Native American Dream Beliefs
See also The Iroquoin Dream Cult
In considering the beliefs of the Native American peoples, there is not a single belief system. Each tribe developed their own relationship with their inner life as it connected with and contributed to their external environment and needs. In looking at the fairly pure statements of traditional Amerindians in such books as Black Elk Speaks, and Ishi, it is fairly obvious however that dreams were generally considered as a form of reality or information to be highly regarded. Black Elk became a revered medicine man of his tribe through the initiatory process of his dreams and their revelation. His dreams revealed rituals to be performed by the tribe which aided in healing social tensions. But these deeply perceptive social or psychological insights into his own people which arose in his dreams, are only one of many facets the Native American peoples found in their dream life. And of course Black Elk is only one of the men and women of the Native American people who were visionaries.
Dreams as guidance in life
Ishi explains how his dream of what turned out to be the coming of the railroad and the train, was central to his whole life and its tragedy. Nevertheless his dreams warned him of the presaging deadly events for his tribe, and helped him find strength to meet what came about.
As already pointed out, personal initiation was one of the most fundamental of the facets. Individuals, through prayer, fasting and lonely vigils, sought from their dreams, a vision of their destiny as an individual, and an image to aid a personal link with the Spirit pervading all life. With such a dream the young man or woman could feel themselves to be a real part of their group and their environment. But even this cannot be taken as a generalisation. R.F. Benedict reported in The Vision In Plains Culture (American Anthropologist Vol. 24 1922) that among the Arapahoe, the Gros Ventre and in all the Western Plains peoples north and south, puberty fasting for a vision did not occur.
Nevertheless, although details varied as to when and how such dreams were sought, the visionary dream was held as sacred. Sometimes the ways of seeking these visions were very quiet, as when retiring to ones lodge, and sometimes very drastic, when braves suspended themselves from poles on hooks.
When I fasted I was about ten years old, that being the age at which grandparents generally desire their grandchildren to fast. My parents never bothered me at all about fasting, and I don’t suppose I should have fasted at all if I hadn’t a grandparent at that time.
About the middle of the little bear month, that is, February, my grandmother came to my house to fetch me. I did not know what she wanted of me. After two days she told me why she had come. So the next morning I received very little to eat and drink. At noon I didn’t get anything to eat at all, and at night I only got a bit of bread and water.
There were about seven of us fasting at the same time. All day we would play together, watching each other lest anyone eat during the day. We were to keep this up for ten days. However, at the end of the fifth day I became so hungry that, after my grandmother had gone to sleep, I got up and had a good meal. In the morning, she found out that I had eaten during the night and I had to start all over again. This time I was very careful to keep the fast, for I didn’t want to begin on another ten days.
After a while, they built me a little wigwam. It was standing on four poles and about three to four feet from the ground. This was my sleeping-place. My little wigwam was built quite a distance from the house, under an oak tree. I don’t know whether it was the custom to have the young boy fast under a particular tree or not. I believe the wigwam was built in the most convenient place for the old folks to watch it during the day.
The first morning my grandmother told me not to accept the first one that came, for there are many spirits who will try to deceive you, and if one accepts their blessings he will surely be led on to destruction.
The first four nights I slept very soundly and did not dream of anything. On the fifth night, however, I dreamt that a large bird came to me. It was very beautiful and promised me many things. However, I made up my mind not to accept the gift of the first one who appeared. So I refused, and when it disappeared from view, I saw that it was only a chickadee.
The next morning, when my grandmother came to visit me I told her that a chickadee had appeared in my dream and that it had offered me many things. She assured me that the chickadee had deceived many people who had been led to accept this offering.
Then a few nights passed and I did not dream of anything. On the eighth night, another big bird appeared to me and I determined to accept its gift, for I was tired of waiting and of being confined in my little fasting wigwam. In my dream of this bird, he took me far to the north where everything was covered with ice. There I saw many of the same kind of birds. Some were very old. They offered me long life and immunity from disease. It was quite a different blessing from that which the chickadee had offered, so I accepted. Then the bird who had come after me, brought me to my fasting wigwam again. When he left me, he told me to watch him before he was out of sight. I did so and saw that he was a white loon.
