by Stanley Krippner, Ph.D. The Wisconsin farm where I spent my youth was located near an Indian path known as the Black Hawk Trail.
In 1832, General Henry Atkinson’s forces attacked Indian envoys that were sent by Chief Black Hawk to discuss a peaceful settlement of their differences. The resulting conflict raged for five months and was known as the Black Hawk War. The noble Sauk leader was defeated at the Battle of Bad Ax River. General Atkinson proceeded to punish the tribes that had supported Black Hawk’s cause.
I spent many hours looking for Indian arrowheads after my father had plowed the land. I found a few, and developed an interest in Native Americans, especially the Pottawatomie tribe that had lived on the land many centuries earlier. In 1950, I graduated from Fort Atkinson High School and later attended the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University. Whenever I had the opportunity, I continued to read about Native Americans, their history and their mythology.
I have kept dream diaries since my days in high school, and on the night of September 18th 1958, while engaged in my graduate studies, I dreamed that I was back in Wisconsin, camping near Lake Ripley—a popular vacation spot near our farm. However, the dream took place before Europeans had arrived in the area; there were lush woods and wild animals in my dream, as well as a Native American who was painting a remarkable design on a piece of leather. The design portrayed deer, cougars, and snakes, all co-habiting in the forest. He beckoned me to take a closer look at the painting, and then I woke up.
In my extra-curricular readings, I had run across the term “shamans,” those socially designated practitioners who obtain information from their dreams and visions, sharing this knowledge with members of their community. I was convinced that this dream character was a shaman and hoped that I would meet one someday. I had to wait until 1967, when I met Grandmother Twyla Hurd Nitsch at a conference during my tenure as the director of a dream laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. Grandmother Nitsch’s grandfather, Moses Shongo, was the last of the great Seneca medicine men, and was the custodian of spiritual traditions dating back to the days of the Iroquois Confederacy that also consisted of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Tuscaroras. Because Grandmother Nitsch and I were both speakers at the conference, I was able to converse with her, learning about the “power objects” and “power animals” that served as allies when Seneca medicine men and women conducted healing ceremonies. I suspected that the Native American in my dream was painting a canvas that included my own “power animals.”
At the same time, I was aware that dreamers tend to interpret their dreams in accord with their own pre-existing beliefs (Morewedge & Norton, 2009) or what David Feinstein (2008) and I have referred to as “personal mythology.” When meaning is attributed to dreams, an interpretation is made through the lens of one’s religious beliefs, secular desires, and world views. A dream about falling from the sky can be interpreted as succumbing to sexual desire, failing in a business venture, or as a warning not to book an airplane ticket. There is evidence that dreams may make a greater impact on behavior than waking thoughts because of their dramatic nature and their openness to a motivated interpretation (Morewedge & Norton, 2009). Over the years, I have seen how my own dreams often reflect “doctrinal compliance,” my eagerness to dream in imagery that conforms to my personal myths.
Encounters with Three Brazilian Shamans
Since then, I have met with several dozen shamans from the world’s six inhabited continents, many of them at conferences that focused on cross-cultural healing practices or on environmental activism. In May, 1992, I was invited to speak on shamanism at an ecology conference in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Paulo Xavante, a shaman from the Xavante tribe, began the day with an outdoor ritual. Much to my surprise, he showed up for my lecture that afternoon. After I had described the link between shamanic practices and environmental protection, I paused for questions and comments. Paulo was the first to raise his hand. Somewhat in apprehension, I called upon him, and (in excellent Portuguese) he said, “I hope that all of you have been listening to the doctor. What he just told you about shamans is absolutely accurate.” It was one of the finest compliments I have ever received.
