Indigenous Dreams: Prophetic Nature, Spirituality, and Survivance
By Alessandro Casale
The nature of dreams and dreaming have different interpretations cross-culturally. Analyzing the content of dreams and their symbolic meaning for individuals and their communities can help us understand greater cultural contexts. For instance, many Indigenous societies in North and South America have dream theories and interpretations that reveal a philosophical order about the nature of the universe. This concept is often different from other non-Indigenous societies, like Euro-American ones, which largely disregards dreaming as being unimportant to the reality of daily life. For some Indigenous individuals, dreams have a spiritual significance and often have a metaphorical, literal or prophetic meaning to the waking reality of human daily life. In this essay, I focus on the prophetic and spiritual significance of dream narratives to Indigenous communities in North and South America and explain how such dreams reveal epistemological orders.
Anthropological Research: Americas
Peluso (2004) discusses a community in the Peruvian Amazon called the Sonenekuiñaji and their unique dream theory. The Sonenekuiñaji are an Ese Eja group of about 90 people, who live in the tributary area of the Madre de Dios River in Peru and Bolivia and practice horticulture, hunting and fishing. The Sonenekuiñaji have a remarkable relationship to dreams that guide their daily life and gives them a sense multi-natural perspectivism, which they explain as eshawa; it implies a blurring of dreaming and waking realties and gives animals and all animate beings a dimension of personhood, which allows their human identity to permeate through different realities and gain knowledge through their dream narratives. (Peluso 2004, 109). For example, dreaming of certain animals are interpreted as omens, like dreaming of a white-lipped peccary is a sign of successful fishing and dreaming of exotic animals, like elephants, is a warning of oncoming sickness (Peluso 2004, 109). Since elephants are not native to South America, this has interesting implications about destructive contact from colonialism. The Ese Eja also dream of plants to cure sickness and where to find food. Their dream reality gives them a literal, metaphorical and prophetic source of information.
Peluso (2004) also highlights the way the Sonenekuiñaji dream the personal names of their children. Their belief that dreams foretell the names of children is called kiacojawi. This naming dream experience can happen to the mother or the father, and the dream usually follows a narrative in which the name of the child is revealed through an interaction with an animal. These narrative as having gendered differences for men and women (Peluso 2004, 110). Typically for men, the dream involves hunting or being chased by an animal, and moments before the animal is killed or the man is caught, the animal reveals itself to be an Ese Eja child. For a woman, a naming dream typically begins watching an animal. It eventually tries to breastfeed, and the woman struggles to get the animal off her until it reveals itself to be a child. For both cases, whatever kind of an animal reveals itself to be Ese Eja becomes the name of that child. Peluso (2004, 116) describes the significance of dream names as having an “ordinary signification in everyday life but have the potential of forming more powerful bonds in expanding cross-realities.” The dream names of Ese Eja are their “true names” and they signify the link between their social reality and the cosmos (Peluso 2004, 113).
The Chipewyan people, who are an Indigenous group of Athabaskan people inhabiting the subarctic regions of Northern Canada in the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, provide another example of the prophetic and spiritual significance of dreams (Smith 1998). The Chipewyan still practice traditional ways of living by hunting, fishing and trapping in the remote subarctic landscape. Their “bush sensibility,” the success of life for the Chipewyan requires maintaining harmony in their interrelationships, especially among human and “animal persons” is of a particular interest to some scholars (Smith 1998, 413). For the Chipewyan, similar to the Ese Eja’s concept of eshawa, animal persons are essentially a spiritual dimension of personhood that all animals have. This is a holistic belief; for them “just as dreams are not contrasted to waking life, the animal’s spiritual aspect is never separate from its material aspect” (Smith 1998, 413). The Chipewyan world view is monistic, where spiritual and physical reality exists as one. They believe that all beings “are inextricably engaged in a complex communicative interrelationship;” this intercommunicative relationship with animal persons helps them to obtain their practical knowledge of bush sensibility, referred to as inkonze, which comes to them in their dreams and guides them through their daily life (Smith 1998, 412).
