Carol A. Hand
I don’t often speak about the liminal space I occupy between Euro-American and Ojibwe beliefs about religion and spirituality. It was especially challenging to live between (Euro-American) academic notions of rationality, objectivity, and individuality and Ojibwe traditions of spirituality, inter-dependency, and other ways of knowing. I don’t often speak of my experiences for several crucial reasons. Frist, my position on the margins as a Native American has meant that people have asked me for spiritual advice because of the romantic stereotypes they held. They expected me to be wise and saintly. I’m not under the illusion that I have any advice to offer anyone on that dimension. Second, Ojibwe cultural traditions strongly discourage sharing one’s spiritual experiences with others. This makes sense on a number of levels. Third, as a Native American woman who has worked in Euro-American institutions that openly pathologize other ways of knowing, I have kept my personal beliefs to myself as I carried out the professional, analytical and scientific tasks required of my positions. What I believe actually enhances how I do my work, but explaining this to people would be pointless at best.
Photo Credit: Blue Space Between Clouds
As I was reflecting this morning, I felt a sense of urgency about sharing a portion of a dream I had almost 40 years ago. But before I do, I need to explain why this is not something that is easy for me to do beyond what I have noted above.
Traditional Ojibwe beliefs emphasize the connection each individual has to Gitche Manitou, roughly translated as the Creator. It is the responsibility of each individual to seek his or her path through meditative rituals and live according to “pimadaziwin,” the good life (Hallowell, 1967, p. 360) or bimaadiziwin, “a healthy way of life” (Peacock & Wisuri, 2002, p. 9). Pimadaziwin represents “life in the fullest sense, life in the sense of health, longevity, and well-being, not only for oneself but for one’s family” (Hallowell, 1967, p. 360). In order to achieve pimadaziwin in the past, individuals, particularly males, were required to seek and obtain spiritual guidance through a “dream fast” as youth. Girls were also encouraged, but not required, to go through this sacred solitary ordeal, since, as life givers, their connection with the Creator was already direct (Johnston, 1976). Especially for males, the dream fast “was the foundation of all he was to be in the future. Every special aptitude, all his successes and failures, hinged upon the blessings of his supernatural helpers, rather than upon his own native or acquired endowments, or even the help of his fellow human beings” (Hallowell, 1967, p, 361).
The details of dreams or visions one had during one’s meditative ordeal were not to be shared with others (Johnston, 1976). This makes sense in small tight-knit communities where members could easily be divided by comparisons and jealousies that arose over who had visions and who did not, and competition over the most “important” or “powerful” visions. (One of my grandson’s favorite videos, Brother Bear, illustrates how important this practice is — competition among three brothers about who had the best spiritual “totem” resulted in fighting and death.) Keeping one’s visions silent also discourages the practice of judging others. If one does not know the details of another’s path, there is really no basis to judge them and deflect one’s attention away from the responsibility to follow one’s own path with integrity and fidelity for the sake of the community.
So why am I sharing this dream today, knowing I risk perpetuating stereotypes, appearing superstitious and naive, and awakening the potential for others to judge themselves as deficient because they haven’t been “blessed” with powerful dreams or superior because they’re more rational? Simply stated, I feel obligated given the state of the world today. And it’s not a dream about my path alone.
Imagine yourself standing in a huge cavernous space urged to move forward into the darkness. With each step you take, you relive each moment of your life, each thought, each action, and each failure to act. Each step, you see the effects of your thoughts and behaviors on others. Dispassionately, you weight these thoughts and actions against a universal framework of ethics. You judge your actions on the basis of the path of life you were given to follow. For each “right” choice, you feel a sense of joy and gratitude, and for each selfish or thoughtless choice, you feel the pain of those you harmed. When you finally reach the present moment, you can choose to walk the path toward light or darkness based on what you discovered about yourself. There is no room for illusions about who you have become because of your own thoughts and deeds.
Photo Credit: Cosmos-2
What this dream taught me about living was to not waste my time comparing myself to others or judging them. This is not always an easy lesson for me to follow. When I realize that the temptation to judge and compete with others is becoming too strong to resist, I look at the context and forces around me. Often I find that it’s time for me to change course, to be honest about what is my responsibility to do, and to simplify and refocus my life on what really matters on my path. I have a responsibility to do what I can in my thoughts and actions to end and prevent harm. I have a responsibility to judge actions and their consequences, but I cannot judge or demonize others whose paths I can never know.
I am sharing the message of this dream now because so many people in the world are being oppressed and harmed and murdered for things that will not bring those who have harmed them any solace on their final self-judgment walk. It is my hope that at least some may listen and realize that the choice of how we live is ours to make. The choice can bring us peace and joy or pain and shame as we face our final life review.
Hallowell, A. I, (1967). Culture and experience. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. [original work published in 1955]
Johnston, B. (1976). Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Peacock, T. & Wisuri, M. (2002). Ojibwe waasa inaabidaa: We look in all directions. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press.