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.
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
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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