Inkonze is a gift from animal persons shared with humans who have a respectful and harmonious relationship with nature (Smith 1998, 412). Only those who are active in the bush understand and experience inkonze, and even if all people share an inkonze connection, only a select few individuals who are gifted with powerful inkonze dreams. Those who have this shaman-like ability have epiphanic visions; they are visited by animal persons who teach them practical knowledge about survival in a dream. Sometimes these dreams have prophetic meanings that can benefit individuals and/or the community, like predicting the weather and knowing where herds of caribou are for hunting. Therefore, inkonze dreams reveal an epistemological order, and the Chipewyan refer to this ability as being “called to the roots” (Smith 1998, 421). A shared bush sensibility and a practical knowledge from inkonze emphasizes Chipewyan self-autonomy, while also strongly connecting them to nature and their culture.
Kracke (2006) describes shamanistic abilities through dreaming by focusing on the Indigenous Kagwahiv group called the Parintintin. The Parintintin live in the rainforest of the Madeira River area of the Western Amazon in Brazil; they have their own unique dream theory. Dreaming important to understanding their reality and is central to Parintintin epistemology. For the Parintintin, dreams can anticipate future events, detect evil spirits and enable shamans to communicate with healing spirits (Kracke 2006, 107). Not only shamans, but also “ordinary people can foresee future states through their dreams, if properly interpreted, shamans can act in their dreams to bring about events” (Kracke 2006, 108). Shamans, however, have a special ability to control their dreams. An example of this would be cursing someone to become sick or controlling the outcome in warfare. This special power is called ipaji. Yet, Kracke (2006) shows Kagwahiv shamans no longer exist because the last of them died decades ago and shamans are believed to be created in the dreams of older shamans. This suggests that there will never be another Kagwahiv shaman.
Kracke (2006) also describes how Kawahiv shamans were able to express their abilities because of their rupiguara, which is similar to a personal spiritual associate or alter ego to the shaman, who would carry out whatever tasks it was called upon for. A shaman’s rupiguara enabled healing ceremonies and fulfilled prophecies in dreams. These dream prophecies could be good or evil depending on the will of the shaman. Some believe that a shaman is the reincarnation of his own rupiguara (Kracke 2006, 108). This implies that all shamans are spiritually connected through the past. Although, this aspect of Kagwahiv dream theory is unique to their culture, there are some similarities between Kagahiv dream interpretation and that of the Ese Eja. For both Indigenous groups, the presence of certain animals and objects in dreams are interpreted as omens. For the Kagahiv, the presence of fire predicts a fever, the presence of a hammock predicts an encounter with a jaguar and a dream of an old broken-down house foreshadows someone’s death (Kracke 2006, 110). This prophetic interpretation of objects and animals as omens reflects a deep spiritual connection to the natural world.
Personal Encounters: Indigenous NH
To gain a local perspective on the spiritual significance of dreams in Indigenous cultures, I interviewed Denise and Paul Pouliot who are both members of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, and Kathleen Blake who is a spiritual leader and member of the Koasek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation. For context, the Abenaki are a First Nations people from the northeast region of North America, also called “The Dawn Land.” Their tribal nation is a part of the Wabanaki Confederacy and they are an Algonquian-speaking people. The Abenaki people’s population and culture were devastated by early European colonialism in North America. Their people still exists as a minority population in New England, southern Quebec and the southern maritime provinces of Canada. I had an opportunity to discuss with Denise, Paul and Kathleen the nature of dreaming. With their permission I recorded our interview and received direct quotes about what their individual relationship to dreams are and what they mean in their culture.
Denise told me that she looks at dreams as something very serious. She described to me how the interpretation of dreams is a very individualistic enterprise and that every dream she’s ever had in her life has always come true for better or worse. To this extent, she told me she prefers not to dream because the implications could be unpleasant. These dreams present a literal and symbolic meaning to her daily life. Denise told me she doesn’t ask to be shown these visions, but when they are presented to her, she would rather see the whole truth, even if she doesn’t understand the meaning. Sometimes, she is not ready to see the whole truth:
I usually don’t ask not to be shown something, I usually ask to be shown the whole truth. And that’s also a complicated thing. Some things we just literally can’t understand. And it’s not because we don’t want to understand, it’s just that we’re not in a position to understand at that time. We haven’t grown enough (Denise Pouliot, personal communication, December 7, 2018).
