The Native Americans use religious relics during vision quests, to give spiritual guidance, and to help those near death find their way back to health. The medicine wheel is a symbol of the cosmos, and many believe it can be used as a galactic navigational aid.
Embarking on a deep space mission does not necessarily mean leaving one's ancestral traditions behind. The medicine wheel that belongs to Commander Chakotay of the U.S.S. Voyager, NCC-74656 is a good example of this.
The medicine wheel is an important and sacred talisman to Chakotay's tribe. It consists of an inner circle containing a small cross and four small circles, four red spokes with pictographic designs in the quadrants between them, and an outer circumference crossed with twenty lines. Eight spikes emanate from this rim. The design is painstakingly and beautifully painted on animal skins.
The medicine wheel has an ancient and meaningful history among many Native American groups, and can take a variety of forms, depending on which tribe is using it.
In Native American mythology, the medicine wheel serves as a graphic representation of the outer world - the cosmos - and the inner world - the universe inside the mind, or one's path in life.
The nature of the medicine wheel is somewhat mysterious, but it is not a secret. During his time with the Maquis, and on Voyager Chakotay has demonstrated a willingness to share his knowledge of the spiritual world. He teaches B'Elanna Torres the intricacies of the medicine wheel, and asks that if anything should happen to him and he is unable to help himself, a special healing ritual be performed.
When someone is on a vision quest, or sleeping, they are said to be 'walking the wheel', trying to find some guidance in their life. When they are near death, such as Chakotay was at one point in 2371, it is said they have lost their way on the wheel.
In these instances, small polished rock icons, marked with symbols - including one called the Coyote Stone - are carefully placed on the wheel. The purpose of these stones is to serve as signposts, guiding the wandering soul back to life and the right path. When Chakotay's life is threatened, after an attack on his shuttlecraft drains all of the bioneural energy from his brain, Lt. Torres acts on Chakotay's instruction, and uses the medicine wheel to help him. She sets up his medicine wheel in Sickbay, over his biobed and performs the ritual he showed her. B'Elanna places each marked stone over the Commander's forehead in turn, then brings it back to herself. She raises each stone high into the air, and then places it on the medicine wheel in the designated spot.
Despite the unusual nature of the treatment, Voyager's holographic Doctor displays a sound knowledge of the wheel. He points out that the Starfleet medical database contains information on many treatments based on psychospiritual beliefs.
The Doctor's knowledge of the medicine wheel even extends to being able to point out that Torres has placed the Coyote Stone incorrectly at the crossroads of the fifth and sixth realms, which would divert Chakotay's consciousness into the Mountains of the Antelope Women. The mountain is a desirable locale in Chakotay's tradition, but the Doctor points out that sending him there might make him less willing to return to the ship. In fact, he doubts that the wheel will have any effect, since Chakotay's brain shows no sign of activity.
Nonetheless, the medicine wheel works in ways beyond the merely factual and scientific. Chakotay is not only still alive, in a non-corporeal state, but he's able to use the medicine wheel to point the way out of a dangerous dark matter nebula that Voyager has entered. In this disembodied state, he uses Neelix's body to rearrange three of the six stones on the wheel; these form a pattern that approximates the location of the planetoids in the nebula. On Captain Janeway's orders, the helm/navigator can then plot a safe course back into normal space.
The medicine wheel is not actually the instrument which brings Chakotay's soul back to his body; the Doctor takes the credit for that. It is, however, difficult to believe that the presence of the medicine wheel in Sickbay, and the ritual performed by Lt. Torres, did not have something to do with Chakotay's safe return.
Information gathered and transcribed from "The Official Star Trek Fact Files" and the 'Star Trek: Voyager' episode, "Cathexis".
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