The vision in Plains culture

by Ruth Benedict

The Indians of the Plains share with the tribes to the east and the west an inordinate pursuit of the vision. Even certain highly formalized conceptions relating to it are found on the Atlantic Coast and on the Pacific. Thus, in spite of all diversity of local rulings, the approach to the vision was, or might always be, through isolation and self-mortification.

More formally still, the vision, over immense territories, ran by a formula according to which some animal or bird or voice appeared to the suppliant and talked with him, describing the power he bestowed on him, and giving him songs, mementoes, taboos, and perhaps involved ceremonial procedure. Henceforth for that individual this thing that had thus spoken with him at this time became his "guardian spirit."

Not only the means of obtaining the vision, however, and the events of the vision itself, were standardized over thousands of miles, east and west, and north and south; the sanctions derived from it were as widely formalized. Ceremonial procedure, preeminently, was derived from it, but, almost as widely, healing powers, success in battle, and control of the weather. Even trivial connections have crossed the continent; so that, not only on the Plains, but on Puget Sound1 1. Haeberlin, MSS. on Indians of Puget Sound. 2. Heckewelder, J., Indians of Penn., p. 246. and on Chesapeake Bay2 the person who confers a name upon another chooses some phrase descriptive of something his guardian spirit said or did in his vision.

In spite of such wide-spread uniformities, however, the vision-quest of the Plains has a character very distinct from that of the Plateau Salish on the one hand, and of the Woodland Algonkian on the other. In regard to one fundamental conception, the Plains lie like a wedge thrust up and separating these two widely divided areas, each more like one another than either is like the neighboring Plains. For both to the east and the west of the Plains the pursuit of the vision is definitely an affair of adolescence, a ritual at entrance to maturity. Among the Winnebago and Central Algonkian, boys trained for fasting from the age of eight or nine3 3. Radin, Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian, pp. 386-7. 4. Jones, Ojibwa Texts, p. 303. —even from the age of five4—and were expected to persevere in it at intervals until puberty. In theory at least, after intercourse with women, the pursuit of visions was discontinued for life. To the west, among the Plateau Salish, this fasting for a guardian spirit is combined with a puberty training lasting for years, during which the boy seeks to acquire skill by magical means for his chosen occupation in life.5 5. Teit, The Thompson River Indians, p. 318; The Shuswap, p. 588. The vision of the guardian spirit is by no means the culmination of the period of probation; it has become almost incidental in the strong local development of a professional apprenticeship during adolescence.

On the Plains, however, it is mature men who characteristically seek the vision. Among the Arapaho,6 6. Kroeber, The Arapaho, p. 418. 7. Jbid., The Gros Ventre, p. 222. and the related Gros Ventre,7 Dr. Kroeber long ago pointed out that the custom of puberty fasting is not known at all. According to the myths and recorded experiences, this generalization holds good for all the western Plains, north and south. At the east, especially among the Assiniboine,8 8. Lowie, The Assiniboine, p. 48. 9. Pepper and Wilson, An Hidatsa Shrine, p. 319. 10. J. 0. Dorsey, Siouan Cults, p. 390. the Hidatsa,9 and the Omaha,10 the puberty convention of the Woodlands is known and practiced in varying degrees; but it is always in addition to the characteristic Plains maturity fast. That is, we find even among the Omaha, who most definitely link the securing of a guardian spirit with puberty, that the vision is sought also for all kinds of recurring experiences throughout maturity, as it is all over the Plains, and is not in the Eastern Woodlands.

This one generalization—that the pursuit of visions on the Plains is an affair of maturity and not of adolescence—is probably, however, the only blanket description that is possible in “On the Plains it is mature men who seek the vision. the personal wakan experiences of this area. Each tribe has its own distinctive version, a pattern so distinct that any random reference to fasting and vision in the native texts could almost without fear of mistake be assigned to the one particular tribe from which it was collected—at most to two or three which are in some way closely associated.

The truth of this assertion can most readily be tested by an examination (I) of certain patterns which are rather commonly assumed to be characteristic of the vision quest of the Plains; and (II) of certain tribal patterns, which, though they have universally travelled in weakened form beyond the limits of any one tribe, are yet strongly localized.


Three patterns of wide distribution are sometimes taken to characterize the vision quest of the Plains: (1) The infliction of self-torture; (2) the lack of a laity-shamanistic distinction; (3) the attaining of a guardian spirit. Are these indeed integral parts of the vision-idea of the Plains as a whole; or are they rather distinct patterns existing sometimes side by side with the vision quest without ever amalgamating with it, and at all times combining with it in different proportions and with different connotations?