The Xavante Indians of the Mato Grosso plateau of central Brazil live in a mosaic of ecosystems, sharing the land with jaguar, puma, anteaters, termites, parrots, and a variety of other wildlife. Their land has been threatened by an encroaching agricultural frontier as well as the construction of dams on their life-sustaining rivers. Nevertheless, the Xavante have tried to maintain their traditional way of life in the face of military incursions, agrobusiness corporations, missionaries, and homesteaders. Known as fierce warriors and excellent hunters, the Xavante also are skilled in fishing and land management. The dream world is an essential element of Xavante life because dreams allow them to maintain contact with their ancestors. When Xavante elders dream about the “immortals,” they share the dream with the entire village, which begins preparing a reenactment of the dream with the elders playing the roles of the ancestors. These dream ceremonies help to align the present with the past, providing cultural continuity. On other occasions, tribal members will sing and dance each other’s dreams thus developing a sense of trust among tribal members (Graham, 1995).
At that same 1992 conference, I met Peter Yanomami, another Brazilian shaman. With Paulo Xavante, he led one of the closing ceremonies after giving an impassioned speech about endangered species—which included Brazil’s native people. The Yanomami live in AmazonasState and surrounding areas extending into Venezuela. The invasion of their land by some 40,000 settlers and gold miners in the 1980s cost the lives of thousands of Yanomami, mainly to Western diseases against which they had no protective antibodies.
The Yanomami are very protective of their environment; Peter Yanomami told me that his ancestors buried their trash instead of burning it. They feared that the latter practice would sear a hole through the heavens, and that the direct rays of the sun would injure humans and other life forms. The Yanomami believe that they can travel to the heavens in their dreams, as well as to the “underground world.” The Yanomami cosmos is multi-layered and is enclosed within the abdomen of a giant boa constrictor (Jokić, 2006). Yanomami shamans also encounter the spirit world by ingesting epena or “the semen of the sun,” a snuff made from Virola, a member of the nutmeg family (Shepard, 2004, p. 389).
The Guaraní Indians in the southeast part of Brazil also have a venerable dream tradition. The tribal legends hold that in primordial times native people divided themselves into three groups, the People of the Sun, the People of the Moon, and the People of Dreams. The Xavante and the Guaraní are members of this latter group; some communities hold Dream Circles, or morning dream-sharing sessions. Often, a dream is shared that begins to give direction to the daily life of the village and it is not necessarily the dream of a pajé or shaman. Indeed, a child can have a dream that indicates a new direction for a community (Jecupé, 1998).
In April, 2004, I met João Guaraní, a pajé for the Aty Guaraní tribe, when I was attending a conference in Curitiba. He invited a few of us to a temple for a lengthy ceremony. His stately female assistants sang traditional songs, taking a break while a variety of mind-altering substances were passed around the circle–three smoking mixtures and three beverages. I expected to hallucinate or to experience intense visual imagery; instead, the effect of the substances was to induce clarity of thought that lasted for several days. I only wish I had been given the recipe for those concoctions!
The time came for each of us to make a closing statement. In the best Portuguese I could muster, I wished the Aty Guaraní well in their fight against encroachment on their lands, a battle that has driven some young people in a neighboring tribe, the Guaraní-Cayowá in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, to hang themselves in protest. I urged them to consult their dreams instead, reminding the group that the Guaraní are “People of the Dream.” João Guaraní was profoundly moved; he had no idea that I knew about the rash of suicides that has taken the lives of many young men and women, nor that I knew about the importance that the Guaraní attach to dreams.
On my return to California, I was told about the work of Kaká Werá Jecupé, a member of the Tupy-Guaraní tribe, and author of The Land of a Thousand People (1998). He tells about how the pajé is known to speak “beautiful words” (neeng-porã) that come from the heart. Dreams are important because they are moments when humans are stripped of nanderekó or rational thought. Dreamers are in a spiritual state where the awá or “integral being” can emerge, connecting them with a deeper reality. For example, some people can direct their dreams to someone who is several hundred miles distant; others can foretell both positive and negative events that will affect the community (Assunção & Jecupé, 2006).