Can We Use Medicine Wheels in Church?

M&AH write: “Our parish priest is setting up a devotional shrine to St. Kateri Tekakwitha inside the parish. On the wall in the shrine of St. Kateri there is going to be a medicine wheel. The pastor says that the wheel is a symbol of unity among the Lakota people and is approved for use in Catholic ceremonies. To our understanding, the medicine wheel is a pagan symbol of which St. Kateri would have renounced upon being baptized Catholic. Could you please tell us if this is approved for use in Catholic ceremonies and if having this medicine wheel in a Catholic church is permitted?”

From what I have been able to ascertain, Native American symbols and even some practices are presently in use in many parishes throughout the country, particularly in those areas of the country with high concentrations of Native Americans.

According to this document published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, since Vatican II, a large number of diocese in the U.S. with large Native American populations have been using a variety of Indian symbols and rituals in their communal prayer life. This list includes practices such as smudging, dance and drum use in liturgies, four directional prayer, sweat lodges and medicine wheels (see page 15-16 of the report). While this document did not specifically say these practices were approved, it did mention them under the sub-heading of “Inculturation, Worship and Sacraments” and did not denounce them.

Most of us associate a medicine wheel with a small hoop-shaped object that looks like a wagon wheel, usually decorated with feathers. But medicine wheels, or “sacred hoops” come in a variety of forms. For example, thousands of medicine wheels have been constructed by laying stones in a circular pattern on the ground. These large hoop-shared monuments usually consist of a large center stone and lines of rocks radiating outward in the shape of the spokes of a wheel. They are used even today by indigenous people for various astronomical purposes, as well as rituals and healing practices. This article courtesy of the Royal Alberta Museum gives a detailed explanation of this kind of medicine wheel.

The wheel is said to embody the Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Spirit Tree—all of which symbolize dimensions of health and the cycles of life, according to this site operated by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

“Movement in the Medicine Wheel and in Native American ceremonies is circular, and typically in a clockwise, or ‘sun-wise’ direction. This helps to align with the forces of Nature, such as gravity and the rising and setting of the Sun,” the site explains.

“Different tribes interpret the Medicine Wheel differently. Each of the Four Directions (East, South, West, and North) is typically represented by a distinctive color, such as black, red, yellow, and white, which for some stands for the human races.”

It sounds as though your pastor is displaying the wheel more than “using” it in order to better incorporate Native American culture into devotion to St. Kateri.

However, this could cause some to mistake this object for the New Age version that has been adopted by Wiccans and pagans and used in ways that are not approved of by Native Americans. The New Age version of the medicine wheel incorporates magic and other beliefs that are actually a distortion of Native American beliefs. In fact, the Lakota tribe, which you mentioned in your post, once issued an official Declaration of War against New Agers (they call them “Plastic Shamans”) who misrepresent their tribal beliefs in this way for profit.

My suggestion would be to read over this material very carefully and then discuss any concerns you may have with your pastor.


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