Let us examine first the relation in which self-inflicted torture stood to the visionary experiences. In such a typical Plains tribe as the Blackfoot, torture was of course well-known. They practiced the sun dance, and those who entered the ordeal tore loose the skewers inserted in the muscles of the back, as was done in all Plains tribes where the sun dance was observed, with the sole exception of the little known Kiowa. Self-torture was practiced also in a variety of other connections. Maximilian11 11. Maximilian, Reise, vol. 11, p. 188. specifically contrasts the Blackfoot custom of cutting off finger joints in mourning, with the Mandan convention of making the same offering in the pursuit of a vision. Dr. Wissler mentions also among the Blackfoot another wide-spread Plains torture pattern known as "Feeding-the-sun-with-bits-of-one's-body."12 12. Wissler, Blackfoot Sun Dance, p. 205. The skin is pricked up with a splinter or sharp knife, and a coinshaped piece cut from beneath. The precise procedure is reported for the Dakota, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho. But in all these cases the idea is of a sacrifice to the sun—for the Blackfoot on the occasion of a war party. The idea, so far as we know, among the Blackfoot is never associated with guardian spirit experiences.

In fact no one of these torture customs has become associated with the vision practices. We have an enormous literature for the Blackfoot, and nowhere, in their bulky traditions,13 13. Wissler, Blackfoot Mythology. 14. Ibid., Blackfoot Bundles. 15. McClintock, Old North Trail. 16. Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales. or in the vision stories collected by Dr. Wissler,14 or in the observant records of McClintock15 or Grinnell,16 is the use of any selftorture other than hunger and thirst even hinted at.

This same disassociation of torture- and vision-patterns holds also, though in lesser degree, for the Arapaho to the south. Torture for mourning,17 17. G. A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Arapaho, p. 198. 18. Ibid., Arapaho Sun Dance, p. 184. 19. lbid., p. 182. for votive offerings for success,18 and in the sickness of relatives,19 is marked in Arapaho culture. In not one of the vision experiences collected by Dr. Kroeber, however, is torture used in connection with the securing of visions.20 20. Kroeber, The Arapaho, pp. 419-428. The disassociation is not so complete as among the Blackfoot, for in one of the three recorded variants for the origin of the Buffalo Lodge21 21. Dorsey, Traditions, p. 49. the suppliant "not only abstained from food and drink, but inflicted pain upon himself. Then he saw a vision." Mooney also, in his history of the ghost dance,22 22. Mooney, Ghost Dance, p. 898. relates that Black Coyote had been told in a mourning vision to make exaggerated use of the offering of coin-shaped bits of skin to insure the lives of his remaining children. This "vision" command, however, is an almost perfect combination of all three of the usual Arapaho non-visionary uses of laceration.

The Cheyenne have been very closely associated with the Arapaho for generations; yet their practices in this regard differ strongly. We lack any synthetic account of their culture and any large body of traditions, but in the fragments that we have there is abundant emphasis upon self-torture. Thus G.A. Dorsey states in 1905 that "the Cheyenne probably practiced torture to a greater extent for all purposes than any other tribe so far as is known. Wherever Cheyenne came together, it was a common sight to see men torturing themselves around the camp circle."23 23. G.A. Dorsey, Cheyenne Sun Dance, p. 17. They would also retire to a lonely hill where they were tied suspended from poles, seeking a vision. Recently, in his When Buffalo Ran, G.B. Grinnell has given us the only concrete description of a Cheyenne vision quest.24 24. Grinnell, When Buffalo Ran, p. 79. In the experience he describes, the suppliant goes out to a lonely part of the prairie on the day selected, accompanied by the person who is to tie the thongs for him. The pins and knife are consecrated by prayer and held toward the sun and sky, and laid upon the earth. He is then tied to the pole by means of wooden pins driven through the flesh. All day long, after he is left alone again, he must walk back and forth on the sunward side of the pole, praying constantly, and fixing his eyes on the sun, trying to tear the pins loose from the torn flesh. At night the helper returns, and pieces of the torn skin are held toward the sun and sky and the four directions and buried. That night he sleeps on the prairie and gets his power.

In recent practice, therefore, the use of torture in the vision quest is strongly established among the Cheyenne. We have in addition to these descriptions, however, two fragmentary collections of traditions containing five references to fasting and vision,25 25. Kroeber, "Tales" J.A.F.L., vol. XITI, pp. 163, 188, 190; Grinnell, "Some Early Cheyenne Tales," J.A.F.L., vol. xx, p. 188; vol. XXI, p. 282. and not one of these connects torture with the experience. It may well be, therefore, that the association of torture and vision even for the Cheyenne is not rooted very far back in their history. We know that even in 1850 they were living in territory contiguous to the Dakota and Hidatsa,26 26. Mooney, The Cheyenne, p. 367. among whom if anywhere we must look for a strongly rooted association of torture and religious experiences. Taken in connection with the well-known instability of Cheyenne culture27 27. Ibid, p. 361. in the century preceding our knowledge of them, it seems possible that the vigorous association of torture with the vision is a recent phenomenon among the Cheyenne.

