Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


For thousands of years, the nations of the Great Plains celebrated their interdependency with nature in ceremonies such as the vision quest. They accounted the environment that sustained them to be sacred. They saw how the buffalo gave itself to the people, how the grass gave itself to buffalo, how the rain gave itself to grass.how the people, like all their earthly relations, gave themselves back to the vast Plains that sustained them. They called the dark earth "Mother" and the great sun "Father," and they revered the Great Creator, not as some abstract principle but as the palpable design, function, and constant presence of their environment.

Hence, the great sun, the dark earth, and the endless horizon, particularly as viewed from the traditional precincts of Mateo Tepee (Devils Tower), the Black Hills, and the Northern Rockies, became the Great Creator's initiation ground, the passageway for individuals in life transition. Their rites involved spiritual education that was fundamental to their existence. If, indeed, they lived in the home of the Great Creator, then clearly they would consider the significant growth events of their lives to be occasions for ceremony and spiritual edification.

Largely "confirmatory" in function (marking the attainment of changed social status), these rites followed the classic anthropological definition of rites of passage: severance—preparation to leave the former life and go into a sacred time and space, including rites of purification in a sweat lodge; threshold—existence (often three or four days and nights) alone in a sacred world of taboo and self-abnegation, where the individual sacrificed the self to a greater whole and attained "medicine" or visionary power; and incorporation–return to a council of elders and subsequent reintegration within the community as individuals with changed social status.

The objective of the threshold, or mountaintop, experience, was a medicine vision of benefit to the people as a whole. Without food, water, companionship, shelter, or defenses against predators, sometimes in great pain from self-inflicted wounds, the body longed for spiritual answers. The sacred ancestors sent dreams to console and inspire, and the Great Spirit provided "allies" or "helpers." When the initiates returned from this time with the Great Creator and the sacred ancestors, they were considered to have confirmed visionary intent. If the intent were not confirmed, the candidates would often return again–and again– until signs from nature indicated that the quest had been consummated. Thus, the community was blessed by the spiritual growth of its members, and every vision took its place in the legendary annals of the people.

Many forms of what, in the English language, has become known as the vision quest were practiced among the people of the Great Plains. Traditions were passed down from medicine men to their apprentices for many generations. The most widely published traditions were recorded by observant Europeans when medicine chiefs were willing to teach them the old ways. Black Elk's Sacred Pipe (as told to Joseph Epes Brown) contains a classic depiction of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux, including a thorough description of the hanblecheyapi, or "crying for a vision." Similar noble rites existed among the Crows, Blackfoot, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Pawnees, Kiowas, Crees, and many other peoples, including the Native nations of the Northwest Coast, Great Basin, Eastern Woodlands, and Southwest.

This same ritual vision-quest archetype is known by many other names in cultures throughout the world. Although this tradition has declined in the face of modern life, the rite is still practiced among the Indigenous people of the Great Plains.

See also NATIVE AMERICANS: Sacred Geography.

Steven Foster School of Lost Borders Big Pine, California

Brown, Joseph Epes. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

Mails, Thomas E. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains: The Culture, Arts, Crafts, and Religion of the Plains Indians. New York: Mallard Press, 1972.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

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