is made of four herbs, and four is the number of balance on the wheel. Notice how the formula’s components visually increase in increments of four. We have roughly 1 part (by volume) of rhubarb root to 4 times that amount of burdock and slippery elm, to 4 times that amount of sheep sorrel.

Burdock and rhubarb root would be placed in the west, as they are gathered in the fall and their medicinal qualities follow the body’s deep internal rhythms. Slippery elm would be associated with the north simply because bark is one of the few things that can be gathered during the long frozen winters of the Far North. Also, the medicinal action of slippery elm affects the breath (spirit). Gathered in mid-spring and healing to the skin, sheep sorrel leaves bring the aspect of the east to the formula.

What is missing from this formula? A plant aspect from the south. Why? Because some diseases are an imbalance of excessive growth, and the energy from the south is growth. Not only physical growth, but also the emotional, mental and visionary excesses of growth. To add herbs from the south (as some formulas add red clover blossoms) renders it less effective on a metaphysical level, according to the cosmology of the wheel.

The ultimate beauty of Native American herbalism is that it allows for your own personal preferences and differences. I have been told endless times when I ask about an herb, “Well, this is what worked for me, but I don’t know if that will help you any at all.” And if you choose to follow another theory of healing, do so – but follow it well.

Accepting our innate differences is an intrinsic part of healing. Medicine is and always will be an art as well as a science. The best we can do is to follow the Great Law of Peace and agree that if we can’t agree on anything else, at least we can agree to get along with one another.

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