This fragmentary evidence from the Cheyenne of a recent use of torture in the pursuit of the vision is greatly strengthened by the very full data from the Crow, where we find precisely the same contrast between ancient tradition and more modern usage. There is an entire omission of self-torture from the very numerous accounts of vision experiences in their mythology.28 28. Lowie, Crow Myths. 29. Lowie, MSS. Crow Religion. In recent practice, however,29 sacrifice of finger joints, the cutting of strips of skin from arms and legs, and all the variants of the sun dance torture are resorted to in obtaining the vision.

Throughout all the tribes of the Western Plains we find, then, a marked disassociation, either in the present or the past, of the two patterns of torture and the pursuit of visions. Among the tribes of the Southern Plains, the torture pattern hardly exists at all. The Omaha cut their arms and legs in mourning,30 30. Fletcher, The Omaha, p. 591. 31. Personal communication from Dr. Wissler. and the Pawnee, at least the Pawnee women, on similar occasions did the like.31 The one possible reference to any use of torture in religious experiences—for neither the Omaha nor the Pawnee observed the sun danct—is in J.O. Dorsey's description of the accessories of prayer among the Cegiha,32 32. J.O. Dorsey, Siouan Cults, p. 373. where, as the sixth feature, he mentions "offerings of goods or pieces of the suppliant's flesh"; but he is including here cognate tribes such as the Kansa and Ponca which had adopted the sun dance and certain tortures. Certainly nowhere in his own many specific descriptions in the same volume, nor in his native texts,33 33. J.O. Dorsey, The Cegiha Language. nor in Miss Fletcher's work, is there any other mention of laceration.

For the Pawnee we have a voluminous body of myths and traditions and the concept of self-torture in any connection is conspicuously absent.

There remain, then, the tribes of the eastern and northern Plains, more especially the western Dakota and the Mandan- Hidatsa. These tribes do in fact present an almost complete picture of the amalgamation of the two patterns, self-torture and the vision quest.

For the village tribes, De Smet says in 1852 that he "could not discover a single man at all advanced in years whose body had not been mutilated, or who possessed his full number of fingers."34 34. De Smet, Western Missions, p. 92. And Maximilian had before remarked (1833) that these offerings were not made as among the Blackfoot, but in intercession with the spirits35 35. Maximilian, op. cit.

Among the neighboring Assiniboine we find recorded these same modes of self-torture in the pursuit of the vision. One description36 36. Lowie, The Assiniboine, p. 48. records how men fasting for visions on Snake Butte were attacked by snakes, till at last one in his frenzy cut off strips of his flesh and fed them. "None of the other men have done this before," the snakes tell him, "Come with us, grandchild! We pity you." Thus he was successful.

The one vision story of the Gros Ventre traditions duplicates this same situation, and adds more specific details; the suppliant cuts his flesh, his ears, and his little finger—this last considered an especial deprivation according to Catlin, at least among the Mandan.37 37. Kroeber, Gros Ventre Myths, p. 122; Catlin, North American Indians, p. 174.

But it is among the Dakota that, according to our data, the vision was most often sought by torture. It is true that even in describing the western Dakota, Dr. Walker38 38. Walker, Dakota Sun Dance, p. 68. confines any mention of the torture strictly to the sun dance. But all other authorities emphasize the part played by lacerations in the securing of any sort of vision among the Dakota. J.O. Dorsey in his Siouan Cults has gathered together the older descriptions. Riggs, writing in 1869, describes the sun dance form of tying, and continues: "Thus they hang suspended only by those cords without food or drink for two, three, or four days, gazing into vacancy, their minds fixed intently upon the object in which they wish to be assisted by the deity, and waiting for a vision from above. Once a day an assistant is sent to look upon the person thus sacrificing himself. If the deities have vouchsafed him a vision or revelation, he signifies the same by motions, and is released at once; if he is silent, his silence is understood, and he is left alone to his reverie."39 39. Riggs, Gospel among the Dakotas, p. 81. Lynd describes those "who pass knives through the flesh in various parts of the body, and wait in silence, though with fixed mind, for a dream or revelation."40 40. Lynd, Religion of the Dakota, p. 164.

