This is a ritual common among tribes throughout North America, except for those within the southwestern part of the United States, for acquiring a guardian spirit or seeking supernatural guidance. The ritual is most important to people east of the Rocky Mountains and in some parts of the western United States. A vision quest provides the average individual, not just a medicine man, with access to spiritual realms for help.
Usually, sweat-bath purification rites precede the vision quest, or «crying for a vision,» as it is occasionally called. The individual goes alone into the wilderness to a sacred place where he fasts, thirsts, smokes tobacco, prays, and meditates for a vision. This vigil can continue for several days and nights. Some Plains tribes practice self-mortification or mutilation, such as cutting off a finger joint. Some tribes use hallucinogenics; small groups in southern California consume a jimson weed drink, and medicine societies along the Missouri River use mescal.
Vision quests are mostly undertaken by males usually when entering puberty, but sometimes in childhood. They exert a powerful force in the maturation process, providing a focus and sense of purpose, personal strength, and power.
When seeking a guardian spirit, the individual usually asks to be given certain powers, such as for hunting or healing, or luck in warfare, love, gambling, and so on. The guardian spirit usually appears in animal form, but may change to human form. In bestowing powers, it also may prescribe food taboos; teach a song, which is used to reconnect the individual with the spirit at any given time; and given instructions for ornamentation and for the assembly of medicine bundles. All instructions must be followed lest the person will lose the spirit. Ideally, the spirit will leave behind a physical token of the vision, such as a feather or claw. If the spirit that appears is undesirable, its powers are refused, and at a later time another vision quest is attempted.
There are other reasons for which vision quests are undertaken such as in times of war, disease, death, and childbirth (the latter to seek instructions for naming the child). Most Native Americans believe that the vision seeker should abstain from sex for a period prior to his quest. Vision quests are important in the practice of Shamanism. Some tribes, such as the Algonkians and Salish, have vision quest rites for girls, but these quests are not performed after puberty. The Plains warriors traditionally undertook numerous vision quests, and thus acquire many guardian spirits, each having a different function.
Most vision quests are solitary undertakings, but some are done on a collective basis, such as the Sun Dance ceremony. A.G.H.
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