Chapter 2 – Dream Theory in Native North America

To Native Americans, dreams have an importance unimaginable to the non-Indian. Gods and supernaturals manifest themselves in dreams. Revelations from the spirits reach the supplicant through dreams and visions. Through dreams are conferred magical powers, the gift of prophecy, and the ability to cure illnesses and heal wounds. (Erdoes 24)

As in the early days of Western culture, we see that dreams in Native culturea and communities reside in the realm of the religious impulse, though there is less of an inclination to even see religion and society as two separate entities – the sacred is in all things, two-leggeds, four-leggeds, grandfather sky and mother earth – so dreams and visions come from within that understanding of the world. It is interesting to keep in mind that at the end of the 18th century when Europe would on occasion absorb lessons from the ways of peoples in the New World, so-called “primitive and ancient peoples” were often described as either healing with dreams or using them as a source for insight. This concept was considered the “root from which psychotherapy developed.” (Ellenberger 3)

While much of the literature on indigenous societies, especially at point of contact, was written by Europeans and carries their language and attitudes towards “primitive” peoples, all of the sources nonetheless give us a sense of the enormity and richness of the role of the dream in many Native cultures.

Whereas it is commonly believed that thought systems have evolved from simple to complex, according to some sort of progression toward increasing complexity, dream classification apparently is most elaborate in cultures other than those associated with the modern Western rationalist tradition. (Kilborne 171)

This addresses the question of whether looking at aboriginal dreaming is a bit like looking at dreaming in ancient Western cultures – it is pre-scientific, related to religion and spirituality – but we will be seeing a very strong and distinct place for the dream in this New World context. While this overview will be prone to cursory generalizations about Aboriginal societies, we will also look more closely at two specific examples to get a sense of the diversity in the details.

In an indigenous cultural context, we have to be sensitive to the idea that we are dealing with a completely different approach to the mind, the self and dreaming. Lee Irwin suggests the enormity of the shift in perception when he points out “the tendency for a contemporary reader to accept the general idea of the ‘unconscious’ as a valid” concept tends to minimize other roles that may be attributed to dreaming. (21) The discrepancy in worldviews cannot be downplayed, as “in contemporary, non-indigenous culture, the distinction between waking and dreaming is largely a consequence of rational theories of mind in a bifurcated world view for Euro-Americans. The popular notion is to regard dreaming and waking as two distinct and separate types of awareness, the former being largely ignored or having its import reduce to that of a primarily pathological index.” (Irwin 18) By contrast, as Jackson Steward Lincoln observes, there is an alternative conception of the role of visions and dreams in non-modern, non-European cultures.

In his great pioneer and classical work, Sir Edward Tylor first presented the evidence showing how the early religious beliefs of primitive man arose from images seen in dreams. He was the first to point out that dreams were often regarded by the primitive mind as having a reality equal to that of the external world, and from such a valuation they gave rise to a host of religious beliefs. (Lincoln 44)

There are some widespread, general points of commonality about indigenous dream theories that we see in the anthropological writings: the importance and prominence of dream theory in Native cultures; a frequent blurring of the lines between dream and vision, or more significantly the primacy of the dream / vision as a type of reality; the dream / vision as delivering bona fide information, sometimes articulated with symbolic language. In this context there is a recognition of insight gained from dreams, indeed power and knowledge can be delivered in dreams, leading to social status for the individual and / or change for the community as a whole. There is also a strong tendency to view dreams as progressive (about the future) rather than regressive (about the past). For example, “…both Zunis and Quiches say that nearly all dreams provide information about future events, thus sharing progressive rather than regressive dream theories.” (Tedlock 123) Many societies will categorize the types of dreams that occur – a classification that includes big vision dreams as well as minor quotidian dreams. We see some similarities (with distinctions) between Western ideas, to the extent that there is a notion of some dreams as wish-fulfilling, and a way of interpreting or reading dreams with latent versus manifest content, that has parallels with Freud’s ideas. The source for a number of Jungian ideas about universal symbols and the soul’s impulse towards growth also become apparent, with important distinctions.

The Kalapalo theory of dreaming […] is one that makes explicit reference to the future of the dreamer. Just as their myths do, dreaming provides them with useful models for the formation of new roles and relations, or more simply, new and different feelings towards some problem. Kalapalo interpret their dreaming as a way the self creates a goal rather than as a means of arriving at some satisfactory solution to a distressing problem or the conclusion of some goal, as Jung believed. (Basso 96)

Clearly, many of these points will be extremely significant once we bring story into the discussion – whether or not a dream is counted as a real event, gives a directive, or speaks to the future rather than the past, is sure to change the way plot unfolds.