In the process of qualifying as a shaman the vision-by-torture played an equally important part. The final tortures of the sun dance, here as nowhere else, were reserved for those who desired to become shamans41 41. Walker, Dakota Sun Dance, p. 118. and the ultimate purpose of the ordeal was the obtaining of the vision which was granted at any time before the dispersal for the next winter's camp. Or, a candidate might go to an individual shaman, who accompanied him to an isolated spot and tied him as in the sun dance; or he might himself cut off and offer bits of flesh in the presence of the shaman.42 42. Wissler, Societies of the Dakota, p. 82.

It seems, then, that the association between self-torture and the vision centered in the Dakota-Mandan area. The geographical continuity of the distribution of the practice, the gradual shading-off of the torture, especially in connection with the vision quest, make it seem probable that the connection originated only once, and was diffused from that center.

One outstanding consideration points to the Dakota as the center from which it was distributed, if not necessarily the tribe where the connection originated. This consideration is the otherwise fortuitous association existing everywhere throughout the Plains between torture and an offering to the sun. The Blackfoot feeds the sun with the coin-shaped bits of his body; the Cheyenne, in the guardian spirit vigil, consecrates his knives and torn flesh to the sun, and keeps his eyes fixed upon it. Everywhere where we find torture we find that the sun, for no apparent reason, is especially involved. Now it is just here among the Dakota where the sun does really play a preeminent and much-emphasized part in their ceremonial practices and in their cosmology. So far as our data go, no other Plains tribe separated out the sun and raised it to the supreme place, as did the Dakota. Their sun dance, unlike that of most tribes, was in large part a veritable worship of the sun. When, therefore, from the study of geographical distribution, we find evidence that the greatest and most deeply rooted development of self-torture in the vision quest was just here among the Dakota, is it not also probable that the connection with the sun was diffused along with the torture practices from this center?

The infliction of self-torture, therefore, is a Plains pattern distinct from that of the vision quest, and combined with it in different proportions in each different tribe. The center of association between the two was in the Dakota-Mandan region, and in recent practice was strongly developed among the Cheyenne and Crow, though in their mythologies such practices have no place. The Blackfoot never resorted to lacerations in the pursuit of visions; and the Arapaho, perhaps, as Dr. Kroeber suggests, influenced by the tortureless Ghost Dance, almost as absolutely divorce the two. On the Southern Plains, moreover, among the Omaha and Pawnee, laceration was not practiced in any connection, except as it was incumbent upon women in mourning. It was never a means of obtaining visions.

The second generalization concerning the vision which requires examination is that from it there resulted, as in many other parts of North America, the absence of any laity-shamanistic distinction. Logically it seems that such a loss must follow in a culture that holds it more or less obligatory for every man to go out at least once in his life and obtain power from the spirits. And this logical corollary is indeed common on the Western Plains. Among the Arapaho "a distinct profession of medicine men or shamans can not be spoken of with any approximation to correctness, any more than can a caste of warriors. The differences between individuals in kind and degree of supernatural powers were apparently not greater than in matters of bravery or distinction in war."43 43. Kroeber, The Arapaho, p. 419. And the absence of a special spiritually-sanctified profession is emphasized in Dr. Lowie's statement concerning the Assiniboine:

It depended wholly on the nature of the revelation whether they become founders of dancing societies, wakan practitioners, owners of painted lodges, fabricators of war-shirts, or prophets. In every case implicit obedience was required.44 44. Lowie, The Assiniboine, p. 47.

But on the Eastern Plains this simple logic of a common access for all men to supernatural power was overlaid in a variety of ways, notably among the Dakota and the Pawnee.

The Dakota make a sharp break between the laity and the shamans; their preliminary experiences, special knowledge, and relations to the supernatural were all differentiated. The shamans possessed an esoteric vocabulary; they were organized in cults where initiation was wholly on the basis of supernatural experience; they alone had guardian spirits won by fasting and vision. Those entering the sun dance enrolled in different grades and endured different tortures according as they were candidates for the shamanistic class or not.

So far has this classification gone that guardian spirits were obtained by diametrically different methods by the two classes. Shamans fasted for their visions in the ordinary way;45 45. Wissler, Dakota Societies, p. 81. on the contrary, the guardian spirits of those not so numbered were assigned at puberty by the shamans.46 46. J.O. Dorsey, Siouan Cults, p. 443. The old writers, whose descriptions make up J.O. Dorsey's account of the cults of the Dakota, go so far as to say that individual guardians were here never revealed in vision; but in this they were certainly ignorant of the necessary qualifications of the shaman.

