For much of this summer, my wife and I have been working on a project for the outside of our house. It’s a Native American symbol, of sorts, one that we created out of our deep respect for and interest in Native American culture and history. Some might refer to it as a medicine wheel, though I don’t think we undertook the journey with that specific thought in mind. We simply wanted to create something that evoked a Native American feeling and reflected our high regard for their Indigenous status.
The process has been both arduous and meticulous. We searched for over a year for the right piece of wood, heavy enough to carry the feeling of strength, wide enough to hold the symbolic messages, durable enough to reflect both the tenacity of a people and to withstand the ravages of Nature. And then in the Spring, our friend and contractor brought to us two rounds of redwood, each one nearly two feet in diameter and an inch in thickness, rounds which had been created from the old porch steps from my parents’ home on Madeline Island. Not only did we have the right wood for our project, but also wood that contained its own history and meaning.
We tried to use discretion and creativity in designing the symbols. We sought to evoke an obvious Native American appearance, but to do so without co-opting or subverting actual sacred signs. We used the circle of wood as we received it, incorporated shapes that held generic meaning within Native American cultures, chose colors of Native American significance, and added nuances of our own reflection. With patience and discipline, we painted the wheel one color at a time, one space at a time, adding one feeling at a time, until it had been finished.
Of course, it’s only symbolic. But sometimes we can invest too much in our symbols, making of them ideologies in and of themselves, swearing allegiances to imperfect notions and foreclosing the remotest possibility that any conflicting perspectives could hold any merit or worth. We risk enslavement by the totem rather than employing it to reveal portions of ourselves, and in such process we are rendered but sad caricatures of who we could be. You can be assured that this is not the case with our modest wheel, though there is always the temptation by some to want to brand us with it.
Here at home, all that remains is for the work to be secured to the front portico. In its place there, we hope that it will accomplish several things. We think it’s an attractive piece of decor and will likely serve as an easy identification of our home. Like any piece of graphic work, it will possess the potential to invite passers-by to look and wonder at its possible interpretations. We hope that it will cause viewers -if only momentarily- to recall again the rich history and development of Native American life before the white invasion. We trust that its presence confirms, for all who are curious at its display, that there is much to be loved in traditions and ways of life that are far different from our own, and that such embrace has the capacity to bring us closer to truth, if that is what we seek.
Our wheel is just a symbol, after all. It’s eye-catching and maybe a little intriguing. It doesn’t serve as an exhaustive statement of who we are or what we believe or how we think, but rather one reflection of one element that has held importance for us. Like a family coat-of-arms, a service insignia, a nation’s flag or any other icon to signify belonging, it’s but one clue to the whole. Who we are in our entirety can only be truly reflected in how we live our lives, in love and stewardship, every day….