The notion of “reality” is essential, as whether or not a dream is considered “real” or simply “a dream” will be a determining factor within the shape of a narrative. Native American conceptions or understandings of reality can be strikingly different from European ideas, and we come across statements such as “no distinction is drawn between the waking state and the visionary state: they are one and the same” (Irwin 33) or “there is no distinct separation between the world as dreamed and the world as lived.” (Irwin 18) These observations give us a sense of the degree to which a different perspective is necessary in order to understand the complexity of the culture.

Lee Irwin’s book on visions and dreams in Plains’ cultures addresses both the specific traditions of the Plains Indians, and the more general tendencies in the indigenous worldview. He writes:

The Native American dreaming episteme refers neither to the problem of dream origins nor to how dreams are “constructed” but to the macro-level of analysis: specifically, how visionary dreams motivate significant behaviour, shape belief, thought and other types of cognitive processing, and influence communally patterned experience and interpretations. (Irwin 18)

The key concepts here are motivate, shape, influence. Dreams are directive rather than reflective; they speak to the future, not the past. They are not “simply” dreams, they are significant events:

Most cases show that in spite of regarding the experiences of the dream as real, primitives do distinguish between dreams and the perceptions of waking experience, yet often the dream experience is regarded as having a greater reality value than an actual experience. (Lincoln 28)

Jackson Steward Lincoln’s 1935 study on “primitive cultures” is an interesting source in this area, as he was clearly deeply influenced by Freud, and while collecting a detailed catalogue of dreams from different groups, he used a kind of Freudian measuring stick when interpreting the cultures he wrote about. So, as thorough and insightful as he was, he tended to equate without distinction mechanisms such as a Freudian understanding of dreams as representing wish fulfillment and indigenous understandings of dreams as conveying the wishes of the soul (Lincoln 37 – 38). While there are fascinating similarities, a closer look at examples from the Iroquois and Plains Indians will help us recognize some significant distinctions.

Great visionaries such as Black Elk and Lame Deer and others have helped make the vision-questing tradition amongst the tribes of the Plains a resonating image of First Nations spiritual practice.

Among many tribes it was the common belief that visions had to be earned through fasting and suffering. Hence, for the Sioux…a vision quest, is a “crying” or “lamenting” for a dream. There is often the feeling that, compared to the reality of a dream, the White Man’s reality is a mere figment of the imagination, maybe a nightmare. (Erdoes 24)

Here we see the tendency for overlap and interchangeability in language and ideas about dreaming and visions, and indeed while the great vision pursued in the vision quest is clearly a distinct thing, nonetheless, these kinds of insights and power moments are also understood to happen in exceptional night dreams.

In the Native American context, dreaming is a form of knowledge. It reveals the activities of the mysterious powers – their engagement with or relationship to the dream. The dream is a medium of knowing, a way of experiencing the reality of the lived world, a faculty of perception. (Irwin 19)

Clearly, the dream can see deeper and further than waking life. As Irwin points out “among traditional Plains people, dreaming is given a strong ontological priority and is regarded as a primary source of knowledge and power.” (19) The source of this knowledge and power is not, in this case, the unconscious, or the dreams that express wishes of the soul. “The primary visionary experience is a direct encounter with the dream-spirits, who give the dreamer instructions meant to enhance his or her knowledge, ability and success.” (Irwin 139) Another remarkable distinction from Western society is that dreams are given not only to an individual, but to an entire community. Dreams teach or show an individual’s role in the community, but they can also predict events or future situations that the community will face collectively.

The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (meaning “people of the Longhouse”), are a people with a highly elaborate and complex dreaming culture. Being of the Eastern seaboard, they were among the first to have early contact with explorers and missionaries, and have had enormous amounts written about them, both at the time of contact and in the centuries since. Many of the original observations come from the Jesuits, specifically from their publication, the Jesuit Relations, with its observations recorded by missionaries working in what would become the Northeastern United States.

Over the course of nearly two centuries of missionary work, the Jesuits had dealings with almost every Indian nation of the Northeast, but in the 1600’s they directed most of their evangelizing efforts toward a handful of groups: …Montagnais and Algonquian speakers; and the Huron and Iroquois, both Iroquoian peoples. (Greer 7)

The literature refers to various groups within the larger category of Iroquois people including the Huron, as well as the original league of Five Nations including the Seneca, the Onondoga, the Oneida, the Cayuga, the Mohawk – an overlap in naming that can be confusing. In their encounters with these nations the Jesuits discovered a world where dreams had a remarkable importance and a central place in the culture. In the words of Jean de Brebeuf in 1636:

