Spirituality and Dreams: A Blend of Native and Christian Traditions

Pamela Woodman and Jayne Gackenbach

This is a summary of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Dreams, Berkeley, Calif, 1996.


This is an in depth interview study of three informants associated with a central Alberta Cree reservation on the relationship between spirituality and dream experiences. The extent of interaction between spirituality and dreams varied as a function of type of religious affiliation and culture (Native Cree Spirituality or Catholic Christian).

Spirituality and Dreams: A Blend of Native and Christian Traditions

Given the complexity of contemporary Native spiritual practices as being influenced by both traditional Native spiritual beliefs and western Christianity and the centrality of dreams to Native culture, the topic of this paper is the relationship between these forms of spirituality as expressed in dreams. It was predicted that through the interviews conducted for this study we would identify potential relationships between the spiritual practices of the informants and their dream experiences. Furthermore, it was expected that the external manifestations of the spiritual practices (e.g., traditional ceremonies) would address the nature of the subjects' dreams and that the deeper, internal manifestations of their dreams would address their spirituality.

Given the centrality of dreams within traditional Native spirituality, it was anticipated that more Native elements/qualities would be identified in the dreams of the subjects who practiced Native spirituality than Christian elements. Furthermore, it was expected that a substantial difference would be demonstrated between the dreams of the three subjects, as a consequence of their differing spiritual and cultural orientations. The hypothesis of this study, therefore, was that variations in emphasis and understanding of dreams would be observed between subjects based upon their religious orientation and their relationship to the Cree community. Also, differences in their spiritual practices would be shown to influence the relationship between their spirituality and dreams. And finally, variations in the subjects' heritage's were expected to influence the importance ascribed to dreams by each of them.

The method used to investigate this relationship involved semi-structured interviews of three individuals who were associated with one particular Cree band. Each participant was asked the same panel of questions, though some variations between interviews occurred. The material covered included demographics and the subject's history of dream experiences. Questions were then asked about religious affiliation and spiritual practices. Each subject was asked to relate in detail one spiritually and one non-spiritually significant dream (self-defined). Questions were asked regarding the significance of these dreams and the elements or feelings associated with these dreams which held significance for the dreamer.

The data obtained through these interviews was analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively in order to determine the relationship that existed between the spirituality and dream lives of these subjects both individually and collectively. Variations were noted as a function of both their religiosity and their cultural affiliation.

The qualitative analysis of the data was conducted. The interviews were transcribed and coded (i.e., interview, page, paragraph, and sentence). Each interview was analyzed individually and then a cross-case analysis was performed. As each interview was conducted using the same semi-structured format, four main themes emerged from the data obtained: (1) spirituality, (2) dreams, (3) interactions of spirituality and dreams, and (4) after-affects of dreams. Consequently, sensitizing concepts which emerged from the data were identified and analyses were performed using this structure. Based on the sensitizing concepts indigenous typologies were constructed, with each cell being made up of idea units (i.e., words, phrases, and paragraphs). Word counts were performed on each of the cells of the typologies in order to aid in identification of meaningful concepts for the subjects and for use in performing Chi-square analyses to determine the significance of these concepts. Characterizations of each of the cells were derived from the material. These characterizations made it possible for cross-case analyses to be performed on material that was common between the three interviews.

The first interview was conducted with an elderly Catholic priest who was currently served the band. Though he was white, he had begun to incorporate some of the Native ways into his repertoire of behaviors and cognitive processes. For him, integration of Native and Christian traditions meant that Native ways were "added on to" the Christian. He recognized there an interaction between his spirituality and his dreams, which was borne out when he discussed his spiritual dream, but failed to develop this discussion. He attributed his knowledge about dreams to his interactions with the Native population at both this and a previous reservation, though he tended to apply this knowledge in a very impersonal way. It was further noted that he believed there to be a distinction between the various dream states and suggested that understanding the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the dream was significant in order to correctly ascertain the importance of the dream and its underlying meaning(s).

One of the principal findings which emerged from the priest's interview was the difference in emphasis and affect between his spiritual and nonspiritual dreams. For example, his spiritual dream "spoke" to him about the necessity of a dramatic life-style change which he would have to experience in order to attain a happy and meaningful existence. Consequently, this dream focused not only on his present state, but caused him to ponder the future consequences of the life that he chose to lead. On the other hand, his non-spiritual dream took him back into his past where experiences within the Catholic school system caused him to feel loved and accomplished. In conclusion, it was felt that the priest had only begun to appreciate the value of dreams once he became associated with the Native community.

The second interview was with a middle aged Cree woman who had treaty status and was raised on the band property. For her, integration of Christianity and Native traditions was based on a foundation of Native spirituality. Christian elements which were consistent with her own spiritual understandings were added to this tradition. She had a very rich and developed dream tradition and demonstrated a complete integration of her spirituality with her dream life. She felt dreams were instrumental in attaining balance in one's life, for an imbalance would manifest itself in a limited understanding of the messages of dreams, or in their actual frequencies, and would also hinder the connectiveness one strove to maintain with the Creator. However, when balance was maintained, dreams could heighten the awareness of the dreamer both to the physical and the spiritual realms.

