Vision Quests – An Integral Part of Native American Culture

Vision quests are an integral part of Native American culture. Boys that are in their early teens usually do vision quests. Girls are not allowed to go on a Vision Quest. First they go to the medicine man and tell him that he is ready to go

on his quest. Then, the medicine man and the boy go into the village sweat lodge so that the boy can purify his soul in order to meet his spirit animal. Next, the boy goes into a sacred place that has a circle of rocks about ten feet wide, in which he sits in the middle of. The boy will spend the next two to four days becoming one with nature. After awhile the boy will have a vision in which he will meet his spirit animal. This signals the end of the vision quest and the boy is free to return to his tribe.

The vision quest is an important time in the young boys life because it helps to give him a sense of who he is and to tell him his purpose in life. The boy would not know what his role in the tribe; much less his life would be if he were to have an unsuccessful vision quest. Not everyone gets a vision quest the first time that they go for a vision. Some people can take two to three times before they get their first vision. But once you do have a successful quest, you have your strength for life. For a male youth, the quest is a rite of passage that is the most important event in their life. Even their weddings do not come close to the level of importance as that of the vision quest. Without the vision quest, the boy might not ever meet his spirit guide. If that happens, the boy never fully reaches manhood and cannot participate in any tribal activities such as raids or scouting parties. It’s really quite sad because the only tasks that he is allowed to partake in are “woman’s duties”. Who wants to skin animals or beat a hide when you could be in a hunting party killing game with your friends? I know I would not to be the guy that was thought of as more of a woman than a man.

Vision quests have endured to this day because they provide a link to the past for Native Americans. I think that in today’s times, everyone is moving in such a hurried pace that there is no time to settle down. This provides a way for Native American youth to slow down and be able to have a link with their ancestors. I am not sure exactly what might happen if they were not able to connect with their families but I am also fairly certain that I will not have to ponder over this question because they are able to connect with their ancestors and have a sense of self. Native American children know that when they go on a vision quest they are participating in a centuries old tradition. Who knows… these boys could be standing in the exact same spot that their great-great-great grandfather stood in when he meet his animal spirit and now here they are in that same spot, meeting that same animal spirit that is now supposed to guide them throughout their life. Although, not every vision quest has to be solitary. There is a group vision quest that is very famous in today’s time, but you do not hear it called a vision quest. Instead, you hear it called the Sun Dance. This is where many clans from a specific tribe will gather and play the games and do the dances of their long ago ancestors. I think this is why the vision quest has endured to this time. Because these extraordinary people had the strength and integrity to keep this tradition alive, even in the face of such adversity. Native Americans have had to endure many hardships such as boarding schools and extermination, yet they still managed to hold on to their culture and keep it alive.

The details for vision quests will differ from tribe to tribe. The Kiowa tribe will send their seeker out to a high place in the Wichita Mountains where they will lay on a bed made of sage, and lie under a buffalo robe and lay on top of a shield. Also, “a typical task was to collect physical objects such as distinctive stones (especially quartz or other crystals), oddly perforated bones, feathers, animal hair and other objects considered to be imbued with supernatural power in order to create a “medicine bundle” (2). Another tribe to have an unusual vision quest was the Papago tribe in Arizona. These seekers would run for a week on a pilgrimage for salt along the coast of the Gulf of California. Once they arrived at the salt deposits, these people would then run again for a distance of ten miles to and from a headland. They were hoping that while on the run, they would receive the vision that they were hoping for. This run was said to be so hard that some of the runners would actually pass away from the sheer exhaustion of it all.

Vision quests will also vary in description from place to place. Some sites are located in caves and rock shelters. They were in hard to find places around water sources such as springs, streams, lakes, and waterfalls. They were in very dry climates like deserts. Sometimes you would have picturesque views from hilltops, mesas, and mountain ridges. They had uniquely formed and colored rock formations. Some of the rock formations even had amazing acoustic abilities and one was able to hear brilliant echoes. These are in very remote locations and are very hard to find because only only one person, the seeker, usually traveled them. Because of this, no real evidence of these sites survives today. You have to really know what you are looking for or who knows, you could walk right by it and not even know its there.

The neat thing about the vision is that the animal speaker would sometimes give the seeker a special song or dance so that if the seeker might ever need him then all he would have to do is repeat the dance or song and the spirit guide would come. Songs also differed from tribe to tribe. The Wenatchi tribe in British Columbia had very distinctive songs that were different from other tribes. The Upper Skagit tribe tended to have songs that were pretty much indistinguishable from one another.

Vision quests are going on even today when we least notice it and it is not always Native Americans that can have the visions. You can be in driving in your car or lounging around at your house. Sometimes you do not even know you are having a vision. It is called an in between state. This is a state that is in between (get it?) wakefulness and sleep. In this state, you are more acquiescent to the varying states of consciousness. This is sort of what the ancient Native American tribes went through when they went on their quest, but they usually hade a little help from psychotropic drugs just to give them a sort of helping hand. Small tribes from California would drink a jimson weed concoction while some tribes along the Missouri River would consume mescal. All in all, I think it made for a great vision, but back to modern times. Have you ever experienced a sense of Déjà vu? This could be easily explained. You had a vision and now it is coming true. The Native Americans call it wild nature. We enter it every night when we fall asleep and dream. And everybody will go through the biggest vision quest of all when we pass away because that is all death is for Native Americans. It is simply a passing from plane of consciousness into another. Would that not be the wildest ride ever? I think so.

Vision Quests can be compared to that of the hero journey if you think about the archetype of the vision quest. Think about it. You have the boy (the hero), he goes on the vision quest (the journey), he does not eat or sleep (the hardships), he finds his vision (the outcome), and he is a man (the reward). It is a rite of passage that you can still see in today’s times even. In today’s standards, you are a man when you hit certain milestones. When you turn sixteen and get your license; when you turn eighteen and you can vote; when you turn twenty-one and you can drink. We have many rituals for our young people when they hit certain ages and so do the Native Americans. The ritual for Native Americans is to do a vision quest. Some will do this a few times and there are many reasons for them to do the quests. They do vision quests because maybe they did not get a vision. Or maybe they had a dream and need to do a vision quest to interpret the dream. They also do vision quests as a way to pay homage to the Gods. When they get to the site, the seeker will approach first with a pipe. Then the seeker will get into the circle, stand in the center, face west, and pray. After that he stands by the pole that is facing west where he prays with the pipe in his hands. Finally, he will return to the center pole. The seeker will repeat this process facing in each of the remaining directions. They do this to show reverence and fear. If the Gods are not paid the respect that they are due, then the crops will not grow. There would be a shortage of animals to hunt and the tribe’s people would starve. It is the same reason that we go to church today. To worship our god and show our love and respect. Also, if you think about it, you can compare vision quests with other cultures. Let’s compare them with pagan seers. The seer would wrap himself (notice I said himself and not herself) in animal skins and go to an exotic location (maybe with a waterfall?) to get a dream or vision. “Even Buddha, Christ, and the Prophet Mohammad all reportedly retreated alone into nature in order to achieve their definitive spiritual orientation”.

Vision quests are mainly a Native American tradition. Boys take it usually in their early teens. The go off to an isolated and remote piece of land. Once there they will spend two to four days completely alone and cut off from everybody in the tribe. They will have no food or water. They will smoke tobacco and wait for the vision to come to them so that they can pass into manhood. They were and still are an integral part of the culture and are practiced by people today that are not of Native American descent.

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