Thoughts About Dreamwork with Central Alberta Cree


A. Workshop Facilitator With Ravenwoman

I have been facilitating workshops for natives and nonnatives with Ravenwoman, a Cree woman in her 50's, . Born on the Alexander Band, Ravenwoman's father is Cree and her mother is Mohawk. Her grandmother on her mothers side of the family was a medicine woman who was very proficient with dreams, using them as spiritual guidance. Ravenwoman's great-grandfather was the founder of the Alexander band while her grandfather was the chief for 33 years. He was the most important influence on her during Ravenwoman's formative years. She would take dreams to him and he would teach her the way of the dream including the ceremony that was used in greeting the dream. When she was about three years old she told her grandfather about a dream of a white wolf. This told him that Ravenwoman was dreaming for the people and he began her training in earnest. Because she has been my primary teacher/friend in my relationship with Natives and dreams I will to speak in some detail about her by drawing from a series of intensive interviews (Gackenbach, 1992).

A.1. Ravenwoman's Experiences With Dreams

"For a lot of people dreams are teachings. My grandfather believed that if you listen to your dreams you could learn things my ancestors knew how to do," Ravenwoman recalls. When she was quite young she took on the responsibility of the younger children, which is a common practice among Native families. Ravenwoman relates how her teaching dreams of that period used to help her take care of the younger children. For instance, her mom and dad had gone grocery shopping which usually took an overnight trip. She was left with her siblings and a baby-sitter with not much food in the house. Ravenwoman dreamt of someone "showing me how to pick some herbs and some onions." When Ravenwoman awoke she told her brother that she "dreamt where we can find some things we can make a soup out of." They went and picked the things and the sitter helped them cook it. "It was good!"

Ravenwoman recalls another incident which happened during her preschool years when her brother lost money their mother had given him for milk. He came home and knew he was in trouble. He told Ravenwoman to find it in a dream. As he expected her to be able to do this it is likely she had been doing it before. She says she recalls that incident cause they were in trouble if it was not found. In her dream she asked a lady to find it. They retraced his steps and found it in the dream between the slates of a wooden sidewalk. Then she awoke and they went and got it.

Her mother had 11 children in 16 years so there were several at home when she was sent to residential school at 6 1/2 years. Her older brothers also went. She says "I made the mistake of telling the nun about my dreams and I was told it was the devil. . . I learned then not to talk to other people about it ... [and to] pretend I wasn't different."

After she left the convent school she would dream often of the devil although she never knew what he looked like. He was always trying to get her and she would wake up crying and screaming. Ravenwoman's fear of the devil was there because of her mothers strict Catholicism. However, these dreams were as fearful as what she learned about the devil at school. In a typical dream of this period she would be in a one-room house with her brother and sister who were smaller than her. The devil was trying to get in first by the door, which she blocked, then by the windows, which she also blocked. Then he came down the pipe of the pot bellied stove and tried to get the lid off. Ravenwoman struggled with him over the lid and screaming she would wake. Unfortunately, yet also "statistically normal," Ravenwoman's childhood was marked by her own illness, rape, violence and alcohol abuse.

When she went to the new school on the reserve she went to live with her grandfather. This was not unusual as she would often go to stay with him for a few weeks or months. The devil dreams intensified during this period because she was having lots of problems with her grandfathers wife (not her grandmother). "That was the time I was molested by her grandson," who was also staying with them. He seemed huge to her. She told her step-grandmother who did not believe Ravenwoman. Thus she did not feel safe in that house any more than in her own where there was a lot of violence, unless her grandfather was there. He was the chief and had a lot of responsibilities away from home. "He protected me as much as he could." She never told her grandfather about the molestation as she felt there was really not much he could have done.

During the time she was having the devil dreams she noticed that the learning/teaching, freedom and future dreams all shut down. But as she moved into adulthood these precious dreams returned. She now dreams for the family. For instance, she was told in one such dream some years ago to call all her brothers and sisters together and warn them that one of their children was in deep trouble. They needed to be especially alert and protective for two weeks. Only one sibling, her sister Delcy, did not come to the meeting. Two weeks later Delcy's daughter committed suicide. Even Ravenwoman's oldest brother who says he does not "believe" in dreams will come and do a ceremony if Ravenwoman says he should because of a dream she's had.

Ravenwoman spoke of an experience which she had twice as an illustration of the difference a lifetime makes. The experience was early in her life and reappeared a second time after menopause. Ravenwoman saw a big ball of light, pulsating energy with a voice which filled the room at 8 or 9 years of age she writes:

This was a spiritual dream of God appearing to me. In this dream I began by being afraid of something unknown to me and I wanted to hide, then I decided to pray, for in my dream I knew he would help me. Then this big ball of pulsating light appeared and I could hear the words this ball of energy was saying as an echo in the room. It said, "I am the goodness that you must follow and if you believe in me and trust me I will always be there to help you. If you wake up now you will see me." I woke up and saw this light beside my bed and I was no longer afraid. I ran to tell my parents and they said it was only a dream it had not really happened.