In the morning when my grandmother came to me, I told her of my experience with the white loons and she was very happy about it, for the white loons are supposed to bless very few people. Since then, I have been called White Loon.
Not only did White Loon gain his name from his dream, and therefore his adult identity, and whatever respect gained by it from his family and tribe, but he also gained the image of himself as living into old age and having freedom from disease. These are very precious gifts no matter what period of history we consider, or what ‘tribe’. In a modern city, thousands live without any satisfying sense of connection with, or feeling they are respected by, their ‘tribe’. Many live under constant fear of serious illness or early death, and businesses are built catering to such fears.
The Pueblo Indians
Jung, writing about a meeting with some Pueblo Indians in the USA, explains that their religion rests upon the belief that through their frequent ritual, they help the sun to rise each day. Without their tribal attention to the sun, they are sure the sun will no longer rise. “This idea,” Jung explains, “absurd to us, that a ritual act can magically affect the sun is, upon closer examination, no less irrational but far more familiar to us than might at first be assumed. Our Christian religion – like every other incidentally – is permeated by the idea that special acts or a special kind of action can influence God – for example through certain rites or by prayer, or by a morality pleasing to the divinity.
The point Jung makes overall however is that through their beliefs the Pueblo Indians as a group of people, have an intense peace and satisfaction with their life. This deep peace and inner happiness is seldom shared by more ‘rational’ modern communities. I am not trying to argue for irrationality, but the comparison does, I believe, highlight something that arose from the Amerindian beliefs and use of dreams for guidance and spiritual sustenance. Namely how a belief system, no matter if it is irrational, acts as a psychic immune system against the ‘germs’ of despair, inferiority and meaninglessness.
This pride and sense of belonging that was often a marked feature of such tribal peoples prior to the coming of the white races, illustrates one of the main functions of the dreaming process – the psychological compensation or self-regulatory process – and how it acts on the personality if it is deeply accepted. Because the native peoples of America had such trust in the products of their unconscious in dreams and visions, the compensatory images presented were of great benefit, and fulfilled their task of keeping the balance in the individualised identity. Unfortunately the rational attitudes of the invading nationalities, questioning the power of the dream and vision as they did, offered nothing to take the place of the dream. At least, nothing that produced such an obvious sense of pride and tribal and personal identity.
Something that becomes apparent in looking at dreams such as White Loon’s is that the cultural attitudes and beliefs White Loon was educated in dominate the content of his dreams. The coming of the chickadee in early dreams was an accepted part of the vision fast, and can be found in many other such dreams of people in his culture while fasting. When an Indian became a Christian, through exposure to a different set of cultural ideas, his or her dream content changed radically. Nevertheless, many dreams were of a personal psychological nature also, showing the individual relationships with the culture and their own inner life. Even though White Loon’s dream of the birds is very deeply cultural, it is interesting that birds often have the same sort of significance in modern dreams. It was out of this sort of observation that Jung developed his theory of the archetypes and the collective unconscious.
Dream and visions
Something else that is apparent in comparing the visions experienced by native Americans with those of present day individuals – perhaps those using LSD or experiencing visions due to stress such as illness – is that the native Americans entered their visions with some understanding of what to expect and how to deal with the experience. Our own cultural attitudes frequently put us at odds with our own unconscious processes and visionary upsurge. Many people who are confronted by the opening of the unconscious and the events that follow, believe they are going mad, or that they will be overpowered by forces that are antagonistic to them, and will sweep them to their doom. Neither do many people, trained in modern Western ideals of behaviour, know how to exist in the land of vision. Just as few desert people know how to swim, and would feel fear if dropped into deep water, so the person who falls into an altered state of consciousness from the world of modern materialistic thinking, may feel great fear instead of pleasure and the ability to ’swim’ in it. Even the many people who ‘interpret’ their dreams, have seldom moved beyond the level of thinking, and know nothing through experience of the deep waters of the unconscious. See: abreaction; active imagination.
