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  • David Q. Hall

Visions and Dreams - Background

Based on traditional Native American beliefs across North America

As a mere student of the subject, and a grateful recipient of some of the oral traditions regarding myths, legends, and stories in the traditional cultures of some of the Native American, indigenous tribes, I have learned about the importance attached to visions and dreams. That importance seems to be global or universal to human beings.

For instance, visions and dreams have existed in recorded forms for thousands of years in locales on every continent. In the Bible, the Old Testament prophet Joel wrote about the Jewish people in Palestine that, “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” Also in the Bible, one of the most familiar “dreamers” was Joseph of many-colored coat fame.

It also seems universal that all of the Native American tribes, bands, and individual persons put great value in dreams and visions. They were understood among those tribes to be a way of connecting to the Spirit World, both the local spirits that lived unseen all around them, and the Spirit World in the sky, including the Great, creating, Spirit. It was widely believed that through visions and dreams a person’s own spirit could actually travel to other worlds, communicate with ancestors, and be accompanied by spirit “guides” in those “journeys.”

The basic, simple difference between dreams and visions was that dreams occurred when a person was asleep, while visions could and would happen in a person’s waking moments, sometimes in what today we would likely call “hallucinations.”

Since visions were believed to so “real” and powerful, often preparing a person for their entire life in the future, many tribes emphasized the importance of doing things to try to stimulate a vision to occur - fasting in both food and drink, undergoing self-imposed physical pain and stress, extreme sleep deprivation, isolation, hallucinogenic mushrooms or other substances, even danger to one’s very life.

Young persons in particular, young adults, sometimes both men and women, might undertake what was known as a “vision quest.” It might be a trek or experience intended to try to produce the desired vision that would hopefully occur. They might go off alone to a mountain top, or into a remote section of forest, or out in the desert away from everyone else, or into the steamy heat of a “sweat lodge,” to eliminate distractions like other people talking or moving. The quest would invariably include prayer, meditation, extreme focus or concentration, chanting and singing, talking directly to those spirits and ancestors who might now seem so much closer and even “within” them, perhaps by those vision-inducing mushrooms or other hallucinogens.

Again, today most persons might consider the visions to be self-imposed hallucinations, images forming in the quester’s mind that aren’t really “real.” But Native Americans generally believed, individually and as a society and culture were convinced, that the visions hopefully experienced were doors to another world of reality. The Spirit World was as real, even more real, as the natural world in which they lived.

Most Native American people taught their children from a very young age to “listen” to their dreams. And to try their best to remember dreams for spiritual guidance, healing, and directions for them to take into their Great Spirit-intended futures. To “see” the future, what would happen to them and their people. They often believed that in dreams and visions some being or thing from the future could come to them and let them know what to expect, how to prepare for what would be coming to them.

For some famous examples, recorded visions and dreams of prominent Native Americans included the account of the great Hunkpapa Lakota “chief of chiefs,” Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull spoke in his late life about a dream or vision he had in his tipi of “bluecoats” - United States federal soldiers in their blue uniform jackets - “falling down upon him and his people from the sky.” Not long after he experienced that vision in 1876, the 7th Cavalry troopers of George Custer attacked Sitting Bull’s camp of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Native Americans spread along the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana. Custer and the men who were with him were all wiped out in the battle he began, infamously referred to ever since as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

Just as momentous, perhaps tragically even more so, was one of the most famous of Native American visions that came to a Paiute shaman named Wovoka. He was born in Nevada in 1858. By the time he was an adult in 1889, at the age of forty-one, the various free-ranging tribes of the Great Plains had almost all been defeated in battles and massacres. Many, many were killed. The survivors were forced onto miserable, guarded reservations and areas around federal forts. Their native lands had been taken from them by the U.S. government and white settlers. The life-giving, and -sustaining buffalo herds, which had numbered in the many millions at the beginning of the 1800’s, had been slaughtered by whites almost completely into extinction. Very few buffalo or bison remained free on those vast prairies. A few held out in the hard-to-hunt badlands.

The traditional way and the means of life of the Plains Native Americans was destroyed forever. But during an eclipse of the sun, an event understood by the Native Americans to be highly spiritual on New Year’s Day, January 1, in 1889, Wovoka experienced a totally life-changing vision in which the Great Spirit, or God, gave him a message. The revelation was that the time was coming soon when all white intruders would disappear from the earth they had so evilly destroyed. All Native Americans, of every tribe, living and dead come back to life, would be reunited in a new earth. The buffalo would return, and there would be no more death, no more disease, and an end to their terrible misery in captivity.

In order for all of this new earth and Life to happen, all Native American tribes still surviving would have to learn and practice the sacred “Ghost Dance.” It was so named because the ghosts of the dead would come back, and even dance with them in the beginning of the great Rebirth and Reunion. And it would be exhibited by the wearing of white, undyed, “ghost shirts” while dancing. There were prayers involved and teachings about clean living and honest lives, all inspired by Wovoka’s vision and the Paiutes.

Unfortunately, and very sadly, tragically, the Ghost Dance and the ghost shirts did not usher in that new, wonderful restoration of everything the Native Americans had lost. White settlers, territorial and state governments, and the growing occupation of whites grew frankly nervous and even frightened about this revived phenomenon of “war dances” and resurgent “redskins.” Federal troops dealt harshly and violently with the movement and the vision that had inspired it.

It even resulted in the murder of Sitting Bull in 1890 on the reservation to which he and his band had been confined. And the later massacre of almost 300 women, men, and children at Wounded Knee on the Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, December 29, 1890. It was the last “battle,” not that it could fairly be called that, in the “Indian Wars” of the western frontier.

Not all visions and dreams result in the blessings and goodness that was sought.

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