Living by the Dream: Native American Interpretation of Night's Visions

By Andrews, Terri J. | The World and I, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Living by the Dream: Native American Interpretation of Night's Visions


Andrews, Terri J., The World and I


To the Native American, dreams are their own form of reality: guidebooks for the living. Indians--of yesterday and today--hold that there are worlds that can be seen and worlds that cannot. The physical and spiritual are considered two aspects of the same presence. It is believed that the dream pulls both into the dimension of the dreamer's world, crossing the boundaries of past, present and future.

Belief in the dream as the pathway to the spirit world gives profound importance to the efficacy of sleep's visions and the power found within their messages. It is said that "all can be found within your dreams." Thus, sacred rituals--involving abstinence from food and drink--are traditionally undertaken to pull the dream and its meaning to the dreamer.

In this view, the dreamworld conveys answers to the myriad problems that face both the tribe and the individual. It is not unreasonable to suggest that dreams lie at the very foundation of tribal culture. Indeed, a dream can lay the path for an entire lifetime. For many Native Americans, spiritual experience and participation provide the groundwork for their sense of being.

This is demonstrable in our history. Thoughout the Plains, Native American men and women sought spiritual power through dreaming. Dreams were considered a way to connect with a higher power, the Great Spirit, creator of the universe. The dream allowed the dreamer to know a realm not traveled in the real world. Experiences of the higher power attained in sleep could lead to a greater spiritual openness when conscious.

Dreams were the most certain road to the Great One, a road that led to salvation. Several Indian communities put special emphasis on dreams as the channel to supernatural leaders in the "other realm." Attempting to connect with them, or with deceased loved ones, was common. The dreaming vessel (dreamer) who could travel to meet such greats was considered a holy person.

Reaching the spirit realm could lead to important knowledge. This came particularly in the form of prophecy. Throughout Native American history, prophecies have shaped the people's sense of their future. Dreams have warned villages of impending danger, told of death, and changed the course of tribal histories. One of the most famous prophecies tells of the coming of the white man.

Prophecies and dreams

It is said that many years ago, in Nova Scotia, a young Micmac woman dreamed of an island floating in from the sea. The next morning the village people found that, indeed, a giant, island-like vessel was coming in to shore. The villagers thought the island was full of bears in trees, but as it came closer, the people realized there were no bears in trees at all. Rather, it was a French sailing ship with crewmen in its masts.

Another famous prophecy is that of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse. He had a remarkable dream that foretold his death ten days before it happened. The stow recounts that Crazy Horse was walking on the prairie when he came upon a dead eagle. Deeply affected, he went back to his tepee and sat for many hours. He was noticeably upset. Finally, someone dared ask what was the matter.

Crazy Horse responded that he had just found his dead body on the prairie nearby. A few nights later he had a vision of riding a white pony on a plateau, surrounded by enemies armed with guns. He saw that he would be killed and his body left on the prairie, but that he would not die of bullet wounds. He would die by other means.

Several days later, Crazy Horse was surrounded by over twenty soldiers and was stabbed to death with a bayonet. A white pony was standing by, just outside the circle of soldiers.

Stories such as these, where the future had been accurately foretold in dreams and visions, are common in Native American histories. But some of the prophecies were not accurately acted upon. There are known instances of visions--retold by shamans or other tribespeople--whose meaning was misinterpreted. …

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