Like other primitive cultures, dreams were seen by the Amerindians as having certain marked features that could be gained from them. There could be an initiatory dream such as we have already considered. There could also be dreams telling where to hunt; dreams showing a new ritual giving some sort of power such as warding off illness, or finding a new relationship with everyday life, or attracting a lover; dreams could show the use of a herb for medicine; dreams might be caused by some sort of evil within ones body, or an external evil such as someone wishing you harm or an evil spirit; there could be a shared dream with another person; the dream might be a revelation from someone who was dead and now in the spirit world; or a dream, as in the third example below, could be a map supporting and guiding the dreamer throughout their whole life. Dreams were often considered to be bad or good. If a dream were considered bad something had to be done about it, such as a cleansing or healing ritual.
As an example of an Indians attitudes to dreams, this statement of White Hair, a medicine man, is interesting. “Every dream that takes place is certain to happen. Whenever the evil spirits influence it, it is certain to happen. Whenever we dream a bad dream we get a medicine man to perform sing and say prayers which will banish the spirit.”
The following description by a medicine man explains how he had a dream showing him a new medicine. He says, “I saw a dog that had been shot through the neck and kidneys. I felt sorry for the dog and carried him home and took care of him. I slept with the dog beside me. While there I had a bad dream. The dream changed and the dog became a man. It spoke to me and said, ‘Now I will give you some roots for medicine and show you how to use them. Whenever you see someone who is ill and feel sorry for him, use this medicine and he will be well.’ One of these medicines is good for sore throat.”
The following is a fasting dream/vision recorded by Father Lalemont, a Jesuit priest working among the Indians.
At the age of about sixteen a youth went alone to a place where he fasted for sixteen days. At the end of this time he suddenly heard a voice in the sky saying, “Take care of this man and let him end his fast.” Then he saw an old man of great beauty come down from the sky. The old man came to him, and looking at him kindly said, “Have courage, I will take care of your life. It is a fortunate thing for you to have taken me for your master. None of the demons who haunt these countries will have any power to harm you. One day you will see your own hair as white as mine. You will have four children, the first two and last will be males, and the third will be a girl. After that your wife will hold the relation of a sister to you.” As he finished speaking the old man offered him a raw piece of human flesh to eat. When the boy turned his head away in horror, the old man then offered him a piece of bear’s fat, saying, “Eat this then.” After eating it, the old man disappeared, but came again at crucial periods in the person’s life. At manhood he did have four children as described. After his fourth, “a certain infirmity compelled him to continence” He also lived to old age, thus having white hair, and as the eating of the bear fat symbolised, became a gifted hunter with second sight for finding game. The man himself felt that had he eaten the human flesh in the vision, he would have been a warrior instead of a hunter.
Such dreams as the above, about the use of a herbal root for medicine, show how many herbal treatments, not only among the Amerindians, but from tribal people throughout the world, came about. In fact many tribes attributed the origins of many of their cultural artefacts, their religion, the use of fire, to a specific dream experienced by a past tribal member.
Because of the great many Amerindian tribes, and their different dream beliefs, it is impossible to summarise the views of life, death and human origins arising from their dreams and visions. The following description of the beliefs of the Naskapi Indians is so pure and simple however, that it probably holds in it many of the beliefs of other tribes. It is taken from Man And His Symbols by Carl Jung, published by Aldus Books, 1964. It is from the section on The Process Of Individuation by Marie L. Von Franz.
Frank Takes Gun, national president of the Native American Church, says: At fourteen, I first used Father Peyote. This was on the Crow Reservation in Montana, and I was proud to know that my people had a medicine that was God-powerful. Listen to me, peyote does have many amazing powers. I have seen a blind boy regain his sight from taking it. Indians with ailments that hospital doctors couldn’t cure have become healthy again after a peyote prayer meeting. Once a Crow boy was to have his infected leg cut off by reservation doctors. After a peyote ceremony, it grew well again.
This may be considered only exuberant witch-doctor talk, but reliable observers have confirmed that these economically deprived peoples are in better-than average health and that when they do become sick and turn to peyote, the drug seems to help them. Louise Spindler, an anthropologist who worked among the Menomonee tribe, said that the women “peyotists” often kept a can of ground peyote for brewing into tea. They used it in “an informal fashion for such things as childbirth, ear-aches, or for inspiration for beadwork patterns.”
