Observations placeholder

Lame Deer - Native American Indians - The Vision pit

Identifier

000585

Type of Spiritual Experience

Background

This account is given by Lame Deer, who both describes what the Vision pit was and also what happened to him.  .  It appears to have been a very effective technique for him and worked via a combination of mechanisms and techniques,  most of which would probably be outside any health and safety regulations today [this is a joke].

I have added humiliation because he had to go naked and wear only a blanket.  The hypoxia is due to the size of the hole he has been forced to sit in.  Despite the fact that he tries to be brave, one blanket on the top of a mountain does not keep you warm, as such he is likely to have suffered from mild hypothermia

A description of the experience

Lame Deer Seeker of Visions – John Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes

I was all alone on the hilltop.  I sat there in the vision pit, a hole dug into the hill, my arms hugging my knees as I watched the old man Chest, the medicine man who had brought me there, disappear far down in the valley.  He was just a moving  black dot among the pines and soon he was gone altogether.

…. here I was, crouched in my vision pit, left alone by myself for the first time in my life.  I was sixteen then, still had my boy's name and let me tell you, I was scared.

I was shivering and not only from the cold.  The nearest human being was many miles away, and four days and nights is a long time.  Of course, when it was all over, I would no longer be a boy, but a man.  I would have had my vision.  I would be given a man's name.

Sioux men are not afraid to endure hunger, thirst and loneliness, and I was only 96 hours away from being a man.  The thought was comforting.  Comforting too was the warmth of the star blanket which old man Chest had wrapped around me to cover my nakedness.  My grandmother had made it especially for this, my first hanblechia, my first vision seeking.  It was a beautifully designed quilt, white with a large morning star made of many pieces of brightly coloured cloth.  That star was so big is covered most of the blanket.  If Wankan Tanka the Great Spirit would give me the vision and the power, I would become a medicine man and perform many ceremonies wrapped in that quilt.....

The medicine man had also left a peace pipe with me together with a bag of kinnick kinnick – our kind of tobacco made of red willow bark....

For us Indians there is just the pipe, the earth we sit on and the open sky.  The spirit is everywhere.  Sometimes it shows itself through an animal, a bird or some trees and hills.  Sometimes it speaks from the Badlands, a stone, or even from the water.  That smoke from the peace pipe, it goes straight up to the spirit world.  But this is a two-way thing.  Power flows down to us through the smoke, through the pipe stem.  You feel that power as you hold your pipe; it moves from the pipe right into your body.  It makes your hair stand up.  That pipe is not just a thing; it is alive.  Smoking this pipe would make me feel good and help me to get rid of my fears.

As I ran my fingers along its bowl of smooth red pipestone, red like the blood of my people, I no longer felt scared....

Sounds came to me through the darkness; the cries of the wind, the whisper of the trees, the voices of nature, animal sounds, the hooting of an owl.

Suddenly I felt an overwhelming presence.  Down there with me in my cramped hole was a big bird.  The pit was only as wide as myself and I was a skinny boy, but that huge bird was flying around me as if he had the white sky to himself.  I could hear his cries, sometimes near and sometimes far, far away.

I felt feathers or a wing touching my back and head.  This feeling was so overwhelming that it was just too much for me.  I trembled and my bones turned to ice.  I grasped the rattle with the forty pieces of my grandmother's flesh.  It also had many little stones in it, tiny fossils picked up from an ant heap.  Ants collect them.  Nobody knows why.  These little stones are supposed to have a power in them.  I shook the rattle and it made a soothing sound, like rain falling on rock.  It was talking to me, but it did not calm my fears.

I took the sacred pipe in my other hand and began to sing and pray 'Tunkashila, grandfather spirit, help me'  But this did not help.  I don't know what got into me, but I was no longer myself.  I started to cry.  Crying, even my voice was different.  I sounded like an older man, I couldn't even recognise this strange voice.  I used long-ago words in my prayer, words no longer used nowadays.  I tried to wipe away my tears, but they wouldn't stop.  In the end I just pulled that quilt over me, rolled myself up in it.  Still I felt the birds wings touching me.

Slowly I perceived that a voice was trying to tell me something.  It was a bird cry, but I tell you I began to understand some of it.  That happens sometimes.  I know a lady who had a butterfly sitting on her shoulder.  That butterfly told her things.  This made her become a great medicine woman.

I heard a human voice too, strange and high pitched, a voice which could not come from an ordinary, living being.  All at once I was way up there with the birds.  The hill with the vision pit was way above everything.  I could look down even on the stars and the moon was close to my left side.  It seemed as though the earth and the stars were moving below me.

A voice said 'You are sacrificing yourself here to be a medicine man.  In time you will be one.  You will teach other medicine men.  We are the fowl people, the winged ones, the eagles and the owls.  We are a nation and you shall be our brother.  You will never kill or harm any one of us.  You are going to understand us whenever you come to seek a vision here on this hill.  You will learn about herbs and roots and you will heal people.  You will ask them for nothing in return.  A man's life is short.  Make yours a worthy one.'

I felt these voices were good, and slowly my fear left me.  I had lost all sense of time.  I did not know whether it was day or night.  I was asleep, yet wide awake.

Then I saw a shape before me.  It rose from the darkness and the swirling fog which penetrated my earth hole.  I saw this was my great grandfather, Tahca Ushte, Lame Deer, old man chief of the Minneconjou.  I could see the blood dripping from my great grandfather's chest where a white soldier had shot him.  I understood that my great grandfather wished me to take his name.  This made me glad beyond words.....

I didn't know how long I had been up there on that hill – one minute or a lifetime.  I felt a hand on my shoulder gently shaking me.  It was old man Chest, who had come for me.  He told me I had been in  the vision pit four days and four nights and that it was time to come down.  He would give me something to eat and water to drink and then I was to tell him everything that had happened to me during my hanblechia.  He would interpret my visions for me.  He told me that the vision pit had changed me in a way that I would not be able to understand at that time.  He also told me that I was no longer a boy, that I was a man now.  I was Lame Deer.

The source of the experience

Native American Indians

Concepts, symbols and science items

Symbols

Bird
Messenger

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps

Commonsteps

References