Among the Dakota we have still no fixed and hierarchal priestly class. The Pawnee, however, while supposedly sharing the same guardian spirit ideas as the Arapaho, for instance, have found it possible to superimpose a ranked and vested College of Cardinals. A vision by no means in itself gave right of entrance into this priestly hierarchy. A shaman was made not by any momentary experience, however essential, but by prolonged training. In the myths this necessity is most often formalized somewhat after this fashion in the spirits' instructions: "There [in your lodge] you must stay by yourself, so that I may appear to you in your dreams, and teach you the songs and also my power."47 47. G. A. Dorsey, The Pawnee, p. 53. In practice, candidates were instructed by the shaman or priest whom they would succeed at his death.48 48. Murie, Pawnee Societies, p. 617. For since the number was practically fixed, vacancies could occur only in this way.

But the Pawnee not only fixed a gulf between the laity and the non-laity; this latter class was also strongly subdivided.49 49. Wissler, MSS., The Pawnee. Highest in prestige, authority, and esoteric knowledge stood the priests, guardians of the sacred tribal bundles, to whom even the chiefs were subordinate. Separated from these, but also from the laity, were the medicine-men, whose powers came more especially from visions, and whose functions were healing and sleight-of-hand. In theory, at least, these two groups did not enter each other's ceremonies.

This differentiation of priest and medicine-man corresponded to the division of their cosmology, so that the priestly class derived their power from the gods above (chiefly the stars) and the medicine men from the gods below (chiefly the animal lodges).

While, therefore, the guardian spirit idea carried with it over the greater part of the Plains the idea of a common exercise by all men of spiritual powers, sharp separations between laity and non-laity had nevertheless arisen in certain tribes, notably the Dakota and Pawnee.

The third generalization concerning the vision quest which requires examination is that which makes it synonomous with the attaining of a guardian spirit. However it may be in other areas of North America, on the Plains there is no tribe where the vision quest was not a much more general phenomenon than the acquiring of a guardian spirit. Everywhere, even in those tribes where every man was expected to fast once in his life specifically for an individual guardian, the vision was sought also by the same means on continually recurring occasions—that is in mourning; as an instrument of revenge on one's enemies; on account of a vow made in sickness or danger for oneself or one's relative; on initiation into certain societies; and as a preliminary to a war party. On all these occasions, the seeker ordinarily received his power or commands directly, without specifically acquiring a guardian spirit.

Besides this invariable usage, moreover, there is an immense divergence among the tribes of the Plains in the degree to which they associate the formula of the guardian spirit with even the primary or "great" vision—the one, that is, almost always, according to their traditions, more or less distinguished from all others, and which was the Plains equivalent of the surrounding practice of the puberty fast for a guardian spirit.

With certain tribes the primary vision was indeed very closely bound up with the securing of a guardian spirit. This was true among the Blackfoot and the Crow, but the association was according to an entirely different formula. Crow ceremonialism in very many different phases—initiation into the Tobacco Planting Ceremony, the Medicine Pipe ritual, even in certain cases into war party leadership, is formalized as an "adoption" by a ceremonial "father." So in the vision quest. The power that appears to the Crow addresses him in set words, "I make you my son." Afterwards throughout the myths he will be referred to as "the dwarf-adopted one," the "one the Sun adopted," etc.; the guardian spirit is addressed as "father." It is significant that this same form of address is found only among the Hidatsa, the Gros Ventre, and the Arikara, who are all in territory contiguous to that of the Crow. None of these tribes, however, follow out the implications of this intimate relationship as the Crow do, for example, in the following myth. A dwarf-adopted boy is held captive by Red-Woman and the dwarf goes out searching for him. "He came up to the place. 'I think this witch has my boy in there.' He sent an eagle to scout for his son." That failed, and he sent the smallest ant, who came back with word of his son.50 50. Lowie, Crow Mythology, p. 130. That is, under the influence of this nomenclature, at least in certain cases, the Crow conceive a sort of paternal responsibility on the part of the "father" that is quite foreign to the thought of the other tribes.

The Blackfoot have also a strong sense of an intimate and peculiar relation obtaining between the suppliant and the animal or thing that has blest him in this fast; but they have not the Crow formula. They have followed another line of thought, and in the overwhelming majority of the experiences both in the myths and in the shamanistic biographies they conceive a man's guardian spirit to be some animal or bird or thing seen by him in some every day connection that for some reason stands out in consciousness. Their vision-stories, therefore, describe actual and rather minor occurrences without any particular formula. Medicine comes from the skunk who follows and is fed; from the eagle when one has unwittingly made camp at the foot of a particularly tall tree holding a particularly large eagle's nest; from the swollen white wood-worm which crawls out of the decaying log as it begins to burn on the hearth. When we compare this with the complicated formula of the Dakota, or, better still, the cosmic visions of the heavens that an Ojibwa requires51 51. Jones, Ojibwa Texts, pt. ii, p. 305. we recognize the strong individuality of this Blackfoot trait.