Dr. Peck also made such an observation and, in fact, first became interested in LSD as a result of having seen the effects of peyote: When I went into general practice as a country doctor in Texas, I was very impressed that some of our Latin American patients, despite their poverty and living conditions, were extremely healthy. One day, I asked one of my patients how he stayed so healthy, and he told me that he chewed peyote buttons then, I became interested in these drugs that could promise physical as well as mental health.
A Failed Initiation
It is great to find a personal account of Native American initiation in the modern world. But here it is as reported.
The inward journey does not always turn out this way. The following account (published in Psychiatry, February 1949) of the phantasy of a Chippewa Indian woman of 34 living in Northern Wisconsin, furnishes an interesting comparison. It presents the contrast of a widely different background, both of personality and environment. It brings in the same characteristic symbolism. And it shows how such an experience can remain unrealised.
‘The third time I went through the Midewiwin (the Chippewa Medicine Dance), I went through because I had a vision that I should do that. We were living out in the woods at that time. Everything was still and quiet there. I was lying on a bed. I got to thinking of things I’d done way back in my younger days. I thought about my relatives and my friends, my parents who were dead and gone. I had no one to call upon except for my old man.
I lay still, and my mind was working all the time. Then I said out loud, so that I could be heard: “What is there that I didn’t do right? Everything that I can remember I thought I did right. What is wrong with me that I have so many visions of different things and different people?” All that summer I had had visions of people and things. I said aloud again, “Maybe the Almighty has mercy on people who see all these visions.
Here, most authentically, is the first stage: the feeling that ‘there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand’. The way of development now lies open. As William James puts it: ‘The individual, so far as he suffers from his wrongness and criticises it, is to that extent consciously beyond it, and in at least possible touch with something higher, if anything higher exist.’
‘Then I had a vision that I was walking along a narrow trail through the brush-no tall trees. It was a beautiful day. No wind. Plenty of sunshine. I walked along this trail for about an hour until I heard the sound of tinkling bells in the distance. As I came nearer to the sound, I saw four men sitting around something that was round. Above their heads was something across the sky like a rainbow. One of these men called me his grandchild. He said, “You are supposed to tell the people once in a while when you are in trouble about something you know, something that’s in you. Let them know what’s in you. Don’t pay any attention if people laugh at you. If they do, they’re not throwing jokes at you; they’re throwing jokes at themselves.” One real old white-haired man sat at the far end of that round thing. He pointed to his snow-white hair. He told me that my hair would be just like his some day, if I did what I was told. “We are the ones that asked you to come here, because you are in trouble and don’t know which way to turn. There are four things that I want you to remember-North, East, South and West. On all of these four there sits a man who waits and wants to receive your tobacco. You have a name that you bear, which means a great deal to me. Your name means a whole lot. As you go along, you’ll realise this. Your thinking power is working real hard. It will get you somewhere, if you listen to it.”
Here is the mandala symbolism, as in the vision of the sword and the cross-the four old men sitting around something that is round. The woman is told there is something she knows, something in her, that she should tell people. She is, at the same time, given her orientation-four things to remember, North, East, South and West. And she is reminded of her name.
‘Then another real old man spoke. “It’s been a long time since you thought of your grandfather. I like to receive your tobacco once in a while too. I’m the one that suggested to this man the name that you are called by. Don’t be afraid of me because I’m big. I will tell you what you are supposed to do once in a while. You are supposed to put out food, like meat and corn, and put some tobacco into the fire or on the ground when I go by. You do your own speaking (i.e. to the spirits). Nobody else needs to do it. I am the one who will listen.”
Then I said, “Oh, I’m the one who made a mistake. I never thought that I would ever make such a big mistake. Sometimes when I think of the things I’ve done, I thought I’d done them right; but I didn’t.”‘
As later transpires, the mistake was that the woman gave no tobacco to the people she was named after, i.e. did not adequately realise the name, and consequently did not find her true being-again as in the sword and cross vision.
