Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Other Than the Interpretation of Dreams: The Dane-Zaa Indians and the Vision Quest

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Other Than the Interpretation of Dreams: The Dane-Zaa Indians and the Vision Quest

Article excerpt

Abstract / Résumé

The Dane-zaa vision quest, as viewed through the legend of Swan, who originally "set the world right," and vision quest narratives, demonstrates a uniquely Dane-zaa concept of dreams. Specifically, the Dane-zaa example suggests two important points: First, that Indigenous dreaming practices must necessarily be analyzed according to locally generated values and beliefs; secondly, that the human ability to dream-as well as acquire visions-may be "controlled" by the individual for the sake of obtaining vital knowledge about one's environment.

La recherche de la vision des Dane-zaa, telle que comprise dans Ia légende du Cygne qui a originellement « redressé le monde », et les récits de recherche de la vision, démontre le concept unique des rêves chez les Dane-zaa. En particulier, leur exemple souligne deux éléments importants : premièrement, les pratiques de rêve des Autochtones doivent être analysées en fonction des valeurs et des croyances locales; deuxièmement, la capacité de rêver et d'avoir des visions peut être « contrôlée » par la personne afin d'obtenir des connaissances vitales sur son propre environnement.

"We all dream," Lee Irwin proclaims at the beginning of The Dream seekers.1 But why do we dream? Although dreaming may be an activity in which we all share as human beings, its purpose is not as apparent as our other natural tendencies, such as sex, eating, fighting, socializing, and so on. Whereas other natural behaviors can be explained in terms of our survival capacities as a species, dreaming at first glance seems more like a luxury. Dreaming is something that we do when we have the time to sleep in or while away an afternoon. In other words, dreaming is like playing, something to be done when the demands of "real" life allow for it. Although dreaming may be a spontaneous act of the "unconscious," deliberately talking about our dreams and analyzing them for meaning, let alone turning to our dreams for guidance or therapy, is a whole different matter. Most of us are not bourgeois Viennese women, like the infamous "Dora" who went to see Sigmund Freud. We may think that we have more "practical" things to do with our time. Yet, if thinking about dreams is merely a pastime, then why have so many different cultures taken their dreams so seriously, not just in so-called "prehistoric" times but even today? More important, what is there to gain from intentionally seeking out intense dream experiences at the possible expense of one's safety and health, such as occurs during a vision quest? The answer to these questions, however grounded they may be in any fully developed culture-such as the one we will turn to below-are going to run against generations of dream critiques.

Western intellectuals for the most part have treated dreams disparagingly as superficial, meaningless, and even spurious functions of the mind. "People in Western culture," moreover, as Robin Ridington states in Trail to Heaven, "assume that we can know and experience events only after they have begun to take place in a physical world accessible to our senses."2 Consequently, Aristotle, for example, in his short work titled De Somniis, thought that dreams were the consequences of leftover stimuli from our waking life, which the mind randomly assembles while we sleep into episodes that seem relevant to our lives only because they were created out of the residue of familiar things.3 René Descartes, of course, dismissed dreams altogether as being even more unreliable than the senses. In "Part Four" of The Discourse on Method, Descartes recounts excitedly the results of his technique of radical doubt. Upon recognizing that all men regularly make mistakes in their line of reasoning-to which Descartes realized he is no less prone-Descartes also recognized that the senses in general are much more susceptible to making errors in judgment. "Lastly," Descartes concluded, "considering that the very thoughts we have while awake may also occur while we sleep without any of them being at that time true, I resolved to pretend that all the things that have ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. …

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