In contrast to this insistence upon securing at the time of this vision a guardian spirit with intimate and personal relations to oneself, we may consider the Cheyenne vision described above. Here, as is common where torture is predominant, the associated idea of the sun is stressed throughout in the details of preparation, in the walking on the sunward side of the pole, in the fixation of the eyes upon the sun, and finally in the offering of the torn flesh. When finally the wolf appears in a vision the following night it is hardly more than a postscript.

The Cheyenne story is only an indication of a tendency which we find logically carried out among the Dakota. As we have already noted in the discussion of the differentiation of laity and non-laity in this tribe, for the majority of the people the guardian spirit was assigned at puberty by the shamans—the "armor gods"52—and 52. J. O. Dorsey, Siouan Cults, p. 443. the subsequent seeking of visions had no relation whatever to this acquisition. The object in these was to secure supernatural communication with the sun, or with lesser of the wakan tanka. "If an Oglala contemplates any important undertaking, he ought to seek a vision."53 53. Walker, Dakota Sun Dance, p. 68. But these visions did not raise any question of guardian spirits.

Even for the shamans, who sought guardian spirits in vision more nearly according to the usual Plains pattern, there was nothing comparable to the simple rapport of the Blackfoot with his individual spirit guardian. The Dakota shaman, if he was successful, obtained a highly complex dream involving four sets of actors, and the metamorphosis of at least two of these sets. Which one of these actors in this highly artificial dream constituted the man's guardian spirit was a purely formal matter, but one inexorably fixed by tribal usage.54 54. Wissler, Dakota Societies, p. 81. Among the Dakota, therefore, the guardian spirit formula was all but struck out of the vision quest.

Among the Pawnee the separation of the vision quest and the guardian spirit idea has proceeded along another line. The Pawnee, to judge by the voluminous collected Traditions, present a number of marked points of contrast to the rest of the Plains. We have already had occasion to mention several. But at no point, in relation to the visions, are they so sharply at variance with all Plains ideas whatsoever as in their substitution of the "animal lodges" for the guardian-spirit formula. The Pawnee, as we have seen, separate the spirits into two great groups—of the "above," and the "below." The above-gods were the source of their star cult, the basis of their tribal bundle scheme, and the patrons of the priests (as distinct from the medicine-men). The below-gods were presided over by the four (or five) definitely localized "animal lodges,"55 55. Grinnell, Pawnee Hero Tales, p. 358; G. A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, p. xix. and were the source of the power of the medicine-men or shamans. The stories of these animal lodges make up sixteen of the twenty-six tales of wakan experiences recorded in the volume of Pawnee Traditions. These lodges were not abodes of groups of buffalo, or flocks of eagles, such as were rather commonly seen by vision seekers of other tribes; they were lodges which were supposed to exist under various well-known hills and rivers where all the animals gathered together for sleight-of-hand performances and to teach their powers. These animal medicine lodges are present in just two other Plains bodies of myths, the Wichita56 56. G.A. Dorsey, Myths of the Wichita, p. 312. 57. G.A. Dorsey, Myths of the Arikara, p. 164. and the Arikara;57 that is, the other two Caddoan tribes of the Plains for which we possess collections of traditions. It is therefore an old and persistent Caddoan conception; and its analogies are not with the Plains region, but with the Southwest. It is in the legends of the Navaho58 58. Matthews, Navaho Legends, p. 165. that we find again the division into upper and lower gods, their separate and rival powers, even the abodes of the animal-gods in lodges under the water, "Water-monster, Frog, Fish, Beaver, Otter, and others." One element only of the common Pawnee story is lacking in the Navaho legend, the conception of personal power acquired in the animal lodge. We may assume that the Pawnee easily associated that typical Plains idea with a familiar conception of animal lodges, and in so doing, inhibited the development among them of the guardian spirit formula. For it is obvious from the whole mass of Pawnee mythology that the idea of the individual guardian as generally understood has no place whatever in their vision quest. Their medicine men learned the mysteries of "all the animals"; if one animal sometimes stands out prominently in some such capacity as that of messenger, it is still a far cry to the Crow or Blackfoot relationships. Where we do find a conception of an individual rapport with a definite animal or thing, in the myths, it is traced to a relationship at birth or before. That this is indeed a fundamental Pawnee conception seems the more probable from Murie's note appended to Pawnee Societies59 59. P. 639. to the effect that every child while in the womb, through the mediumship of one or other parent, was brought under the power of an animal; though sometimes trees, stars, or the thunder might take the place of the animal.

