Vision Quest

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VISION QUEST . The personal vision is a fundamental feature of American Indian cultures across the continent and across all linguistic boundaries. While there are always people who have visions of a quality that sets them apart from others, people in all American Indian communities treasure their own visions and respect those of others. Whether wake-state or sleep-state, the vision in American Indian cultural contexts is always a communication between a human person and one or more nonhuman spirit persons.

While these vision experiences sometimes occur spontaneously, they occur most frequently in the context of intentional seeking done in a carefully arranged ceremonial manner in what is called in English the vision quest or rite of vigil. The details are always dependent on the particular purpose for the quest and the particularities of community custom. The general structures, however, tend to be similar across the continent. Adolescents might undertake the rite of vigil for one or two days and nights; adults might extend the ritual, which includes fasting, from four to seven days, and occasionally even longer. These occasions typically were, and are yet today, life-altering experiences for Native women and men. Fletcher and La Flesche report that a young man's vision became his personal connection with the "vast universe" of the immaterial spirit world, "by which he could strengthen his spirit and his physical powers" (p. 131).

The vision quest is a common American Indian ceremonial tradition that is or was practiced in nearly every tribal community. Indeed, Ruth Benedict, an early ethnographer, could claim that the vision was the single unifying factor in all North American Indian religious experience. While the ceremony varied from community to community and according to the particularity of the occasion, Benedict is essentially correct in claiming that it was, and is, structurally and functionally similar across all these communities, even as she distinguishes characteristics unique to the Plains. In every case, these were intense occasions of personal retreat from human community, of intentional self-deprivation, and of prayer.

A number of consistent factors tie these phenomena together. In almost every case the faster is separated from the human community and isolated in places remote from the civic center of the village. Lakota peoples sometimes refer to it as "going on the hill." A total abstinence from food and water is fundamental to the ceremonial exercise. The ceremony is one of constant prayer. The duration of the ceremonyusually dependent on the prior commitment of the fastervaries from one day and night (for an adolescent) up to four to seven days and sometimes longer (for an adult).

Finally, the American Indian vision phenomenon is always predicated on an understanding of the world as peopled by both material and immaterial beings, with the visionary moment as that which allows a human person to communicate with, and especially to receive communication from, immaterial spirit beings. Thus, the occasion always includes the possibility of receiving some sort of personal power as a gift from a spirit.

Much of the literature concerning the vision quest is somewhat unsatisfactory, either because of its great superficiality or because it attempts to impose colonial structures of meaning on indigenous phenomena. For instance, the majority of professional literature on the vision quest presumes the accuracy of nineteenth-century ethnographic collections of vision recitations as if the whole of the recitation is accurately represented in the brief paragraph typically recorded by the ethnographer; and as if the typically language-deficient ethnographer has also accurately translated the native language in which the vision would have been recited.

These anthropological renditions are typically rather short and cannot have been the whole of the vision experienced by the informant. In fact, it is a universal Native American characteristic that the vision, as an intensely personal experience, is never shared fully but is kept throughout life as a private revelation. Thus, the ethnographer was almost always not privy to the whole of the vision encounter. Moreover, few ethnographers, most of whom were Native Americans themselves, were fluent in the languages of those they presumed to study, meaning that almost all translations relied on others whose English may have been only nominally better than the ethnographer's understanding of the native language. The most egregious example of this is John Neihard's poetic and romanticized interpretation of Lakota elder Nicholas Black Elk's words in Black Elk Speaks. The work is based on Neihard's daughter's stenographic notes of Ben Black Elk's relatively naive boarding-school English translation of his father Nicholas's sophisticated and abstract Lakota spoken narrative, a sophistication that is inexorably stripped away on its path toward the English printed version.

Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the professional literature is its proclivity, from the late nineteenth century to the present, to treat all Native American cultural phenomena, including the vision quest, as historical artifacts that have no place in contemporary American Indian societies. The more recent academic treatments almost universally base their interpretations on these older nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ethnographic texts, treating them as if they actually represented a "textus receptus," an absolutely authoritative text, with regard to Native religious traditions.

While many early ethnographers included interpretive commentaries about visions and the vision quest, there is only one important recent interpretation, in Lee Irwin's The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Unfortunately Irwin's book, for all of its innovative insight, falls into the pattern just described. It is not an analysis of new data but merely rehashes the old ethnographies, presupposing their authority and veracity, but this time using modern psychiatric and neurological investigations of human dreaming as an interpretive device for understanding the vision as a sleep-state experience. This leads Irwin to place the Plains visionary experience under the more general category of dreaming. It should be clearly emphasized here that the vision as experienced in American Indian communities is not invariably, nor even usually, a sleep-state phenomenon, but is often experienced while one is awake.

It is a common theme in the professional literature to see the vision quest as definitive evidence of the radical individualism of Plains Native people. Nothing could be further from reality; in fact just the opposite is true. There is always a symbiotic relationship between the person engaging in the fast and the community to which she or he belongs, even though the ceremony involves the deeply personal sacrifice of rigorous fasting and prayer over several days. The vision itself certainly is a deeply personal experience, and the learning that comes from the experience affects the life of that one person directly. The effort expended in such serious fasting (total abstinence from food and liquid) is obviously a personal commitment and a personal trial. Moreover, the adult faster may have decided on the undertaking either by personal direction from the spirit world or because of some personal crisis. Or the person may have made an entirely voluntary choice to engage in the ceremony as a distinct personal moment to engage in prayer and to seek some spiritual communication that might provide that person's life with meaning, direction, and even personal spiritual power. Yet in each case the person undertaking the ceremony understands the benefits that also accrue to the communal whole. Whatever personal power the faster may gain is ultimately intended to serve the interests of the community.

One quintessential sign of the communal nature of the vision quest is the common practice in Lakota and other communities for the people to greet the faster with a handshake and a thank-you for the faster's accomplishment as she or he completes the ceremony. In a typical vision quest, moreover, the community or some part of the community participates in preparing the person to engage in the ceremony. There may be teachings that need to be shared and even preliminary ceremonies that have to be performed. Then through the duration of the fast the community will constantly be conscious of and in prayer for the one who is actually performing the ceremony in isolation.

A short word must be added with respect to the great appeal of this particular ceremony to non-Native adherents of New Age movements and practices. The vision quest is traditionally a ceremonial act performed by a single person in isolation, but always as a part of a particular community and acting for the good of the whole. Given that personal power and assistance is sought from the Mysteries for the ultimate benefit of the whole community, when a non-Native New York City resident flies off to South Dakota, for instance, to perform the rite of vigil on a Lakota reservation under the guidance of a Lakota spiritual leader, one must wonder what close community of political and spiritual existence has made such rigorous claims on this person's spiritual strength and why he or she has chosen to make the rite so far away from his or her community of residence. From a Native American perspective, this particular performance of the rite has little or no meaning, and thus it must be invested with an entirely new and non-Native meaning. Thus, while non-Native rites that are modeled after American Indian vision quests may provide a response to various spiritual urges and needs, and may correlate well with a Euro-American sense of individualism, ritual practices of that sort bear faint resemblance to the vision quests undertaken in Native communities.

On the other hand, the vision quest, with its resultant access to vision experiences, was and is an egalitarian and democratic phenomenon in American Indian communities. That is, against Albers and Parker (1971), it is a rite that is available to every member of a Native tribal community and was never reserved only for an elite few, such as medicine people or other spiritual leaders, even though certain kinds of medicine power do seem to run in families for a variety of reasons. Indeed, in many tribal communities it was common practice to require every adolescent male to make this rite of vigil as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Georges Sioui, among others, correctly notes that the vision quest might be required of males but was always equally available to females, for whom the exercise would not be mandatory simply because of the privileged status of women in most Native tribal communities.

Historically then, all males in many Native American communities would have made a vision quest as a rite of passage before entering into adult responsibilities and possibly community leadership of any kind. Recognized spiritual leaders, on the other hand, would all have engaged in at least one vigil of some length during which they would have received a vision that communicated their specific medicine power, a situation that continues in the present. Moreover, they would usually engage in repeated exercises of the vigil (today this is sometimes done annually), even if for much shorter durations. While this may also be true of other community members who do not receive such medicine visions, the substantial difference in the visioning of these recognized healers is their more open line of communication with those spirit beings who have selected them as interpreters. Thus, the annual vigil might be an occasion for some new spirit being to introduce itself to the healer and offer a different sort of spiritual power not previously accessible to that healer. This increases the healer's personal repertoire of power to help the community.

At the same time, there is no sense of class stratification embedded in the vision experience, as some contemporary interpreters with a Marxist orientation would suggest. Healers would have been supported historically by the rest of a community because of their inherent practical usefulness to the community, and community gifts served to free them from the pressures of subsistence hunting and the like. Becoming a political leader was not predicated on access to vision power. On the other hand, leadership in Native American communities was spread in such diffuse ways through the community that different sorts of leadership were exercised by a variety of people at any given time. And it needs to be said clearly that questing for a vision was a very egalitarian phenomenon, something that was available to every person.

This ceremony continues today in many American Indian communities and continues in forms that are consistent with the historical practice of the rite in these communities.


Albers, Patricia, and Seymour S. Parker. "The Plains Vision Experience: A Study of Power and Privilege." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 27, no. 3 (1971): 203233.

Benedict, Ruth. "The Vision in Plains Culture." American Anthropologist 24, no. 1 (1922): 123.

Benedict, Ruth. The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America. Menasha, Wis., 1923.

Fletcher, Alice, and Francis La Flesche. The Omaha Tribe (1911). Lincoln, Neb., 1992.

Harrod, Howard. Renewing the World: Plains Indian Religion and Morality. Tucson, Ariz., 1987.

Horse Capture, George, editor. The Seven Visions of Bull Lodge, as Told by His Daughter, Garter Snake. Gathered by Fred P. Gone. Lincoln, Neb., 1980.

Irwin, Lee. Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman, Okla., 1994.

Johnston, Basil H. Ojibway Ceremonies. Toronto, 1987. Written by a member of the Ojibwe tribe.

Sioui, Georges E. For an Amerindian Autohistory: An Essay on the Foundations of a Social Ethic. Translated by Sheila Fischman. Montreal, 1992. Written by a member of the Wendot tribe.

Tink Tinker (2005)