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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Vision Quests

Vision Quests

In the Ojibwe tribe, as with many Native American tribes, young boys have often celebrated their coming-of-age by going on a "vision quest," which may vary from tribe to tribe. During the typical vision quest, a young boy fasts, prays, and seeks his spirit helper, which usually presents itself as an animal, and which becomes the young boy's lifelong aide and guide. In some places, vision quests are supervised by, or discussed afterwards, with elders.

Though vision quests are occasionally components of the coming-of-age for girls, it has been more of a universal experience for Native American boys. It has been said that the typical age for this rite is between 10 and 14. Coming-of-age rituals have traditionally followed physical markers of maturity, like the start of menstruation for girls. However, for boys, who do not have such strong physical markers, traditions like the vision quests would often follow their first kill of large game during a hunt, or after their first success in battle (Markstrom, Carol A. Empowerment of North American Indian Girls. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2008. Print.).


"Passing Into Adulthood" from Life In An Anishinabe Camp by Niki Walker

Appearance and Symbolism of Animals

While the word "doodem" is the Anishinaabe word from which we got the English word "totem," and while a doodem/totem is the animal associated with a certain clan, the idea of "totems" has gotten intertwined (at least, in popular culture) with the idea of animal spirit guides, not unlike the type of animal guide that a boy might see on his vision quest. Either way, animals, their appearances, and their qualities hold great importance in Native American culture and traditions. We see that here, with the tradition of vision quests, and we see it in Louise Erdrich's novel based on Anishinaabe culture, The Round House.

For example, there is a description of the meaning of doodems made by the main character's father on pages 153-54. He informs that "an Ojibwe person's clan meant everything at one time and no one didn't have a clan, thus you knew your place in the world and your relationship to all other beings. . . The clan system punished and rewarded; it dictated marriages and regulated commerce; it told which animals a person could hunt and which to appease, which would have pity on the doodem or a fellow being of that clan. . . .".

In another instance, when the main 13-year-old character, Joe, is discussing the recurring appearance of a "ghost" man in his life and his need for "luck" in sorting out the central crime and mystery of the story, his grandfather, Mooshum, tells him, "You go to your doodem first. . . Find the ajijaak." Joe, as the narrator, tells us, "My father and his father were ceremonially taken into the crane clan, or Ajijaak. They were supposed to be leaders and have good voices, but beyond that I'd been given no special knowledge. I told this to Mooshum." And his grandfather concludes, "That's okay. You just go straight to your doodem and watch. It will show you the luck, Joe" (133).
In the next scene, Joe goes to the lake where he has seen herons before, and he narrates, "All the herons and cranes and other shorebirds were my doodemag, my luck" (134). Sure enough, while in contemplation, he realizes there is a heron in the shoreline at which he has been staring. Not long afterwards, Joe makes a huge discovery there at the lake... One could say that Joe had his own form of a vision quest in that scene!

Another passage highlights the ubiquitous meanings and importance of animals in an Anishinaabe person's everyday life:

"My walls were painted a soft yellow. My mother had painted the walls while she was pregnant and always said she'd chosen the color because it would be right for either a girl or boy, but that halfway through the painting she knew I was a boy. She knew because each time she worked in the room a crane flew by the window, my father's doodem, as I have said. Her own clan was the turtle. My father insisted that she had arranged for the snapping turtles she'd hooked on their first date to scare him into asking her to marry him without delay. I only learned later that they'd caught the very snapper whose shell my mother's first boyfriend had carved with their initials. That boy had perished, Clemence had told me. The turtle's message had been about mortality. How my father should act with swiftness in the face of death" (147).

Finally, in this novel about Ojibwe culture and a coming-of-age story, Erdrich, in fact, added a passage about the tradition of vision quests! It reads:

"[Y]our own great-aunt was saved by a turtle. As you remember, she was of the turtle, or the mikinaak, clan. At the age of ten she was put out to fast on a small island. There she stayed one early spring, four days and four nights with her face blackened, utterly defenseless, waiting for the spirits to become her friends and adopt her. On the fifth day when her parents did not return, she knew something was wrong. She broke the paste of saliva that sealed her thirsty mouth, drank lake water, and ate a patch of strawberries that had tormented her. She made a fire, for although she was not allowed to use it on her fast, she carried with her a flint and steel. . . [S]he determined to swim to the mainland, twenty miles away. . . Her arm and legs were heavy as swollen logs, she thought that she would die, and in her struggle called out for help. At that moment she felt something rise beneath her. It was a giant and a very old mishiikenh, one of those snapping turtles. . . ." (154).

The story in this last passage corroborates the aspects of coming-of-age rites that boys (and girls) still participate in today through vision quests and the seeking of their animal spirit guide. 

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