It is significant to note that this Cree woman appeared to experience some confusion over the issue of states of consciousness while dreaming. For example, she expressed some confusion over which state (i.e., the dreaming or waking states) was, in fact, reality and seemed able to experience dream consciousness or lucid dreaming. This confusion may have stemmed partially from the blending of her Cree heritage with her Catholic upbringing and partially from the cultural differences of interviewer and interviewee.

One of the central aspects of the interview focused on the relationship of her dreams (i.e., both the spiritual and non-spiritual) to her future role in her community. For instance, the spiritual dream spoke to her of eventually entering into the role of a healer for her community. On the other hand, the non-spiritual dream stressed that in order for her to be an effective healer, she would have to heal her own wounds first. These two dreams worked together to lay the foundation for her to minister to the needs of others in an effectual and "spiritually ordained" fashion. This woman had early in her life learned, due to her mothers who was Native but rejected it and embraced Catholicism, that dreams were at best to be ignored and at worst to be condemned as tools of the devil. It was predominantly through association with other Natives that she was able to gain a more positive attitude about dreams and learn how to apply their messages to her day to day life.

The final interview was with a white woman who had attained treaty status through marriage to a Cree man. She had lived many years in close proximity to Native communities and therefore had had a good deal of exposure to their ways even as a child. She grew up in a strict Catholic home but eventually chose to adopt more of the Cree ways and to decrease her association with the Catholic church. However, she continued to practice some of the Catholic traditions and integrated the two traditions in a way that was comfortable for her. She gained an appreciation for the importance of dreams from the Native communities with which she associated. She had begun, through the tutelage of a Cree dream shaman, to open herself up to the messages that lay beneath the surface of her dreams and to heed their guidance. However, she continued to be influenced by the white community in that she appeared to designate specific types of dreams as significant over others.

One of the significance themes which emerged from this woman's interview was the difference in expressiveness when she related her two dreams. For example, she was animated and descriptive when she focused on her spiritual dream. On the other hand, she was terse and flat when she related her non-spiritual dream experience. Though she identified both dreams as being significant, she failed to flesh out the details of the non-spiritual experience or to identify any significant elements or feelings contained within the dream apart from the presence of her children. However, while discussing this dream, she began to reassess its importance and hinted that maybe she had overlooked possible meanings contained within it.

This woman appeared to have a general understanding of the role that dreams can play in ones life but failed to apply this knowledge consistently to her own experiences. When she experienced a distressing or thought-provoking dream, she would turn to a Cree friend in order to unveil the message brought by the dream. Through this relationship and other connections she has with this Native community she was becoming more active in circles where dreams are held with a certain reverence and where she could freely talk of her experiences and receive help interpreting them.

The cross-case analysis revealed some interesting information about the subjects. The theme of journeying was present in all of the interviews. This referred not only to movement along a spiritual path, but also in the more mundane areas of life. Another theme that arose was the significant influence of the Native community on these subjects' understanding and acceptance of the importance of dreams within their lives.

Variations and similarities were noted between the different subjects in this study. For example, each subject was impacted by the spiritual dream they related to a greater degree than the non-spiritual dream they had experienced. The Cree woman showed the deepest appreciation for the significance of her non-spiritual dream, which may have been the consequence of her more highly developed dream tradition.

The amount of emphasis given to any particular area of conversation was in keeping with the researchers' expectations. For example, the priest focused predominantly on Christian spirituality while the Cree woman focused mainly on Native spirituality. None of the subjects offered much material on the topic of integration, though the women (who practiced a blend of Christian and Native traditions) felt the relationship between dreams and spirituality to be significant.

The material obtained from the interviews and the analyses performed yielded results which were consistent with the predictions of the researchers. Culture and religiosity were seen to influence the beliefs of these individuals regarding the importance and significance of dreams and to influence the use to which they were put. Furthermore, variations were demonstrated between subjects regarding their awareness of interactions between dream experiences and spiritual practices. In conclusion, it appeared that the Native community had a much stronger grasp of how to incorporate Christian and Native traditions in such a way as to validate the claims of both. Each of the subjects related as to how they perceived the Native community to be much more accepting of others and of how they tend to validate experiences without first judging them against predetermined standards of acceptability. Consequently, the dream traditions of the Native communities tended to validate dream experiences as those in which vital information about the dreamer or their community might be given and paid heed to these messages, whether spiritually impactful or not. Believing there to be an important interrelationship between dreams and spirituality, Natives have adopted a system which demonstrates openness to experience as a milestone necessary to be reached in order to hear the messages that dreams bring and to remain in communion with the One who provided us with these rich experiences.

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