American Indian Vision Quest

By Maurizio G. Smith 
[From a talk delivered at Theosophical Library Center, Altadena, California, on April 18, 1986.]

Opening Prayer:

If you would walk the paths of the American Indian — be prepared. Walk softly, O My Sisters, O My Brothers.
Tread lightly, break not the stillness of the dawn, for in this stillness one can hear the whispers of the Great Spirit.
Choose your path and walk forward, turn not back. And, when the stone appears the obstacle, turn each stone one by one. Do not try to move the mountain, but turn each stone that makes the mountain.
And when the desert sands sear your moccasins, curse not in despair lest the South Wind hear and construe and bring wrath upon your head. And when the path bristles with thorns, turn not from the path, for the strife of life are the thorns. Tread softly. Speak softly. For on this path you will need the wisdom of chieftains. The admonishments of your Chiefs can become your strength.
And when the cold winds buffet you, bend with the wind. And, soon, you will walk unattended.
On the path you may meet an old one, who will stop for you as you will stop for him. Age meets youth, and youth meets age. Remember the little ones along the way. Take time to walk with others along the path, especially those who have pointed your way to higher trails — your Mother and your Father. 
Walk softly so that you will hear the sounds. When you meet and hear the cries of the oppressed, the sick, the little ones, and those who seek you — be not ashamed that your tear mingles with theirs.

For in this walking there is an awakening. Think twice before you walk the trail of the Red Man. Then walk softly, O My Sisters, O My Brothers. — RED DAWN ["Walk Softly, O My Sisters, O My Brothers," reprinted with permission.]

A central practice of the North American Indian is the Vision Quest: the inward journey toward the perception of our innermost self within the "Harmony of the Four Balances" [Hyemeyohsts Storm, Seven Arrows, p. 27]. This journey often begins in childhood and the search for the vision continues throughout life.

In Voices of Earth and Sky Vinson Brown described the rite of passage, saying that among the Plains tribes and also in most of the Plateau and Eastern forest tribes, practically every young man and many a young woman was sent to seek a vision. In effect their whole childhood was programmed to fill them with a desire to seek and receive visions, spirit power, and an understanding of the sacrifice and ordeal involved. Most of them expected to see in vision one or more guardian spirits, usually in the form of an animal, a bird, or as a natural force like thunder and lightning. This guardian spirit is a reflection of the Great Spirit in each seeker, and will remain with him all his life to help and protect him, especially if he keep his heart purified.

The American Indians hold sacred the virtues of truthfulness, courage, generosity, and reverence for life. They practice direct communication with the Great Spirit, whom they call Wakan Tanka, through seven sacred ceremonies. As told by Black Elk to Joseph Epes Brown, these include:

"The Keeping of the Soul" — a ceremony or rite of purifying the soul of the dead.

"The Rite of Purification" — performed to enable the seeker better to do the will of Wakan Tanka.

"Crying for a Vision" or the Vision Quest.

"The Sun Dance" — held during the full moon of June or July, a ceremony performed in order to allow the seeker to come closer to Wakan Tanka.

"The Making of Relatives" — performed to establish relationships between Wakan Tanka, the earth, other human beings, and so on.

"Preparing a Girl for Womanhood."

"The Throwing of the Ball" — the ball representing Wakan Tanka. The game symbolizes the course of a man's life, which should be spent trying to catch the ball [cf. The Sacred Pipe (1935)].

The Vision Quest helps the seeker to realize his oneness with all life and that all creation is his own relative. It helps him to pray to the Great Spirit for further knowledge of the One who is the source of all things yet vastly greater. According to Black Elk,

Every man can cry for a vision, or "lament"; and in the old days we all — men and women — "lamented" all the time. What is received through the "lamenting" is determined in part by the character of the person who does this, for it is only those people who are very qualified who receive the great visions, . . . — Op. cit., p. 44

Possibly one reason some did not receive a vision is that their "cry" was selfish? Only those who are of exemplary character and well prepared receive the truly great visions. They are those who devote themselves to the service of the tribe and others. Essentially they have forgotten their own needs and dedicate themselves to the Great Spirit.

The great Sioux Chief, Crazy Horse, received most of his power through the lamenting ritual which he performed several times a year, including during the winter. Others who are also known to have sought visions were Black Elk, Ice of the Cheyennes, Plenty Coups of the Crow, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Whirlwind Chaser and Elk Head of the Sioux.