‘Me said, “Sometimes we see you in this certain kind of dance. You are holding the precious flag (the feather flag held by the person who addresses the spirits). That flag belongs to us. Before you speak or do anything, offer some tobacco. If you have no tobacco, you have to give the price for your tobacco.” That’s just what I do now. If I can’t speak, I have somebody speak for me.
Then I went on from this place along the trail a little ways. I bear and see some more. This man has his finger up in the air. He’s talking. He’s from the South. This is a different man. There’s a thing about four feet high-just a stick sticking in the ground. The man takes the stick and hands it to me. “If you lean on this stick,” he said, “you’ll use two of them later on, as you go along the road, if you do just what I tell you. (To ‘walk with two sticks’ is synonymous with long life). Go to your great adviser (the old priest to whom she is married) and tell him what you have seen.”‘
Mere is good counsel. The chief difficulty in all experience the other side of consciousness is adequate realisation. If the woman tells her ‘great adviser’, there is a better chance of holding the experience and bringing it into life.
“As I was corning back along this trail, I saw a great big snake about this big around (six inches). He raised his head about this high (four feet) from the ground. “Don’t be afraid of me,” he said. “Just go back and tell your adviser what you have seen. If you don’t you won’t be able to walk.” Then he pointed and said, “Look over there.” I looked and saw myself lying flat on my back. Then the snake said, “But if you do what I tell you and tell all that you know, everything will be all right. I want to come into that place (her home). I like that place. It makes no difference how it looks. I’m coming there just the same. I’ll go along now.” Then I walked back home along the trail. That was all. Then I made preparations for going through the Midewiwin.’
This is the encounter with the snake, the embodiment of the unconscious; and again the good counsel for realisation-’ tell your adviser.
‘One afternoon, after I’d made all of my preparations for joining the Midewiwin again, I was all alone at home. The door was open about four inches. I looked at the door and saw this person coming in. I felt kind of scared. He was an unexpected visitor. He came in a few feet and said, “I have come at last.” He looked around, turned over on his side and ,made himself at home. Then he spoke to me: “If you take care of me like you should, I will do a lot of things for you, because I am the one that suggested all this to you. When you start, have the prettiest dress you’ve got. I know that I am welcome here. Don’t be afraid of me, because I have come a long ways to see you.” That’s all he said. Then he became a snake and went out.’
This is the ‘bringing home’ of the embodiment of the unconscious, as a separate, uncanny but helpful presence. As the ensuing passage shows, it is the snake that leads to the way.
‘That’s just the way that thing (the hide) looked. I got a snake hide that third time I joined. He (the snake) is the one that put these things into my mind and set me to thinking. I’d wondered what was wrong, because I’d never kept thinking and seeing things like that before. He’s the one that suggested I join the Midewiwin. He also asked me if I wanted a drink. I said, No, not when I entered his house (the Mide lodge).
One of the old men spoke to me when I was in the lodge, the third time I joined. Me said, “When you come tomorrow, dress as nice as you can. That’s how this person wanted you to enter this house.” That’s just what I did. He said, “When you go along this road, do the best you can. Pay attention to what is before you, not what is behind you. When you speak, watch your tongue. After you get through here and know what to do, watch your step for the next two or three years. If you do, he’ll take you along this road just as he suggested. This road never comes to an end. ,pay no attention to the side roads. Pay attention to the road that s in front of you. This is his (the snake’s) road, and this is his home. 1f you take care of yourself, he will do the rest. Your thought belongs to no one but you. Don’t listen to any kind of wind that’s blowing about you. Just turn the other way and do the best you can. He will know, because you’re the person he intended to enter his house. He has picked a person from our midst who happens to be you. He thought that you were the most wonderful thing that God has created. That’s why he picked your home to be his home; he liked that place. And this little thing that I’ve got in my hand (a tiny blue and white shell) belongs to him.”‘
Here is the deep centre (the equivalent of the jasper stone in the sword and cross vision), the something from the depths which ‘be-longs’ to the snake. The old man continues:
