The Crow and Visions

Yesterday’s post was about the decisions the Crow Nation made when their culture collapsed as a result of the destruction of the buffalo by White men, as described in “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” by Jonathan Lear. Lear uses this historic, real life story to see if there are lessons we might learn to help as we are going through our own cultural devastation.

The question thus becomes as urgent practically as it is significant theoretically: Might there be a certain plasticity deeply embedded in a culture’s thick conception of courage? That is, are there ways in which a person brought up in a culture’s traditional understanding of courage might draw upon his own inner resources to broaden his understanding of what courage might be? In such a case, one would begin with a culture’s thick understanding of courage; but one would somehow find ways to thin it out: find ways to face circumstances courageously that the older thick conception never envisaged. The issue would then be one not simply of going over to the thick concepts of another culture, but of drawing on their traditions in novel ways in the face of novel challenges. If this is a possible act, it would be good to know what kind of psychological adjustments make it possible. I want to argue that Plenty Coups did make just this sort of transformation.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 658-664). Kindle Edition.

The Crow had an established practice for pushing at the limits of their understanding: they encouraged the younger members of the tribe (typically boys) to go off into nature and dream. For the Crow, the visions one had in a dream could provide access to the order of the world beyond anything available to ordinary conscious understanding. Young Plenty Coups took the traditional resource of seeking a dream-vision, and with some help from the elders in the tribe he put it to a new use. This gave the tribe resources for thought-for practical reasoning-that would not have been available to them in any other way. And it gave Plenty Coups the resources for a transformation of the virtue of courage.

The Crow, like other American Indian tribes, had a theory of dreams. They took dreams to be meaningful: revealing-often in enigmatic form-an order in the universe that was typically hidden from ordinary conscious life. They recognized that dreams were related to their wishes. Indeed, they sought dreams as a means of getting some sort of authoritative word on whether or not their wishes would be gratified.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 664-668). Kindle Edition.

I was very interested to read about this idea of a vision quest, the vision Plenty Coups had, and how his vision was integrated into the Crow culture at the time when their culture was collapsing.

The rural, Quaker culture I was raised in didn’t have a deliberate act of a vision quest. Instead, we believe as we worship and connect with the Spirit, we may experience such a vision. This might occur at any age, and perhaps more than once. Such a vision might “provide access to the order of the world beyond anything available to ordinary conscious understanding .”

I hadn’t thought of this until now, but many Quaker youth did experience a vision quest as we struggled with how to respond to the requirement to register with the Selective Service System (the “draft”) when we turned 18 years of age. Although this is still a requirement, the consequences of that decision were different, potentially life and death, in the 1960’s during the Vietnam War. My experiences actually covered a span of years and resulted in a significant spiritual deepening.

Following is a recounting of part of Plenty Coups’ dream/vision.

“Listen Plenty-Coups,” said a voice. In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words. But in all his listening he tends to his own business. He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself … The lodges of countless Bird-people were in the forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one person is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person. Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-Coups. It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.”

Obviously, allowances need to be made for the fact that this is the dream of a youth being recounted by an old man. It is likely that there have been revisions in the telling and retelling of the dream. On the other hand, this dream was recounted to the tribe at the time. The tribe may itself have collectively revised the dream in various ways. Nevertheless, the fact that he recounted his dream in public when he was nine, and that the tribe immediately incorporated the dream into its own self-understanding, gives us confidence that, in the broad scale at least, this was a piece of imaginative activity going on at the time.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 708-717). Kindle Edition.

The practice was for the youth to tell the tribe his dream, to help interpret what it means, and then to act on that interpretation.

In the dream, the dreamer recognizes that he is not able to grasp its meaning. It is as though the dream itself is calling attention to its own significance. The young dreamer, exhausted from his ordeal, was brought back to the tribe amidst much rejoicing. In a formal setting, the boy recounted his dream to the wise men of the tribe. It is fascinating to see how the Crow used dreams cooperatively. The young men were sent out to dream; and at a later ceremonial occasion the old men interpreted the young men’s dreams. The tribe relied on what it took to be the young men’s capacity to receive the world’s imaginative messages; it relied on the old men to say what these messages meant.

