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Living By The Dream

By Terri J. Andrews

Dreams. To some, they are a form of nightly entertainment, or forgotten annoyance that disappears when the eyes are first opened. To others, dreams are a source of introspection - a look into the workings of the mind. And to many Native American Indians of yesterday and today, dreams are guidebooks for the living. There was, and is, a strong belief in the efficiency of such visions, and the power found within their messages. It is said that all can be found within your dreams.

To the Native American, the dream is its own form of reality. There are worlds which can be seen, and worlds which can not. The physical and the spiritual are two aspects of the same presence. Dreams are a way to connect the two; to pull both into the same dimension of the dreamers world. It was believed that the dream was the pathway to the spirit world and this belief was held so precious that sacred rituals that involved depravation of food and drink, would be partaken in order to pull the dream, and its meaning, forward to the dreamer. Native Indians believed that the dream was the link to the other world, crossing the boundaries of the past, present and the future A world that included answers to the myriad of problems that faced the tribe, or the individual. Dreams were, in effect, the foundation of the tribal culture.


The Importance of Dreams

In days passed, when Native American peoples and cultural traditions were in their glory, dreams and visions served as powerful instruments in maintaining physical health, predicting the future and connecting with the Great Spirit. A typical scenario would be for the dreamer to enter a state where their spirit would leave the body. There a message would be given by a spirit or a guide, often times an ancestor who was no longer in the living world. This guide would provide a warning or message, and sometimes a message as to how to react.

To many Native Americans of the earlier times, these dreams and/or visions were the entire substructure of that particular culture, with some tribes believing so faithfully in the prophecy of dreams that what they encountered in the dream state would be taken literally in the awakened state. So real was this belief that, for instance, if a Cherokee Indian was bitten by an animal in the dream world, he would seek treatment from a Medicine Man (or Shaman) when he returned to the waking world.

Several other Indian communities based their lives on what was seen through the subconscious. The Mohave Indians who live in Arizona and California, and the Iroquois of the New York state area were said to have dedicated their lives to dreams. These visions told of when to hunt, when to fish, when to go to war, when to trade and how to heal. And the Micmac and Abenaki would consult their dreams prior to embarking on a hunting trip - to call to the animal about to be hunted asking the animal to surrender to the spear so that the hunt would be plentiful.

Dreams were also used to answer personal questions. For example, the dreamer may need guidance as to which personal totem they should take, what should be their life’s work and where their life is to be directed. In the night, the answer would come and the dreamer would awaken to interpret the results of his quest.


The Healing power of dreams

Throughout history, dreaming has been considered a vital part of healthy living. Native’s believed in the strong healing powers of the subconscious, as did such medical greats as Hippocrates, Aristotle and the Aborigines of Australia. Cultures across time and across the world have used dreams as an important diagnostic and problem-solving tool. These beliefs are still common place in our society.

The Native Indians believed that the majority of all illness stemmed from the brain. They thought that through the mind, through the subconscious, the person could be mended of whatever ailed them. Many Shaman’s felt that bad spirits had enveloped the sick individual, or that the person was "off balance" and needed to be brought back into a level position. Nightly visions brought forth the answers needed to make the body, and the mind, whole.

The person responsible for healing the sick was the Shaman or Medicine Man / Woman. In many tribes, this prestigious position was not given to the individual until, according to such tribes as the Cherokee Indians, a person enters adulthood - at the age of 50. Men and women could both become Shamans and in areas such as the Basin, it was not uncommon for the numbers of men and women Shamans to be equal.

Yet, while both could practice medicine, some tribes such as those of the Plateau, would only allow women to practice on other women.

Medicine is and was very important to the indigenous people. Encompassing all that is sacred, medicine is not only to heal the body, but also to heal the mind and the spirit. Emotional healing, bringing forth good luck, predicting the future, controlling the weather, and ensuring a good harvest or hunt were all duties of the Shaman. Those who possessed the ability to heal were held Holy and all-powerful.

The self-constituted prophet and physician held an authority that, once announced, could never be revoked. His proclamation was his own, and only he could prove the effectiveness of his own power. In order to receive this position, the individual must first be called into it by undergoing a vision where the rulers of spirit world summoned for them to become the healer of their community. The spirits asked the individual to take on an incredible position, one that would forever overwhelm their lives. It is then that this summoned Shaman will learn from practicing Shamans how to use the given power, taking years and years to perfect the craft.

Shamans had to have the ability to move within the spirit world. To encounter spiritual forces with strong will, as to fight the demons within the subconscious of the people that they protect. Shamans must undertake journeys into other dimensions and to encounter hostile realms and spirits on behalf of others. It is their job to "speak to" these spirits and to bring forth resolutions and peace.

Other than entering into other dimensions, the Shaman must also be able to heal those in the waking world. With herbs, chants, ceremonies and prayer - the Medicine "Doctor" must know how to dress wounds and to know what herbs would be beneficial. Some Shamans would perform operations, but this was not common in all tribes. Some cultures forbid surgery, believing that it would bring evil spirits to the patient. At the same time, other Shamans such as those from South America, believed in opening up the patient and "sucking" out the evil spirits causing the illness within the body.

In the Basin, as well as within other tribes, there was a certain ambivalence towards becoming a Shaman. It may of been resisted, with the chosen individual declining the visionary directive because it was not known at the beginning whether the power would be of positive or negative medicine. If the powers were beneficial, then the position would be welcomed to the Shaman. If it was negative, the person would fight to be released from the "spell".


Reaching the Great Spirit

Dreams were a way to connect with a higher power, the Creator of the universe. The dream allowed the dreamer to travel and reach a higher state of mind, dig into a world not traveled in the real world.

Experiences of the higher power could be attained through the night, leading to a greater sense of spiritual openness when fully conscious.

To many Native Americans or yesterday and today, a spiritual experience and participation is the groundwork for their being. A certain dream can lead the path for an entire lifetime. Thought the Plains, men and women both sought spiritual power through dreams. This was the greatest and most certain road to the Great One, a road that lead to their salvation.

Several Indian communities put special emphasis on this channel to the Supernatural leaders within the "other realm". Connecting with them, or with dead loved ones, was common among some tribes and the dreaming vessel used to travel to meet such greats was held sacred and holy.


The Prophecies

Many years ago, in Nova Scotia, it is said that a young Micmac woman dreamed of an island floating in from the sea. The next morning the village peoples found that, indeed, a giant island-like vessel was coming in to shore. The villagers thought the island was full of bears in trees, but as the island came closer, the people realized it was not bears in trees at all. Rather, it was a French sailing ship with crewmen in their masts.

Throughout the Native American history, prophesies have shaped their future. Dreams have warned villages of impending danger, have told of death and have changed the courses of history.

A famous prophecy is that of Sioux Chief, Crazy Horse, who had a remarkable dream that foretold of his death ten days before it happened.

The story goes that one day Crazy Horse was walking in the prairie and he came upon a dead eagle. He then went back to his teepee and sat for many, many hours. Noticeably upset and deeply affected, he was asked what was the matter. He responded by saying that he had just found his dead body on the prairie near by. A few nights later he had a vision of riding a white pony on an elevated plateau. Surrounded by his enemies armed with guns, he was killed and left on the prairie. But his body would not die of a bullet wound, he would die by other means. Several days later, Crazy Horse was surrounded by over 20 soldiers and was stabbed with a bayonet. A white pony was standing by one just outside of the circle of soldiers.

Visions such as these, where the future had been accurately foretold, covers the historical ground of the Native Americans. But some of the prophecies told were not accurately acted upon. There have been visions told by Shamans and other prevalent people of the tribes, where the meaning as misinterpreted and it wasn’t until the fatal mistake was made did the people see the truth behind the vision. An example of this is from Chief Powhatan (Wa-hun-sen-a-cawh) , who lived in the late 1500’s. Not long before Jamestown was settled, a Shaman warned Powhatan that a nation would rise from the Chesapeake Bay which, in the end, will dissolve and surrender to Powhatan’s empire. Powhatan immediately took action. He went to war against a tribe that lived west of the bay and by 1607 had nearly eliminated them. Unfortunately, he had targeted the wrong enemy. He should had fought and stopped the small band of English men who settled the town of Jamestown that same year.

Several years and many troubles later, Powhatan’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Pocahontas, threw herself in front of Jamestown leader, John Smith, who was about to be killed by her fathers bodyguards. Her father released Smith but in 1613 the governor of Virginia held her hostage, using her as a bartering tool to have his people released from Powhatan who were holding them as prisoners. Instead of being traded back to her father she married Englishman John Rolfe and died at the age of twenty-one after giving birth to one son, Thomas. In the end Powhatan lost his daughter and had to adapt and accommodate the strangers.

Some prophecies were handed down from generation to generation. Each knew of the forthcoming event, but the when and to which generation was unknown. The people could only wait for the vision to ring true.

The Tanana Indians of the Alaskan Plateau knew of white strangers who would someday arrive with their yellow hair and pale skin, to take away hunting grounds and to kill the Tanana’s. The tellers of those tales were correct, and centuries later, in the 1800’s, Russian traders arrived from the west and English traders from the east and the Tanana met with cultural devastation.


By all means necessary

Dreams were held so sacred to the Native peoples that they would go to great lengths to insure that they would, indeed, have that much desired dream or vision needed at that time. Entire ceremonies were built around the glorification of sleep and members would deny themselves

food and drink, push their bodies with pain and physical endurance, and would use mind-transforming herbs - just to ensure the dream.

Fasting rituals, sweat lodges, ghost dances and other traditional ceremonies were all thought to assist in bringing forth the vision. One common ritual, common to young men entering adulthood, was called a Vision Quest. The boys would fast for days, alone in the wilderness and may have to endure a tremendous suffering - until the specific dream or vision occurred. This dream may of predicted the boy’s life work, his position within the community or his animal totem. Nonetheless, the vision itself was the goal and the boy could not enter into adulthood until it was achieved.

Mind-alternating herbs such as Mescal, otherwise known as ‘the plant that shows the way’, is present in the peyote cactus and is a hallucinogen used by some tribes to bring forth sleep and lucid dreaming. Since the first uses of this herb in the 1700’s, the plant has been used in religious activities , such as the Peyote Ceremony, and is usually passed on from generation to generation. The Kiowa Indians.

Big Horse, from the 1800’s claimed to see events happening far away when he would eat the peyote. But not all tribes considered Peyote to be a blessing from the spirits. Flacco, a Cheyenne chief, once said, "It is used to witch people and make them crazy."

Today, plants use is illegal and though some Native American members still partake in the Peyote Ceremonies, they risk prosecution.

Nonetheless, many Native Americans still use the Mescal as a way to enrich their dreams and to find their spiritual way.

Dream Catchers

It has been said that dreams fly around at night and could be caught with a special net called a "Dream Catcher" or a "Dream Net". Many different tribes claimed to have originated the Dream Catcher, including the Apache and the Oneida, but the Ojibwe/Annishnabe/Chippewa (all thesame tribe) hold strongly to the proclamation that it was their people the originated the first dream catcher. They offer this tale as the Legend of the Dream Catcher:

Long ago when the ancient world of the Ojibwe nation was strong, all clans were located on Turtle Island. It is said that Spider Woman (Asibikaahi) helped to being the sun (giizis) back to the people. The Ojibwe nation started to fulfill a prophecy that the people were to disperse to the four corners of what is today North America. Spider Woman had a difficult time making the journey to all cradle boards of the new children, which she had done to protect the people from evils, and instead she asked for all mothers and grandmothers to weave webs of eight strings, such as her own webs. The magical nets were made of willow loops (the tree of love) and sinew and it was made into a circle to represent how sun travels across the sky each day. The Dream Catcher was hung on the cradleboards, above the babies head, and allowed the good dreams to filter into the child through the feather that was centered in the middle of the Net. The bad dreams would stay in the net, disappearing at the light of day.

The Dream Catcher is a symbol of the Native people and is considered a good luck charm, much the way four-leaf clovers and rabbits feet are for people of today. Dream Catchers are now seen all over the world from traditional cribs to office windows and hanging from automobiles.

Using Dreams Today

In our modern society, dreams are still serving as important messengers. With the "new-age movement" that has suddenly penetrated our western society, more and more Native and non-Natives and realizing the power behind the dreams. With books, articles and workshops popping up all over the country, as well as across the world, the ways of the Native Americans are being embraced and respected. Shamanism, though practiced differently today than in centuries past, is becoming apopular form of medicine and "Shamans" can be found in all parts of the United States and throughout many other parts of the world. These ancient techniques of using the subconscious for healing of the body, releasing the mind and finding one’s own answers is becoming widely accepted in modern society and for some, is a foundation for a lifestyle that is a healthy mix of old and new cultural agents. For them, the dream and reality are one in the same, as it ways for the people who lived centuries ago.

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