The Vision Quest provides one with helpers from the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water; from the birds, and from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The four directions and their helper qualities are:

Directions
North
South
East
West
Animal
Buffalo
Mouse
Eagle
Bear
Color
White
Green
Yellow/ Gold
Black
Qualities
Intellect and Wisdom
Innocence and Compassion
Illumination
Introspection

Advance preparations include fasting, minor physical sacrifices, purification in the sweat lodge, and any other deemed necessary by one's guide.

Visions were sought on lonely mountaintops. The higher the place, the closer it is to the Great Spirit. It is away from crowded places so as to make the seeker self-dependent, and in an area with ever-present risks: danger of falling, contact with animals or birds, etc. — the more rugged and mysterious the countryside the better. Women go to a hill or valley because such are considered protected places. Men go up to the mountains.

Immediately prior to reaching the selected location, the seeker sometimes (it is not a rule) is again bathed. This includes sweat baths, smudging with sage or pine needles, and other practices the guide may suggest. Then, the seeker must paint his or her body with white clay, bring a buffalo robe, pipe, and moccasins, and wear a breechcloth.

At the spot of seeking, a bed of flat rocks is built, covered with pine branches, sage, or cedar — materials which have sacred qualities according to Indian tradition. Vision seeking continues from one to five days, four days being the ideal, during which neither food nor water is taken. The Sioux often set up a center post to which offerings are tied, and four other posts in the form of a cross with cloth flags tied to them. Between them the seeker walks ceremonially at a very slow pace so that a round would take an hour or more to complete. There are accounts of seekers remaining dry in the circle during rain storms.

In brief, the individual cleanses himself or herself in mind and body in order to be a fit vessel through which the Great Spirit might work. One's earthliness is removed by purification so that it does not in any way impede the Great Spirit.

The Beings who come to befriend a man or woman on the Vision Quest vary. It used to be buffalo, elk; now, possibly bears, eagles, dogs, rabbits, mosquitoes, and mice. Spirits are also possible as guides.

One example of a Vision Quest is the experience of Plenty Coups of the Crows [Adapted from Thomas E. Mails, The Mystic Warriors of the Plains (1972)]. He received guidance from a certain "Dwarf-Chief" who told him that he could give the boy nothing, as he possessed the power to become great if he would but use it. He was to cultivate his senses and use the powers he had already been given. He would then go far. The differences among men, he was told, grow out of the use or nonuse of what is given them by the Great Spirit when they are born.

All men have a natural power within them to cope with life's demands. Plenty Coups had a will, and he must learn to make it work for him. He should sharpen his senses as he sharpened a hunting knife: a wolf smells things better than an Indian boy because he has learned to depend on his nose to tell him every secret the winds carry. Therefore Plenty Coups would be given nothing, not even the usual medicine bundle, because he already possessed everything needed to become great.

In going over all this afterwards, the Indian boy saw and understood that whatever he accomplished would be obtained through self-development under the guidance of the Great Spirit. He had a strong will and would be successful if he used it wisely. In the words of Mails:

In a second vision Plenty Coups was made aware of the tiny chickadee who was least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. This little speck of a bird was willing to work to gain wisdom, and he was an exceptional listener. Nothing escaped his ears which "he had sharpened by constant use." After that, Plenty Coups' helper was the chickadee. — p. 133

Once it was received, the Indian always carried a token of his vision with him and it was painted in symbolic fashion on his shield cover, clothing, and tipi. But the most effective concentration of power came with the medicine bundle.

- - - - 

In preparing this talk I sought the counsel of Chief Black Brave Eagle of North Dakota, Medicine Chief Roaming Deer of Texas, Chief White Buffalo of North Carolina, and Chief Young Eagle of Eureka, California. All of them agree that crying for a vision in the true sense of the word is seeking the highest in man: the highest level of his physical nature; the highest level of his feeling nature; the highest level of his mind nature; and the highest level of his spiritual nature. These are the four balances, the four directions within each man and woman, the four levels of being and unfolding.

The ideal Vision Quest is one where the seeker is naked (everyone is born naked), puts himself or herself on the mountain without any external guide — only his or her own inner guide; fasts during the four-day quest, and communes with the Great Spirit in silence. (Today's modern version, they say, finds seekers singing, drumming, and making all other sounds they want.) He or she circumambulates the vision grounds slowly and silently four times during each day: twice at sunrise, and twice at sundown. When the four days are over, the seeker leaves the now sacred vision grounds, silently goes home, continues to practice solitude for the next three days, and gradually returns to the normal routine of his or her life.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)