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Five Thousand Years of Dream Images

Native rock art at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site in Minnesota.

Key points

  • Native rock art captures the numinous dream images of thousands of generations of peoples over immense spans of time.
  • These dream images appear to be mostly of sacred spirit beings important in the cosmologies of Native peoples.
  • Some of the images very likely represent "shamanic experiences" where healing powers were thought to be obtained.

My daughter and I recently visited the Jeffers Petroglyphs site — a Native American rock art site in Southwestern Minnesota that was used continuously by Native peoples for over 5,000 years. When the glaciers receded after the last Ice Age, they left behind a very rare surface exposure of a half-mile expanse of red quartzite that is well over a billion years old.

There are an estimated 2,500 images etched into the rock at Jeffers by Native peoples over this vast expanse of 5,000 years. The most recent were etched during the last century when the war between the Lakota peoples and the United States was being waged.

Less than an hour’s drive from Jeffers is Pipestone National Monument site where Native peoples, again for thousands of years, quarried the red catlinite softstone to make their sacred pipes used in all of their religious ceremonies.

It is easy to imagine the whole region being considered a kind of pilgrimage site for Native peoples where they could obtain materials to carve their sacred pipes and then perform rites at the Jeffers site related to astronomical observations (there are star constellation patterns etched into the stone), sleep at the site to incubate dreams, and then etch the dream images given to them by the spirit world right then and there into the redstone.

It is fair to say that most experts on Native American rock art believe that the images were received in dreams and that the Native peoples considered it dangerous to forget or to not instantiate the image into material form once it was received from the spirit world. Thus the need to record the dream image in stone.

When a pilgrimage site is involved like the Jeffers site, it is likely that people traveled to the site on a kind of “vision quest” in order to incubate a dream. The dream that occurred during such incubational ceremonies was considered a special gift or message from the spirit world and needed to be recorded. While not all images were dream images, a substantial proportion of them probably were. In short, what we have here is a 5,000-year-old archive of dream images.

Among the images etched into the red quartzite are animals, therianthropes (human-animal hybrids), mythic beings, overt dream symbols, hunting motifs, geometric forms and others. There are bison, atlatls (spear throwers), arrowheads, turtles, thunderbirds, handprints, human figures with haloes around their heads, crescent moon shapes, lances, dots, dragonflies, rectangles, perfect circles, Lakota hoop figures, stick figures, maps of astronomical constellations, wolves, dogs, bears and others.

The ethnographic literature suggests that the haloed figures depict the most powerful of shamans. Many of the animal figures were sought after power or helper animals or spirit guides/helpers. The atlatls and arrowheads are thought to be some of the oldest images (along with the haloed beings) and they represent straightforward hunting scenes as they are often paired with speared bison. Stick-figured anthropomorphs with upraised arms are thought to be a common shamanic dance posture or the moment in a dream when a special song is given to the dreamer. The thunderbird images comprise some 8% of the total images. They were spirit beings who populated the cosmologies of most of the Native peoples across what is now the USA. They were present at the creation and controlled the heavens and of course thunder and lightning. It was especially fortunate and terrifying to have them come to you in dreams, as their appearance involved the bestowal of tremendous powers and responsibilities. The turtle was another spirit being important to native cosmologies that we saw repeatedly in the rock. We especially resonated with the dozens of handprints we saw as they appeared to be an ancient and personal statement of reverence for the rock and the site. We saw at least one that appeared to be a child’s and another that had six fingers.

Our tour of the site and the thousands of images that we knew spanned so many thousands of generations of peoples deeply moved us. The centrality of the dream image in these myriad cultures, and the tour of the site itself created a deep impression on me and my daughter. It had been a site where the deepest longings, aspirations and (literal) dreams of myriad peoples over many thousands of years had been expressed. The extraordinary spiritual power of those images and of the site itself reminded me of the centrality of the dream in the human story and indeed of the deep abyssal mystery of the dream itself.

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