The vision quest is a tradition among the Plains people. A man or woman seeking the way on the road of life, or trying to find the answer to a personal problem, may go on a vision quest for knowledge and enlightenment. This may mean staying on top of a hill or inside a vision pit, alone, without food or water, for as long as four days and nights. It is hard, but if the spirit voices reveal or confer a vision that shapes a person’s life, then the quest is worth all the suffering. The following tale, however, treats the vision quest with less than complete solemnity, with Sioux medicine man Lame Deer’s characteristic quirks.
A young man wanted to go on a hanbleceya, or vision seeking, to try for a dream that would give him the power to be a great medicine man. Having a high opinion of himself, he felt sure that he had been created to become great among his people and that the only thing lacking was a vision. The young man was daring and brave, eager to go up to the mountaintop. He had been brought up by good, honest people who were wise in the ancient ways and who prayed for him. All through the winter, they were busy getting him ready, feeding him wasna, corn, and plenty of good meat to make him strong. At every meal, they set aside something for the spirits so that they would help him to get a great vision. His relatives thought he had the power even before he went up, but that was putting the cart before the horse, or rather the travois before the horse, as this is an Indian legend.
When at last he started on his quest, it was a beautiful morning in late spring. The grass was up, the leaves were out, nature was at its best. Two medicine men accompanied him. They put up a sweat lodge to purify him in the hot, white breath of the sacred stream. They sanctified him with the incense of sweetgrass, rubbing his body with sage, fanning it with an eagle’s wing. They went to the hilltop with him to prepare the vision pit and make an offering of tobacco bundles. Then they told the young man to cry, to humble himself, to ask for holiness, to cry for power, for a sign from the Great Spirit, for a gift which would make him into a medicine man. After they had done all they could, they left him there.
He spent the first night in the hole the medicine men had dug for him, trembling and crying out loudly. Fear kept him awake, yet he was cocky, ready to wrestle with the spirits for the vision, the power he wanted. But no dreams came to ease his mind. Toward morning before the sun came up, he heard a voice in the swirling white mists of dawn. Speaking from no particular direction, as if it came from different places, it said:
“See here, young man, there are other spots you could have picked; there are other hills around here. Why don’t you go there to cry for a dream? You disturbed us all night, all us creatures, animals and birds; you even kept the trees awake. We couldn’t sleep. Why should you cry here? You’re a brash young man, not yet ready or worthy to receive a vision.”
But the young man clenched his teeth, determined to stick it out, resolved to force that vision to come. He spent another day in the pit, begging for enlightenment which would not come, and then another night of fear and cold and hunger.
He returned to the pit, and when dawn arrived once more, he heard the voice again:
“Stop disturbing us; go away!”
The same thing happened on the third morning. By this time he was faint with hunger, thirst, and anxiety. Even the air seemed to oppress him, to fight him. He was panting. His stomach felt shriveled up, shrunk tight against his backbone. But he was determined to endure one more night, the fourth and last. Surely the vision would come. But again he cried for it out of the dark and loneliness until he was hoarse, and still, he had no dream. Just before daybreak, he heard the same voice again, very angry:
“Why are you still here?”
He knew then that he had suffered in vain; “I have made the spirits angry. It was all for nothing.”
Now he would have to go back to his people and confess that he had gained no knowledge and no power. The only thing he could tell them was that he got bawled out every morning. Sad and cross, he replied:
“I can’t help myself; this is my last day, and I’m crying my eyes out. I know you told me to go home, but who are you to give me orders? I don’t know you. I’m going to stay until my uncles come to fetch me, whether you like it or not.”
All at once there was a rumble from a larger mountain that stood behind the hill. It became a mighty roar, and the whole hill trembled. The wind started to blow. The young man looked up and saw a boulder poised on the mountain’s summit. He saw lightning hit it, saw it sway.
Slowly the boulder moved. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, it came tumbling down the mountainside, churning up the earth, snapping huge trees as if they were little twigs. And the boulder WAS COMING RIGHT DOWN ON HIM!
The young man cried out in terror. He was paralyzed with fear, unable to move. The boulder dwarfed everything in view; it towered over the vision pit. But just as it was an arm’s length away and about to crush him, it stopped. Then, as the young man stared open-mouthed, his hair standing up, his eyes starting out of his head, the boulder ROLLED UP THE MOUNTAIN, all the way to the top. He could hardly believe what he saw.
He was still cowering motionless when he heard the roar and rumble again and saw that immense boulder coming down at him once more. This time he managed to jump out of his vision pit at the last moment. The boulder crushed it, obliterated it, grinding the young man’s peace pipe and gourd rattle into dust. Again the boulder rolled up the mountain, and again it came down.
“I’m leaving, I’m leaving!” hollered the young man.
Regaining his power of motion, he scrambled down the hill as fast as he could. This time the boulder actually leapfrogged over him, bouncing down the slope, crushing and pulverizing everything in its way. He ran unseeingly, stumbling, falling, getting up again. He did not even notice the boulder rolling up once more and coming down for the fourth time.
On this last and most fearful descent, it flew through the air in a giant leap, landing right in front of him and embedding itself so deeply in the earth that only its top was visible. The ground shook itself like a wet dog coming out of a stream and flung the young man this way and that.
Gaunt, bruised, and shaken, he stumbled back to his village. To the medicine men he said:
“I have received no vision and gained no knowledge.”
“Well, you did find out one thing,” said the older of the two, who was his uncle. “You went after your vision like a hunter after buffalo, or a warrior after scalps. You were fighting the spirits. You thought they owed you a vision. Suffering alone brings no vision nor does courage, nor does sheer willpower. A vision comes as a gift born of humility, wisdom, and patience. If from your vision quest you have learned nothing but this, then you have already learned much. Think about it.”