The Importance of Dreams in American Indian Tradition

In “The Secret History of Dreaming,” historian, dream expert and author Robert Moss explores the vital role dreams, coincidence and imagination have played throughout history. The following is an excerpt from this new book about the many ways dreams have changed the course of history

Long before the first Europeans arrived, the Woodland Indians of North America taught their children that dreams are the single most important source of both practical and spiritual guidance.
    We have a remarkable source for the dreaming practices of the Iroquois and their neighbors at the time of first contact, in the reports of Jesuit missionaries collected and translated in the seventy-three volumes of the Jesuit Relations. Though sometimes blinkered by religious intolerance and fear of demons or sorcery, the Jesuits were keen and intelligent observers. One of them, Father Joseph-François Lafitau, the superior of a mission near Montreal, has been viewed as the father of modern anthropology. Culling the Jesuit reports for clues to the dreaming practices of the First Peoples of North America at the time of first contact is a fertile exercise in dream archeology, and was one of my passions for several years. Since I have discussed the Iroquois dreaming traditions in previous books, I’ll confine myself to a brief summary here.
    The first business of the day in an Iroquois village was dream sharing, as dreams were messages from the spirits and the deeper self and might contain guidance for the community as well as the individual. The early Iroquois believed that, in dreams, we routinely travel beyond the body and the limits of time and space, can visit the future or the past, and may enter the realms of the departed and of spiritual teachers on higher levels.
    Dreaming was a survival tool. In the depths of winter, the community looked to powerful dreamers to scout out the location of game and to negotiate with the animal spirits to provide sustenance for the people. For the Iroquois, dreaming is also good medicine. The Mohawk word atetshents, which literally means “one who dreams,” is also the term for a doctor or shaman.
    The early Iroquois were not fatalists about the futures perceived in dreams, for they developed rituals and practices designed to divert — or reinforce — future episodes observed in dreams. By enacting part of a dream, under controlled circumstances, they might be able to prevent the dream from manifesting fully in the future.
    A dream of impending disaster or tragedy that felt close to fulfillment in physical reality might inspire radical enactment; for instance, a Mohawk warrior who dreamed that he was captured and fire-tortured to death by his enemies once arranged for his fellow villagers to bind him and burn him with red-hot knives and axes — but not to kill him.

    The Iroquois recognized that the spirits sometimes send certain individuals “big dreams” with major revelations about the soul’s purpose and the environment. While big dreams may contain information of vital importance to the dreamer’s personal health or physical survival, many of these powerful dreams seem to be directed at benefiting the community as a whole. This is why, among Iroquoian traditionalists, the first business of the day for the whole community was to share and tend to important dreams.
    Father Paul Ragueneau wrote in 1648, “The Hurons believe that our soul has desires other than our conscious ones, which are both natural and hidden, made known to us through dreams, which are its language. When these desires are accomplished, the soul is satisfied. But if they are not, the soul becomes angry. Not only does it fail to bring the body the health and well-being it might otherwise have done, but often it even revolts against the body, causing various diseases and even death. So most Hurons pay careful attention to their dreams! If, for instance, they have seen a javelin in a dream, they try to get it; if they have dreamed that they gave a feast, they will give one on awakening. They call this secret desire of the soul expressed by a dream, ondinnonk.”
    It was a social duty to help dreamers read the language of the soul, as revealed in their dreams, and take appropriate action. If someone experienced a particularly troubling or obscure dream, a strong dreamer, an atetshents, might be consulted on its meaning. Sometimes, if a dream seemed to contain a warning of impending death or disease, the whole community would become involved in unfolding and enacting the dream.
    Two centuries after the missionary reports collected in the Jesuit Relations were written, Iroquois elders told ethnologist Harriet Converse that you can lose your soul if you won’t listen to what your soul is telling you in dreams. The punishment for failing to heed repeated dream warnings is that the “free soul” may abandon the dreamer, leaving him to live out his life on earth as one of the walking dead, “bereft of his immortal soul.”
    The early Iroquois regarded someone who was not in touch with his or her dreams as the victim of serious soul-loss. A specialist might be called on to bring the lost dreams — and the missing vital energy — to the sufferer.
    Honoring dreams, in early Iroquois tradition, required action. Ragueneau explained, “They say that these feasts are given to oblige the soul to keep its word. They believe the soul is pleased when it sees us take action to celebrate a favorable dream, and will move faster to help us manifest it. If we fail to honor a favorable dream, they think this can prevent the dream from being fulfilled, as if the angry soul revokes its promise.”


Robert Moss is the author of “The Secret History of Dreaming” and “The Three ‘Only’ Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination.” His website is
    Excerpted from the book “The Secret History of Dreaming” © 2009 Robert Moss. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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