Vision Quests & Guardian Spirits

In the last post we discussed helping-spirits in shamanic as well as magical traditions of Eurasia, the Near-East and Europe. In this post we turn to Native American vision quests which are used for the purpose of acquiring a personal guardian spirit.

Traditionally  the vision quest was usually undertaken by pre-teenage or adolescent children as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. The intention was to meet with a guardian spirit who granted its spiritual powers and guided the life direction of the child. The vision quest began with instruction by a medicine man, as well as purification in sweat lodges or bathing in lakes or rivers. Cleanliness was considered essential as spirits were believed to come only to those who were scrupulously clean. After this the child ventured alone to an isolated location in the hills, mountains, forest, or beach far away from human habitation.

Petroglyph--Horse Thief Lake, Washington state.
Petroglyph–Horsethief Lake, Washington state.

During their retreat, usually lasting from three to five days, the child fasted, abstaining from food, water and sleep while exposed to the elements. This  induced altered states of consciousness in which they met their guardian spirit which could appear to them in a vision or dream–they might also hear the spirit’s song, or it might speak to them. Guardian spirits usually had the form of animals, birds, thunder, or other natural phenomena. In some tribes the spirit was expected first to appear as a man or woman before announcing it was an animal. The particular guardian spirit acquired by the vision quester granted them powers which would manifest as special talents and strengths–even determining their profession as an adult.

For example, among the tribes of the Columbia River it was believed a person with a sturgeon guardian-spirit had the power to become a warrior, since sturgeon have tough skin making them difficult to kill. Guardian spirits in the form of ducks, geese or other non-violent creatures were usually possessed by orators, gamblers, traders and fishermen. A person with the guardian-spirit of an otter had great powers as a swimmer. The eagle and cougar gave powers to hunt deer while the mouse gave skill in foot racing. Thunder gave power for fighting. Guardian-spirits were believed to bring success in life such as strength, cunning, eloquence, prestige and recognition in the tribe, as well as the power to obtain wealth. It was assumed that a boy who had not received a guardian-spirit would not achieve much in his adult life. Women who had guardian-spirits were considered in some tribes as equals to men.

Among the Wasco tribe of Oregon, guardian-spirits were known as Yul-mah, according to George Aguilar, writer and Wasco tribal elder. With the power of their particular Yul-mah, some people specialized as healers, others as dream interpreters, while others communicated with the souls of the dead. Shamans, known as Twatis or “Indian Doctors” gained their powers from their Yul-mahs, and in some cases possessed a number of them depending on the feats and sacrifices they had endured. Some Twatis would convince their audiences of their powers by rubbing the bare upper portion of their body against a red-hot stove, showing no signs of burn or injury. With the help of their spirits they performed magical feats such as making drum sticks beat by themselves, or causing offerings of fresh cut meat to disappear before the eyes of the audience. The Twatis healed by sucking or casting out disease from patients, even extracting broken chipped bones and severe infections without a trace of broken skin. Despite government suppression of their activities, a few of them continued to practice until the mid-1940’s in Oregon, according to Aguilar, finally dying out with the older generations.

Pictogram--iron oxide pigments on basalt rock. Horse Thief Lake, Wa.
Pictogram–iron oxide pigments on basalt rock. Horsethief Lake, Wa.

Horsethief Lake on the banks of the Columbia River across from Dalles, Oregon, was a traditional vision-questing location for Northwest tribes. The site contains a number of petroglyphs—formed by carving or chipping the rock face—as well as pictographs, which are paintings on rock using natural pigments. The pictographs were left by vision questers, documenting their visions of guardian-spirits, according to archaeologists. The petroglyphs, much more labor intensive and public in their visibility, were created by shamans.

“She Who Watches”
Petroglyph on basalt.
Horsethief Lake, Wa.

The most well known petroglyph is “She Who Watches”or Tsagiglalal in the Wasco-Wishram language. Legend states that Tsagiglalal was originally the chief of her village, who was turned into a rock by Coyote with the command: “you shall stay here and watch over the people who will live at this place”. Archaeologist James Keyser proposes Tsagiglalal may represent a “death-cult guardian spirit”, carved by shamans to drive away the evil spirits that caused sickness. Epidemics decimated Native peoples along the Columbia–In 1824 and 1829 it is estimated eighty percent of the population died from small-pox, measles and other diseases introduced by white traders. According to Aguilar, tribal people of the past few generations have continued to visit Tsagiglalal, leaving her offerings in return for her help with personal requests such as wealth, long life, love as well as vengeance.

The site is presently a state park which can be visited only in small pre-scheduled groups conducted by a park ranger, due to its protected status as a Native sacred site. I experienced the area as charged with spiritual power, an awesome natural cathedral bearing testimony to centuries of vision-quests, painted and carved in stone. It is also a poignant reminder of once thriving peoples, decimated by the white man’s diseases then forced to abandon their ancestral homes and rich fishing grounds for reservations. The wild rapids of the Columbia River, once teaming with game and fish, have been tamed–dammed for hydroelectric power, while most salmon are now incubated in hatcheries.

Aguilar notes that the Kiksht and Warm Springs tribes no longer send their children out for vision quests, since it would subject them to child neglect laws and other laws of the land. I can only wonder whether vision quests as transformative rites of passage for adolescents might be what is needed in today’s world? In modern society, teenagers often struggle to find self-identity, meaning and belonging. Lacking “coming of age” rituals, too often they turn to sex, drugs and alcohol or rebellion in an attempt initiate themselves into adulthood. Vision quests could provide teenagers with a transitional ritual by which they could discover their selfhood, spirituality and sense of life direction while being mentored by adults who have been through the same experience themselves.

Vision quests for adults—natives and non-natives alike—are again being practiced today, involving retreats into the wilderness, fasting and seeking a vision of one’s guardian spirit. They are used to mark turning points in an individual’s life, for finding spiritual guidance and renewed sense of purpose while connecting with the powers of nature.


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