The dream is the oracle that all these poor peoples consult and listen to, the prophet which predicts future events, the Cassandra which warns of misfortunes threatening them, the physician who treats them in their sicknesses, the Aesculapieas and Galen of the whole country; it is their most absolute master. (as quoted in Greer 48)

The meaning of the dream as “master” is further conveyed by Brebeuf in the following observation:

They have a faith in dreams which surpasses all belief… They look upon their dreams as ordinances and irrevocable decrees; to delay the execution of them would be a crime. An Indian of our village dreamed this winter, shortly after he had fallen asleep, that he ought straightaway to make a feast. Though it was the middle of the night, he immediately arose and came and woke us to borrow one of our kettles. (as quoted in Greer 47)

Recorded in these observations is one kind of dream, where the dreamer recognizes immediately that what he has seen is what he must do – a wish of the soul, clearly, though one that is not a repressed childhood wish, but one that must be respected and carried out. But the Iroquois recognized several types of dreams.

Another kind of dream that the Jesuits made note of, was a dream of the future, but one in which it was necessary to guard against what had been seen in the night – danger, war, sickness, were often dreamt and then had to be guarded against through action. What action should be taken was often a community decision:

The ancient Seneca cultural practice of treating dreams as warnings of disaster that will certainly occur – unless the dreamer tells others of the dream and together they take action, doing whatever the dream has implied will avert the threatened evil. (Kroker 60)

This kind of dream, again requiring action, is one that needs to be actualized, but in a way that allows the dreamer safety – if the dreamer is attacked in the dream, a mock attack is performed in order to satisfy the dream while protecting the dreamer from actual danger.

However, while many dream images were interpreted literally and required some kind of acting out based on either the need to fulfill a wish or avert a disaster, there was also a sense of the symbolic language of dreams and the hidden or latent nature of the meaning of many dreams that might even require the insights of a clairvoyant to unravel and interpret.

Intuitively, the Iroquois had achieved a great degree of psychological sophistication, they recognized conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. They knew the great force of unconscious desires, and were aware that the frustration of these desires could cause mental and physical (‘psychosomatic’) illness. They understood that these desires were expressed in symbolic form by dreams, but that the individual could not always properly interpret these dreams himself. (Wallace 237)

As we have seen from Irwin and others, the indigenous notion of an “unconscious” may not be quite the same conception as the Freudian idea, however there are many interesting overlaps. Nonetheless,

The Iroquois theory differed from Freudian theory in regard to substantive interpretation: the Iroquois did not use the incest (Oedipus) formulation, did not give a central role to the concept of intrapsychic conflict, and did not reduce content regularly to sexual symbols. The Freudian theory of course did not use the concept of a detachable soul nor did it admit the presence of supernatural beings. (Wallace 248)

Dreams may come from the insights of the soul of the person, wandering while they sleep, or dreams may come directly from spirits, from “powerful supernatural beings who spoke personally to the dreamer, giving him a message of importance for himself and often also for the whole community”. (Wallace 245) Rather than revealing conflicted neurotic wishes from the past, the Haudenosaunee saw wishes for the near future. Where Freud understood wishes as something originating in the past and pushed into the unconscious, which was then gratified in the dream, the Haudenosaunee understand the dream as communicating a wish in the present that needs to be fulfilled. Where Freud may have emphasized symbolism, the Haudenosaunee have emphasized the need to answer the call of the wish and the need to fulfill it, the need for action.

While the Iroquois understood the repression of basic impulses was unhealthy and believed that dreams could reveal those wishes that might not be socially acceptable, they had many mechanisms for the relief and even fulfillment of these wishes of the soul. The Midwinter Festival included a wide range of rituals including a dream-guessing game where everyone would go from house to house and give cryptic clues to what they had dreamt.

The annual festival at Midwinter not merely permitted but required the guessing and fulfillment of the dreams of the whole community. There were probably several dozen special feasts, dances, or rites which might be called for at any time during the year by a sick dreamer. (Wallace 245)

Perhaps most striking in this elaborately developed dreaming culture, is the social aspect of the dream. As Wallace observes:

The community rallies around the dreamer with gifts and ritual. The dreamer is fed; he is danced over; he is rubbed with ashes; he is sung to; he is given valuable presents; he is accepted as a member of a medicine society. (Wallace 247)

Although we have been looking at anthropological observations from long ago, these cultural impulses, if always evolving, are still influential:

This faith in dreams is still alive, although somewhat diminished in strength, in the 20th century…over the course of nearly 300 years and probably longer, the Seneca – like the other Iroquois – have let dreams direct their lives. (Wallace 236)

How these beliefs continue to manifest and be reflected in their culture and films will be seen in Chapter 6.

Chapter 3 – Some Thoughts on Narrative