Electric Dreams

American Indian Dream Beliefs

Tony Crisp 

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Crisp, Tony (2001 July). American Indian Dream Beliefs.  Electric Dreams 8(7). Retrieved from Electric Dreams August 4, 2001 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams 

In considering the beliefs of the Amerindian 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 that aided in healing social tensions. But these deeply perceptive social or psychological insights into his own people that arose in his dreams are only one of many facets the American native 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.

Sacred fasting

Example: 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. AThis idea,@ Jung explains, Aabsurd 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 which 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. 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.

Example: As an example of an Indians attitudes to dreams, this statement of White Hair, a medicine man, is interesting. AEvery 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.@

Example: This description by a medicine man explains how he had a dream showing him a new medicine. He says, AI 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.@

Example: This 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 there 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 artifacts, 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 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.

Dream doorway to wider awareness

Example: The inner centre, the Self, or the guiding spirit of a person Ais 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."

This feature is an excerpt from The New Dream Dictionary by Tony Crisp, published by Little Brown, UK. It is therefore copyright material.

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