On account, therefore, of the universal Plains usage of seeking a vision on many constantly recurring occasions; and, also, on account of the characteristic practices of tribes such as the Dakota and Pawnee, where the guardian spirit formula hardly exists at all, the vision quest on the Plains was a much more general phenomenon than the acquisition of a guardian spirit.


We have, then, examined three patterns rather commonly held to be descriptive of the vision quest of the Plains as a whole, and found that tribal practices in each instance run the whole possible range of variation. Besides this, moreover, there are certain other patterns definitely localized in certain tribes or groups of tribes on the Plains which contribute still more to the complexity.

Most striking of these is the concept of purchase among the Blackfoot. The visions themselves could be bought and sold. Every man went out at least once in his life seeking a vision on his own account. Many failed, so the Blackfoot repeatedly assert. But whether he met with success or failure, he must also buy other men's visions for his social prestige. They were the basis of the tribal economic system; the greater proportion of Blackfoot capital was invested in these readily salable commodities. Investment in them, as Dr. Wissler puts it, was equivalent to money in the savings-bank. Tribal dandies purchased them also as a means of parading their wealth. Just as all the Plains tribes had gatherings where they publicly rehearsed their war deeds, so the Blackfoot had also occasions where each recounted the visions he had owned, and the property he had paid for them. And his recital was met with jeers or approval according as it was short or long.60 60. Wissler, Blackfoot Bundles, p. 276.

I have called it buying the vision, for to the Blackfoot that is what it meant. In telling his story he makes absolutely no distinction in the use of the first person between those visions he has bought and those he has fasted for. Its designation in the literature is "purchasing the medicine bundle," but commonly the purchaser makes up his own bundle anew, according to the specifications; what he has really bought being the songs, the taboos, the "power," and the right of performing the ceremony that goes with it.

The number of such bundles among the Blackfoot is practically countless, all conforming to a definite tribal ritualistic pattern. This pattern also has determined tribal usage in a host of miscellaneous connections: shields, headdresses, songs, painted tipis, shirts of ordinary Plains type, even vows of self-torture, and many of the industrial arts are transferred exactly as is a medicine bundle. Even the sun dance has adapted itself to this pattern, and its annual celebration is strictly the transfer of a bundle according to the usual conditions of such transfer.61 61. Wissler, Blackfoot Sun Dance, p. 263. The ritualistic system of the Blackfoot, then, offers a perfect example of the enormous formative power of a once-established pattern, and its tendency toward indefinite self-complication.

The idea that the blessing of the spirits may be bought and sold we find also among the Crow,62 62. Lowie, MSS., Crow Religion. 63. Kroeber, The Arapaho, p. 436. 64. Lowie, Hiditsa Sun Dance, p. 417. 65. Radin, in Anthropology in North America, p. 305. the Arapaho,63 the Hidatsa,64 as also among the Winnebago.65 But nowhere does this concept take the prominent place in tribal life that it does among the Blackfoot. Among the Winnebago it is merely a weak substitute for the real vision provided for those who fail to get one on their own account. Among the Hidatsa, as we shall see, it is combined with their idea of inheritance.

For, quite as the Blackfoot have developed the concept of purchase, the Hidatsa have elaborated a definitely localized pattern of inheritance. The Hidsata are matrilineal; but medicine bundles are inherited in the father's line. It was a strangely uncoordinated process by which rights to visions were perpetuated, for though it was obligatory that it descend in the male line, one must also have the same vision before one inherited, and one must likewise pay a purchase price.66 66. Lowie, Hidatsa Sun Dance, pp. 416,417. Since an inheritor must have a vision from the family bundle, the function of the father in preparing the mind of the suppliant for this particular spirit-visitant became important. Not only was supervision exercised by the father over fasting; but ceremonies had to be performed under the superintendence of duly qualified bundle owners. Formerly people made dances on the initiative of visions, but they were found to die soon after.67 67. Ibid., p. 418.

The practice of transferring the vision or the medicine bundle in the male line is found with varying intensity in several tribes—the Crow, the Arapaho, the Pawnee (for shamans), the Arikara, the Omaha, and most strongly among the Central Algonkian.68 68. Radin, Autobiography, p. 390; Skinner, Menomini, p. 104. In fact this concept of inheritance of visions, closely associated with the necessity of having also the same vision, a coincidence brought about by an effort of family supervision, seems to be primarily an Algonkian trait, and possibly intrusive on the Plains. It is only one of the characteristic Algonkian procedures that are found in detail on the Eastern Plains.

