The balance we seek

White plates on a table are filled with sweetgrass, sage, tobacco and cedar, the four sacred medicines.

By Carrie Armstrong, columnist

Carrie Armstrong is from Michel First Nation in Alberta. She's a teacher, and the founder of Mother Earth Essentials. In 2020, Carrie published her book Mother Earth Plants for Health & Beauty: Indigenous Plants, Traditions and Recipes with Eschia Books. Carrie will be sharing her knowledge with readers in this column. Carrie is reflective of her own teachings. There are many different teachings and variations.

When I first started Mother Earth Essentials I wanted to utilize our teachings from the Medicine Wheel. In Indigenous spirituality, the Medicine Wheel represents balance and connection.

As a health teacher, I attempted to incorporate the teachings into my daily lessons. The plants, in particular, were of deep interest.

The very first products I created were based on these teachings as a means of education and interest, and as a means of inspiring the Indigenous youth I worked with. It was my hope to inspire them to be proud of their heritage and maybe want to connect with their Elders, medicine people and spiritual advisors at a deeper level so they could carry this knowledge on to future generations.

The medicine wheel symbolizes a holistic and balanced way of living and healing and is a powerful teaching tool consisting of many layers of wisdom and knowledge. Different tribes interpret the medicine wheel differently. I am only providing information from my teachings. I understand there are many different teachings and variations.

The architectural structure and placement of each stone in the Medicine Wheel teaches us about the astronomical, ceremonial and healing meanings in our lives. The wheel, or circle, is symbolic of the circle of life where there is no beginning and no end. At the centre of the Medicine Wheel is the Creator from which everything emanates.  Without our Creator nothing exists.

The circle is divided into four equal sections and are used in a clockwise direction following the path of the rising and setting sun. 

The four sections represent:

Four seasons—Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter

Four corners of our land—yellow, red, black, white

Four types of creatures—fly (birds), four legged (buffalo), two legged (human), crawl (insects)

Four elements—earth, fire, water, and air

Four plants—tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, cedar

Four stages of life—Baby/child, teen, adult, Elder

When we give equal emphasis to each of these areas, we can help put ourselves in balance. Additionally, all of the sections rely on each other. For instance, if you become ill and are failing physically, your mind is also affected. So each of these four parts of our nature—the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual—must be equally nurtured in order for us to be a healthy, well-balanced people.

The Medicine Wheel has been explained as a mirror within; it calls for bravery to look into the mirror with honesty to truly see what is being reflected back; to see how we are really living our lives.

By using the Medicine Wheel, we can see areas on which we can work, get help, or let go. Our culture and spirituality leads us to believe that by reaching a place of true balance and a deep level of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self-awareness, we will find a sense of the inner peace many of us yearn for.

To be healthy we must live in harmony with Mother Earth—in all ways. When we do this, we can achieve deep peace. Being at peace is essential to our health—mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.

The Four Sacred Plants

Sweetgrass—The Northern Direction of the Medicine Wheel

Sweetgrass is sometimes called the hair of Mother Earth and is considered a gift. After the grass is harvested, it is carefully braided; the three sections representing mind, body, and spirit.

Using Sweetgrass

When we smudge with sweetgrass, we are taught that the smoke from that burning sweetgrass prepares us for prayer because the scent is pleasing to the Creator. We can create a nature-identical oil using a mix of plants that yield more oil than this dry-climate grass can alone.

Tobacco­­—The Eastern Direction of the Medicine Wheel

Tobacco is considered a sacred medicine. The smoke is believed to be the pathway to the spirit world. It is also used as an offering of thanks or when requesting something from nature, an Elder or knowledge keeper. Sacred herbs are powerful. Tobacco can be healing or harmful depending on how it is used.

Using Tobacco

When used in a sacred way, it can promote good health and assist with spiritual guidance, gratitude and growth. Sacred tobacco is sometimes not the actual tobacco plant but a blend of plants such as kinnikinick and the bark of the red osier dogwood. Commercial tobacco is very harmful and is laced with thousands of harmful chemicals. Many Elders believe that any use of tobacco that occurs outside of ceremony with the plant in its natural form is an insult to Creator.

Sage—The Southern Direction of the Medicine Wheel

Sage is found abundantly in dry areas of North America and has an herbal, spicy scent. It is used in ceremony for smudging as a means to cleanse negativity from ourselves and our spaces.

Using Sage

Our ancestors also used different varieties of sage for medicinal purposes. We can gargle with a strong tea made with fresh or dried sage to soothe throat infections, dental abscesses, or infected gums. Sage also helps balance estrogen production, making it a good tea for women experiencing symptoms from menopause.

Cedar—The Western Direction of the Medicine Wheel

Cedar is nature’s purifier and boasts a distinctly resinous fragrance. Leaves are cleaned from the stems and separated into small pieces to be used in many ways (for making tea, bathing and ceremony). It represents grounding, maturity, purification and balance.

Using Cedar

Elders suggest walking with cedar in your shoes to walk in a good way down your path. When a person has experienced trauma, a cedar bath was given for comfort healing to the body by adding cedar from the branches. Cedar is also used as a tea by simmering branches and is used to treat fevers, chest colds, and flu.

For more information about Carrie Armstrong and Mother Earth Essentials visit the website at