The elders of the tribe listened to young Plenty Coups’s dream. Yellow Bear, “the wisest man in the lodge,” offered this interpretation:

“He has been told that in his lifetime the buffalo will go away forever,” said Yellow-bear, “and that in their place on the plains will come the bulls and cows and calves of the white man. I have myself seen these Spotted-buffalo drawing loads of the white man’s goods. And once at a big fort … I saw cows and calves of the same tribe as the bulls that drew the loads. “The dream of Plenty-coups means that the white man will take and hold this country and that their Spotted-buffalo will cover the plains. He was told to think for himself, to listen, to learn to avoid disaster by the experiences of others. He was advised to develop his body but not to forget his mind. The meaning of this dream is plain to me. I see its warning. The tribes who have fought the white man have all been beaten, wiped out. By listening as the Chickadee listens we may escape this and keep our lands.”

So it seems that for the Crow, dream-interpretation consisted in showing how the vision embodied in a dream applied-or would come to apply-to reality. At the time of the dream the buffalo on the plains were still plentiful, but the Crow had reason for concern. As Richard White has pointed out, the average number of buffalo robes shipped down the Mississippi River increased from approximately 2,600 robes in 1830 to about 50,000 in 1833. In 1848 a local priest estimated that 110,000 robes were shipped downriver.

The buffalo were disappearing from traditional Sioux hunting grounds, and as a result the Sioux were pressured to move in on the Crow. It is in this context that young Plenty Coups had his dream-and it was in this context, too, that the tribe took the dream as a key to the challenges they had to face. They decided on a foreign policy that would guide their acts for the next century. They explicitly recognized in an official council that their buffalo-hunting way of life was coming to an end, and they decided to ally with the white man against their traditional enemies. This is the way they hoped to weather the oncoming coming storm and hold onto their land.

Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 718-728). Kindle Edition.

This is a fascinating story and illustration of how the Crow Nation came to find a way to navigate their cultural collapse. How they were able to learn to be at peace with the White settler-colonists while maintaining their basic culture and traditions, adapted to the loss of the buffalo.

I shared my struggles related to war, in this case the Vietnam War, and the Selective Service System with my Quaker meeting (circa 1970)

Letter to Bear Creek Monthly Meeting

Homer Moffitt, Clerk
Bear Creek Monthly Meeting

Dear Friends,

I am thankful for your kind letters and encouragement concerning my work in Indianapolis. I am learning much about love, and as I respond to the love of others, and they to mine, we are all amazed at how it grows.

I am enclosing a statement I have written concerning conscription, and my decision not to cooperate with the Selective Service System any more. I sent a copy of that statement, along with my draft cards, to my draft board.

Again, I tried very hard to follow the leading of the inner light. If I alone were making the decision, this would probably not be my choice. Thomas a’ Beckett, torn between his obligations to the Church and those to the State, was searching for guidance. When he realized all the forces that influence him—selfish desires for power and personal gain, fear of punishment or displeasing people, etc., he said. “I am loathsome.” But then he heard what he believed to be the voice of God saying, “Nevertheless, I love.”

I, too, feel shamed when I realize the factors that often influence my decisions and actions. On this matter, I have tried very hard to be sensitive to the will of God, and hope to do so in the times to come. Still somewhat uncertain that my choice is right, I am comforted in knowing that He still loves.

Jeff Kisling

In reply:

Dear Jeff,

We have found your statement explaining your relationship to the Selective Service System very moving. Several of us are aware that your decision on this has been a difficult and lonely one. We want to assure you of our love and support as you meet the events which result from your courageous stand.

On behalf of the Peace Committee of Bear Creek Monthly Meeting

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