“Whatever you say and do-he knows all about it. Don t think that he doesn’t hear whatever you say, because he does. He has become one of the wonderful members of your household.” Then this old man pointed to my head. “See how your hair is today. As you go along this road, your hair will change to a different colour. This thing (the blue and white shell) will take you along the road that we are going to teach you about.” Then he touched the tip of my ear. “These things you own yourself. They belong to nobody but you. The thing that has happened to you is the most wonderful thing I have ever heard of. I have heard of that happening in olden times. Back in my days I heard that people had such a vision like that. It is the most wonderful thing that can happen to a person on this earth. Don’t be afraid to give what you’ve got; because later on, in years to come, you will get paid for it. As you go along this road, you will be using one stick. Maybe by that time you will have grand-children, and you will be able to tell them about this wonderful thing that has happened to you. As you go along to the end of this road, you will be using two sticks. You will still be walking toward this wonderful house that you have seen. This (the shell) is the one that owns it.” ‘
In the Midewiwin third initiation a shell is supposed to be magically ‘shot’ into the candidate from a snake hide, which is referred to during the ceremony as a ‘gun’. Here is the authentic symbolism of the deep centre: that which takes her along the road; that which owns the wonderful house towards which she is travelling; that which enters into and transforms the personality. The old man concludes:
‘”In maybe five or six years from now, you will be entitled to join again. I hope that I may still be here to see it and know what it’s all about. I’m telling you this again, to impress it on your mind. Don’t regret the things that you did in your younger days. You have made only one mistake. Don’t let it happen again.”
(The interviewer asks: What mistake was that?)
“I didn’t give no tobacco to the people I was named after . . .”
When you join the Midewiwin the third time, they tell you that the snake is wrapped all around the earth. He may scare you, but he doesn’t mean to. When I joined that time, they told me that if I had anything nice that grew from the earth-like blackberries-I should give a feast. But I didn’t do it, because the berries were all gone by then; and three months later I gave my hide away; so there was no use in giving a feast to the snake.’
The end is failure. ‘Three months later I gave my hide away.’ The experience has passed her by. The woman to whom these images came saw them as she might a film. She was aware of the archetypal processes with the natural awareness of the quasi-primitive, but she had not the means of incorporating their value into consciousness. The revelation itself was admirably complete: the mandala; the name; the snake; the deep centre. The way she is shown is, in effect, the resolution of the fundamental opposites of consciousness and the unconscious. ‘This road never comes to an end. Pay no attention to the side roads. Pay attention to the road that’s in front of you.’ But she could not hold the experience. All the transforming symbols were there but not the necessary realisation. Quoted from Experiment in Depth by P. W. Martin
Dream doorway to wider awareness
The inner centre, the Self, or the guiding spirit of a person “is realised in an exceptionally pure, unspoilt form by the Naskapi Indians, who still exist in the forests of the Labrador peninsula. These simple people are hunters who live in isolated family groups, so far from one another that they have not been able to evolve tribal customs or collective religious beliefs and ceremonies. In his lifelong solitude the Naskapi hunter has to rely on his own inner voices and unconscious revelations; he has no religious teachers who tell him what he should believe, no rituals, festivals or customs to help him along. In his basic view of life the soul of man is simply an ‘Inner companion’ whom, he calls ‘My Friend’ or ‘Mista peo’, meaning ‘Great Man’. Mista peo dwells I the heart and is immortal. In the moment of death, or just before, he leaves the individual, and later reincarnates himself in another being.
Those Naskapi who pay attention to their dreams and who try to find their meaning and test their truth can enter into a greater connection with the Great Man. He favours such people and sends them more and better dreams. Thus the major obligation of an individual Naskapi is to follow the instructions given by his dreams, and then to give permanent form to their contents in art. Lies and dishonesty drive the Great Man away from one’s inner realm, whereas generosity and love of his neighbours and of animals attract him and give him life. Dreams give the Naskapi complete ability to find his way in life, not only in the inner world but also in the outer world of nature. They help him to foretell the weather and give him invaluable guidance in his hunting, upon which his life depends…… Just as the Naskapi have noticed that a person who is receptive to the Great Man gets better and more helpful dreams, we could add that the inborn Great Man becomes more real within the receptive person than in those who neglect him. Such a person also becomes amore complete human being.”