It is from this point of view, i.e., its close parallelism with Woodlands culture, that it is most profitable to examine the vision practices of the Omaha. We have already noted the parallelism of this tribe to the Algonkian in absence of torture; in the connection they maintained between the acquiring of a guardian spirit and puberty fasting; and in the practice of inheritance coupled with the requirement of dreaming the family dream. The catchwords of the vision are also alike among the Omaha and the Algonkian. Thus the invariable form of address to their individual spirit is, for both, "Grandfather," a term used nowhere else on the Plains except among the Kiowa, and again among the Navaho.69 69. Methvin, Andele; Matthews, Navaho Legends, p. 164. Just as invariable is the formula of the vision: "I have had compassion upon you." This also is common to the Algonkian and Omaha, and has a very limited distribution in the rest of the Plains area.

The hierarchy into which the Omaha grouped their visions is also interesting from this point of view.70 70. J.O. Dorsey, Siouan Cults, p. 393. Animals could bestow only the lowest degree of power; above these were ranged a cloud-appearance, and an eagle-winged human shape; above these again, the mere sound of a voice. The abstraction of mundane form from the apparition of the vision is in various forms one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Central Algonkian experiences.

We have few relevant myths from the Omaha, but one of them describes a fasting experience with another very marked Algonkian characteristic—the use of the fasting tent made for the occasion by father or mother. It is almost a formula. "At length he said, 'Father, let my mother make a tent for me.' And his mother made a tent for him." That is, he announced that he intended to fast, and the family complied.71 71. J.O. Dorsey, The Cegiha Language, p. 185.

The Pawnee and the related Arikara stand alone in an exuberant development of sleight-of-hand, which was the prerogative and passport of the shaman. It is sleight-of-hand first and foremost that is taught the initiate in the animal lodges of the Traditions. The great Twenty Day Ceremony of the shamans was one long legerdemain.

But any survey of the Pawnee vision complex must be inadequate unless we take also into account a difference in psychological attitude which places them at the opposite pole, for instance, from the Crow. For the Crow attitude, the following text is typical: "Medicine Crow fasted and prayed for four days. He cut off a finger joint and offered it to the Sun. 'Sun, look at me. I am poor. I wish to own horses. Make me wealthy. That is why I give you my little finger.' "72 72. Lowie, Crow Tobacco Society, p. 117. 73. Lowie, MSS., Crow Religion. Or in an old man's phrase: "I was going to be poor; that is why I had no vision."73 But the Pawnee have made the transition from this view of the vision as a mechanistic means of controlling forces and events, to a view of it as a means of spiritual contact. That is, a certain transfer of emphasis has taken place from material to spiritual values.

Take the story of the warriors who appealed to the keeper of a bundle. "The owner of the bundle spoke as each man passed his hands over his head and arms, and said, 'My friends, I take pity on you; but it is not I, it is these things before me, although they are dead, and the Sun, who must help you.' "74 74. G.A. Dorsey, The Pawnee, p. 87. Or this advice of a shaman to a candidate about to fast for a vision: '"Be sure to be poor in heart. Talk to the stone, and let all your wishes be known. Say that you are poor, and keep nothing back.' "75 75. G.A. Dorsey, Pawnee Personal Medicine Shrine, p. 497.

The Omaha, as well as the Pawnee, have discovered this special spiritual significance in wakan experiences. The old men counseled their grandsons thus: "Walk ye in remote places, crying to Wakanda. Neither eat nor drink for four days. Even though you do not gain the power, Wakanda will aid you. If you are as poor men, and pray as you cry, he will help you."76 76. J.O. Dorsey, Siouan Cults, p. 381.

The very great diversity of the vision pattern even in one culture area such as the Plains is therefore evident. Not only are the general traits unevenly distributed and even entirely lacking in certain tribes, but local developments of one kind and another have overlaid the common pattern till it is at times hardly recognizable. A blanket classification under some such head as the "acquiring of guardian spirits" leads us nowhere. Correlated with the use or disuse of torture; with the existence of a shamanistic caste, or the free exercise of supernatural powers by all men; with the conception of visions as savings-bank securities or as contact with the compassion of Wakanda,—are and must be psychological attitudes of the utmost diversity which make of Plains "religion" a heterogeneity which defies classification. Animism, magic, mana-ism, mysticism—all the known classifications of religion—jostle each other in this one area; and after all these headings were tabulated, the real diversities would still remain outside. For this reason, topical studies of religion must lack the rich variety of actuality, and imply a false simplicity. Is it not our first task to inquire as carefully as may be in definite areas to what things the religious experience attaches itself, and to estimate their heterogeneity and their indefinite multiplicity?


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