Not all Denise’s dreams are predictions of events. She said that “some dreams I’ve had are just to show I’m in the right place in my life.” Denise referred to some of her dreams as visitations from ancestors trying to communicate knowledge and “a way of understanding and connecting with the future and the past.” She described one such experience where she received knowledge about her culture that was previously lost:
One of the things I did in basket weaving was I made a hat… I kept having dreams about making a bird out of ash[tree]. And I kept asking people… “how do you do it?” nobody could tell me. Everyone who I went to in basket weaving said, “you can’t do that. You can’t do that.” So, I go to [my teacher] and she says “that hasn’t been done since the 1860s. That knowledge has been lost.” So, I went ahead and made my hat with a bird on it… my ancestors taught me in my dream (Denise Pouliot, personal communication, December 7, 2018).
Kathleen admitted to sharing similar experiences to Denise. Some of her dreams were visitations from ancestors teaching her lessons or trying to communicate knowledge. Kathleen told me that these dream-experiences are an “invitation to walk further in a spiritual way.”
From my perspective there are different kinds of dreams. There’s your usual…they don’t make any sense what so ever and everybody has those dreams. Some dreams are actually visitations from deceased loved ones. I had my grandmother come and tell me I was going to have a baby girl with red hair and I did. I had just found out I was going to have a baby. And this is the color of my hair… It was black, and her father’s hair was not red either. So, that doesn’t happen often but it’s an honor when it does… to have a visit from someone who’s in the spirit world (Kathleen Blake, personal communications, December 7, 2018).
The insights I received from Paul about the nature of his dreams as an Abenaki suggest that dreams can reflect conflict in the waking reality. He spoke about dreams as an indication of the direction their culture is going. This resonated with me because it seemed to reflect the cultural and political conflict of Indigenous groups that are marginalized in the United States:
I think that dreams have shaped our particular group in which direction were going. At times when you’re highly stressed and you’re looking for answers to things you can’t solve, sometimes things will come up. As I’ve gotten older though, I have a tendency to wait for things to change on their own. What’s happening is… troubles seem to come and make things manifest themselves in our dreams and you want to directly charge at them and resolve it. But sometimes just stepping back and letting things evaporate… they will evaporate eventually. We find that in the Indian community that dreams go through cycles of craziness. It seems it’s in winter when nobody has anything to do (Paul Pouliot, personal communication, December 7, 2018).
Although I only was able to converse with three people, I was able to get a small glimpse into the spiritual dimension and dream theory of contemporary Abenaki culture. I found it most interesting to consider that despite the victimization their people and culture faced from colonialism, their knowledge and traditions are passed on through dreams by connections with their ancestors. Dreaming thus is a form of resistance and preservation of their cultural identity. Dreaming is a form of survivance, an effort to keep native traditions and history alive through stories, remembrance, resistance and preservation of language (Vizenor 2008).
My research and analysis of some existing research as compared to my interview with Abenaki members has been insightful for understanding the greater cultural and spiritual context dreams provide for Indigenous cultures. Each example of Indigenous culture I investigated shared similarities of obtaining prophetic knowledge from dreams. This prophetic knowledge can present itself to the individual in literal or symbolic ways. Interpretations differ whether the knowledge is presented by ancestors in the spirit world or by unifamilial spirits communicating with the person directly. Either interpretation conveys that dreams are an important factor in Indigenous theories of knowledge and understanding, and that dreams act as a bridge between the physical world and a spiritual reality.
Peluso, Daniela M. 2004. “That Which I Dream Is True: Dream Narratives in an Amazonian Community.” Dreaming,14( 2-3): 107–119.
Kracke, Waud H. 2006. “To Dream, Perchance to Cure: Dreaming and Shamanism in a Brazilian Indigenous Society.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice 50 ( 2): 106-20.
Personal communication with Kathleen Blake, Denise and Paul Pouliot, 2018. December 7th.
Smith, David M. 1998. “An Athapaskan Way of Knowing: Chipewyan Ontology.” American Ethnologist 25(3): 412-32.
Vizenor, Gerald, ed. 2008. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln