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The Significance of Dreams and Visions for Indians

[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our “politically correct” era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

Most revelations of what was regarded by the Indians as coming from the supernatural powers were believed to be received in dreams or visions. Through them were bestowed on man magical abilities and the capacity to foresee future events, to control disease, and to become able to fill the office of priest or of leader. It was the common belief of the Indians that these dreams or visions must be sought through the observance of some rite involving more or less personal privation; an exception is found in the Mohave who believe that the dream seeks the individual, coming to him before birth, or during infancy, as well as in mature life. In general the initiation of a man’s personal relations to the unseen through dreams and visions took place during the fast which occurred at puberty, and the thing seen at that time became the medium of supernatural help and knowledge, and in some tribes determined his affiliations. It was his sacred object. It had no reference to his kindred, but was strictly personal in its efficacy, and he painted it on his person or his belongings as a prayer for assistance – a call for help in directing his actions. Any dream of ordinary sleep in which this object appeared had meaning for him and its suggestions were heeded. Men with a natural turn of mind toward the mysterious frequently became shamans and leaders in rites which dealt with the occult. Such persons, from the time of their first fast, cultivated their ability to dream and to have visions; the dreams came during natural sleep, the visions during an ecstasy when the man was either wholly or partially unconscious of his surroundings. It was generally believed that such men had power to bring or to avert disaster through direct communication with the unseen.

Many of the elaborate ceremonies observed among the tribes were said to have been received through visions, the actual performance following faithfully in detail the prefiguration of the vision. So, too, many of the shrines and their contents were believed to have been supernaturally bestowed in a vision upon some one person whose descendants were to be the hereditary keepers of the sacred articles. The time for the performance of rites connected with a shrine, and also other ceremonies, frequently depended on an intimation received in a dream.

The dreams of a man filling an important position, as the leader of a war party, were often regarded as significant, especially if he had carried with him some one of the sacred tribal objects as a medium of supernatural communication. This object was supposed to speak to him in dreams and give him directions which would insure safety and success. Forecasting the future was deemed possible by means of artificially induced visions. The skin of a freshly killed animal, or one that had been well soaked for the purpose, was wound around the neck of a man until the gentle pressure on the veins caused insensibility, then in a vision he saw the place toward which his party was going and all that was to take place was prefigured. In some tribes a skin kept for this special purpose was held sacred and used for divining by means of an induced vision. Some Indians employed plants, as the peyote, or mescal button, for like purposes. That the spirit left the body and travelled independently, and was able to discern objects distant both in time and space, was believed by certain tribes; others thought that the vision came to the man as a picture or in the form of a complete dramatic ceremony.

The general belief concerning dreams and visions seems to have been that the mental images seen with closed eyes were not fancies but actual glimpses of the unseen world where dwelt the generic types of all things and where all events that were to take place in the visible world were determined and prefigured.

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