In 2012 I was honored to be invited to present the third annual lecture in memory and celebration of John G. Neihardt, the remarkable poet and scholar who gave us Black Elk Speaks, the classic and essential work on spiritual vision in Native American tradition. I spoke about how Neihardt's dreams were his passport to the Lakota holy man, just as my dreams have been my passport to wisdom keepers of other cultures, from the Mohawk to the Mununjalli of Queensland
Dreams guide us to the necessary past, to the history we need to know and use. Dreams may also trigger and direct specific lines of research. Dreaming, we have direct access to the realm of the ancestors. Sometimes they reach to us, in dreams, as an ancient priest of Nippur appeared to the Assyriologist Herman Hilprecht when he was puzzling over the meaning of two fragments of agate or as an ancient atetshents (“dreamer”) and clanmother of the Mohawk people called me to work that required me to study her language and reconstruct the shamanic dream practices of her tradition. We can choose to reach to the ancestors through dream incubation and by developing the skills of shamanic dreaming.
The practice of dream archaeology involves reclaiming authentic knowledge of ancestral traditions, including those that may have been buried or suppressed in the course of history, through a combination of careful research, active dreamwork and shamanic journeying across time and between dimensions. The dream archaeologist combines the skills of the shaman, the scholar and the detective.
We let dreams set us assignments. Secrets of the past, of which the waking mind may know nothing or very little, come to us in dreams because we are ready for them, and because the ancestors speak to us. As dream archaeologists, we work with such dreams through focused investigation, tracking that strange word, looking again at the fragments of that figurine.
We also carry our exploration into the dream space, by learning to go back inside a dream, wide awake and conscious, as an archaeological team may penetrate to previously hidden levels of a site, or the inner caves where the great revelations are to be found. I call this technique dream reentry. It is practiced wide awake and conscious, and may be a joint venture by a whole group of active dreamers. We use shamanic drumming to fuel and focus our expeditions, using a dream image as a doorway to harvest more information, open direct dialogue with the ancestors, and go to the deeper levels of reality where the meaning of things can be found.
We are open to the phenomenon that Yeats, with poetic insight, called the “mingling of minds”. This means that when we give our best efforts and passion to our chosen work or study, we draw the support of intelligences beyond the everyday world, including those of past masters in the same field.
Dream archaeology guided my research and writing, at every turning, in the creation of the three novels that comprise my Cycle of the Iroquois - Fire Along the Sky, The Firekeeper and The Interpreter - and in the retelling of Iroquois cosmology and the reclaiming of ancestral methods of shamanic dreaming in my nonfiction Dreamways of the Iroquois.
At the Neihardt Lecture, I spoke in the presence of the Four American Kings - portraits by Jan Verelst of three Mohawk chiefs, and a Mahican, who were received like visiting sovereigns when they sailed to England in 1710 and were received by Queen Anne. I found myself dreaming into the life of one of them in the late 1980s. His name was rendered in colonial documents as Sayenqueraghta, a name I translated as Vanishing Smoke. A Mohawk of the Bear Clan, he was the grandfather of Joseph and Molly Brant. His dreaming and his war magic are reflected in the extraordinary tatttoos on his face and chest, meticulously copied by the Dutch artist, who must have wondered at their meaning and perhaps at their energy as the Mohawk posed in the typical posture of an Old World grandee.
In my novel The Interpreter, I describe the London experiences of Vanishing Smoke and the Mohawk war leader and skilled politician called Hendrick by the Dutch and the English from their own perspective. This includes the shock of finding themselves in a roiling city of over 700,000 people, when the largest city they had previously seen (Boston) had a population of only 5,000, and the Mohawk population on traditional Mohawk land had fallen to just 580 thanks to smallpox and flight to Canada.
The historian in me required me to check every detail in the historical records of the trip. The dreamer and novelist in me then enabled me to add what is not in the documents - for example, how a Bear Clan Mohawk might respond to the torment of a chained bear being mauled by attack dogs for the pleasure of gamblers, when the four "kings" were taken to a bear pit in Hockley-in-the-Hole for what the Englishmen of the time considered fine entertainment.
Fire Along the Sky, The Firekeeper and The Interpreter are now available in handsome new editions from Excelsior Editions, an imprint of the State University of New York Press.