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Native American Elemental System

February 19, 2013
Swatiska Medicine Wheel.

Swatiska Medicine Wheel.

A lot of native american beliefs have been lost due to the numerous atrocities commited by europeans. For instance, we no longer know the relevance of the gar to the Muscogee and Chickasaw spiritual rituals that placed the fish in a very important spot, and we’ve lost the context to several of Wi’s weirdest exploits. Among the most lamentable losses are the metaphysical ideas that several native american cultures had. We have enough hints to know that systems of correspondences as complex as the Wu Xing and Agrippa’s works were present in at least the Lakota and the Inuit, and probably several other people complexes as well, judging by how widespread the Medicine Wheel is.

The Medicine Wheel is, as expected, the key surviving piece of evidence to figure out this system of correspondences. In it’s iconic four pie-slice shape, it chronicles the four directions, the four seasons, the four celestial quarters, the four curative methods, the four shamanic paths and even the four states of mind. Naturally, it also chronicles the Natve American Elemental System.

New Age Interpretation

“Traditionally”, new age/neopagan circles relate the four parts to the western elemental cycle, albeit with an illogical and nonsensesical twist. The North, represented by White, is supposedly Air, the colour Red is supposedly Water, the Colour Yellow is supposedly Fire (the directions alligned vary, with either Water/Red being South or West and Yellow/Fire South or East), and Black being Earth and usually aligned to the West. Naturally, the usual elemental aspects seen in western systems are attributed to them, with the exception of the seasons, in which White/Air is Winter (as opposed to Spring in normal western systems), Yelow/Fire is Spring (usually Summer in western systems, though Agrippa reffers to Spring as fiery instead), and Red/Water and Black/Earth are either the Summer or the Autumn (usually, either compete for Autumn/Winter).

Four animal totems are also attributed to the Medicine Wheel: the Bison to the North, the Eagle to the East, the Mouse to the South (nowadays often replaced by the Wolf because mice aren’t “kawaii enough”, to paraphrase one author), and the Bear to the West. To be honest, I don’t know how reliable this is, since few non-new age sources dictate anything about directional totems, but I think this is genuine, since you would not expect Mice and Bison to be in new age things, especially given the regretable obsession with wolves.

Actual Mythological Information

According to Dakota Mythology, the god Tate and his consort Ite birthed five wind gods: Yampa the eastern wind, Okaga the southern wind, Eya the western wind, Yata the northern wind and Yumni the whirlpool, that lies on the center. Several myths center around the four winds, basically characterising Yata as cruel and literally cold, Yampa as neutral and inactive, Eya as good natured but cumbersome, Okaga as heroic and wise and Yumni as fragile and tender; the last two are stated to be especially close. In at least one myth, they are the ancestors of mankind, and in another they compete for a Wohpe in a series of bizarre shenigans.

Of what is known about the four winds, three of them are blatantly associated with natural forces besides air. Yata is said to be the Winter god, spreading snowstorms and hail, Okaga is associated with Summer fires and Eya is stated to create lightning and thunder during the late Summer and Autumn. Yumni is explicitly stated to be associated with whirlpools and possibly tornados – which makes his close relationship with Okaga make sense, as both tend to be Summer phenomena in central continental North America -, while Yampa is not directly associated with any natural phenomenon, besides Spring breezes. Each Wind is not given directly a colour scheme, but based on Dakota depictions Okaga is associated with Red or Orange, Yata with White, Yumni with Green/Brown, Yampa with Yellow and Eya with Black.


Basically, Okaga is very clearly associated with Fire, Red/Orange, Summer and the South, while Yata is associated with Water (as ice and snow), White, Winter and the North, both of which nigh omnipresent in most elemental correspondence systems (the exception being post-16 century western esoteric traditions, that for some reason place Water as the West, Autumn and Blue). Interestingly, Okaga is portrayed as calm and diligent while Yata is violent and unpredictable, both generally rare associations with Fire and Water respectively, though oddly enough consistent with modern Wiccan interpretations of Fire representing Will and Water Emotions.

Eya is associated with Lightning, Black, Autumn and the West, and is depicted as noble, strong and hearty. Aside from Black, this is quite similar to the chinese correspondences of the Metal element, especially when considering that electricity is considerd part of the Metal element in Wu Xing. If a correct correspondence, the Bear totem is also apropriate since it held more or else the same significance to native americans that tigers held to eastern asians, as the king of the beasts and a symbol of wisdom and the material world (as opposed to the dragon/thunderbird symbolising Heaven).

Yampa has no direct parallels, though both Yellow and inaction are often attributed to Earth. Yumni is almost obviously Air, as besides the whirpools and tornados, he is depicted as carefree and frightful.

As a final reminder, it’s worth to note that, much like Wu Xing, there isn’t “Spirit” being embodied aside, instead suggesting that each elemental each has an akashic nature. The “Quintecessence”, in this case, is the life brought about by the opposite winds weaving themselves in harmonic threads.


Oglala Sun Dance, Lakota Myth (James Riley Walker,Elaine A. Jahner,Raymond J. DeMallie), The Dakota Peoples (Jessica Dawn Palmer)

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