The most recent one occurred after she had been up awhile praying and using her pipe. It appeared in the midst of this ritual. It explained about God and that God could help her and her people. "When we pray to God we are looking to the goodness within ourselves." While with that ball of energy she said, "I had no room to be anything else but me - the real me." She said "what I felt was a total trust . . . I felt humble." "If you can feel kindness and love coming from energy, that's what it was." When I asked her what was happening in her life as an adult about the time of the experience it turned out to be a period of considerable stress. At the school she was working for as a play therapist six of the children were suicidal, her son had just broken his back, and they had just unexpectedly adopted another son who had fetal alcohol syndrome.

She explains that the same experience separated by almost 50 years takes on a different quality. "It's like when you go to a movie when you [are] a child. You see this movie and you think how fantastic and so on. Then you go again and see it as an adult but as an adult you pick up the real characters; you pick up the depth; you pick up what's really happening." These experiences she explains when they occur around menopause have meaning, richness and depth. The message to her is "this is what I've been trying to tell you all your life."

As can be seen by this brief biography throughout her life dreams have played a central role for Ravenwoman. Relevant to our work is her other training. She completed a Bachelors of General Studies in Arts and Sciences with an emphasis in psychology and Native History. Ravenwoman is currently a school counselor with the Alexander Band School. She also has Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling training through Henwood Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center, and received a certificate from Project Charlie, a chemical abuse training and education program. Ravenwoman has also received intensive training in suicide prevention, stress management, communication skills, life skills, Native culture and motivation, Indian education and curriculum development, drop out counseling for Native High School students, child sexual abuse and child abuse, and parenting skills.

A.2. Workshops Cofacilitated With Ravenwoman

Because of her training and experiences in both Cree understandings of the dream and in western understandings of the human psychic, she is an important bridge for me in my work with the Cree. In our years of working together we have not only become close friends but have also spent many hours dialoguing about the commonality and differences of our cultures. What has been refreshing is the similarities between her understanding of the dream in her culture and the scientific understanding I bring to our dialogue. For instance, she always speaks of dreams as teachings about what we need to know in order to proceed clearly into our own futures. Certainly a perspective consistent with the information processing perspective of REM sleep dreams, which are easiest to recall (Belicki, 1987). If we all paid attention to the cutting edge of our own mental capacities, REM sleep dreams, would we not be better prepared for our own future choices? The view of dreams as teachings seems to me to also echo the classic psychoanalytic perspective of dreams reflecting deep psychic issues. Although Ravenwoman would agree with this she looks to the dream for specific and concrete direction regarding the issue at hand. Again an approach in contemporary dreamwork which values the problem solving capacity of these night experiences but not as concretely as Ravenwoman.

But there are also differences in our styles of working with a dream. Ravenwoman tends to be more sensitive to specific items of content as having meaning while I tend to focus more on the process of the dream. To illustrate I recently had a dream of two white tigers lying on a stage. I walked up to them and was unharmed despite my hesitation. Ravenwoman said in her "read" of my dream that white animals represent the spiritual and are a positive signal. I read it as what am I afraid to approach. One is object emphasis based on cultural teachings while the other is process oriented focusing more on relationship between dream items.

Initially Ravenwoman's object based interpretations made me uncomfortable as they tend to be at once specific yet vague. But then my dreams began to evidence more and more animals and Natives and most recently elders. Clearly my work with Natives was bleeding into my deep unconscious so it made increasing sense for me to use cultural interpretations.

One very strong dream identified my "totem" animal and was best understood using a Native cultural perspective. I dreamt:

I was at an event of some kind largely outside. There was a hole in the ground that was an entrance to a big underground cavern. It was partially blocked by a concrete square but I saw in it a saber that I knew children who were coming to the event would try to get and possibly would fall in. I thought of going down to get it as I sat on the edge of the opening but saw that it was very gravely and that I'd slip into the deep cavern. Then a big turtle came into the cavern from below and I asked her to get the sword. She did and came out of the cavern and gave it to me.

When I woke I assumed the turtle was of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle variety as my 8 year old son used to play with them. This mixed with a turtle character in a book I had read him the night before. This certainly was an association consistent with the helping children theme in the dream. But it lacked a depth that I also felt came from the dream. Then I found the cultural interpretation that turtle is the "oldest symbol for planet Earth and is the personification of goddess energy, and the eternal Mother from which our lives evolve (Sams & Carson, 1988; p. 77)." This interpretation spoke strongly to me in that the turtle in my dreams was clearly female and came from deep within the earth to help me in my work. It wasn't until a month later that it was suggested to me that the turtle might be my totem. At which point I began to recall other dreams in the last few years of turtles. These interpretations do not work at odds to each other rather they fill each other out. One taking the waking precursors and associating them to my current concerns while the other moving the dream experience to cultural depths.

Go to:   Dreamworker:  (B).   Writing About Central Alberta Cree 
(Next Section)

Return to Table of Contents

Return to Other Papers on/by Native North Americans

Return to Spiritwatch Home Page