Sunday, November 8, 2015

How shamans dreamed the thunderbird into being

This is how it was, says an elder of the First Peoples. There were forces much more powerful than humans that humans did not understand and could not control. Like thunder and lightning. People were terrified of the sound of the thunder and the flash of fire from above. What could they do to make this less wild, less overwhelming?
    The shamans dreamed on it. They dreamed that thunder and lightning could take a form humans could recognize and deal with. The form was still scary, but it had a shape and a personality that could be seen and with which conversation was possible.
    The shamans dreamed that thunder took the form of a giant eagle. It had to have wings because it came from the sky. The eagle was the right bird because it is a fierce, high-flying predator that can seize other birds in mid-air. All the winged ones respect it.
    When the shamans dreamed the Thunderbird into being, things changed. Now people could talk to the elemental powers of thunder and lightning as relations that had a name and a shape.

They made this thunder into a being that took the form of an eagle and called it a thunderbird. Then they could begin to be familiar with it and use it as a friend or a partner. Through their dream they were able to control this thunderbird and use it when they wanted to. The highest level a shaman could reach was when he could control the the thunder, when he could form it into a thunderbird so he could use this power from thunder and lightning. He wanted to form this energy into a being, a bird - something he could handle here on Earth. They didn't use any substance to harness this power. Instead, they formed it in their minds. [1]

The quotation is from a book by Louis Bird, an extraordinary storyteller of the Swampy Cree, or Omushkego, of northern Canada, recalling the traditions of the mitewiwin, the shamans of his people.
    His account is marvelously provocative, goading us to think about all the ways humans and beings other-than-human may have agreed to converse with each other, in an animate universe where everything is alive and conscious.
    I was once swimming in a lake when thunderheads came rolling over the scene. Everyone left the water except me. I wanted to go on swimming as long as possible, because my body loves it. Then a great humanoid figure took shape among the clouds, blacker than the rest except for the two patches of light that seemed to be eyes glaring down at me out of an angry, commanding face. I got out of the water pronto. Now that felt like a personal encounter with an elemental power.
    Louis Bird describes how the training of a shaman of his people, from the earliest age possible, emphasized learning to "solidify" - to give shape to - elemental forces in order to manage relations with them, and how this art was mastered through "dream quests". 

The elements - the atmosphere, the air, and the water - can be dangerous. One must understand how to deal with them. In his dream quest, one had to develop the ability to solidify elements that are not yet solid. For example, there are times when the wind is very destructive - it can kill you. And so some people dreamed of the north wind and the north direction as a very powerful being. A dreamer on his dream quest had to visualize the north as a being, a human form, so he can speak to it and come into its favor, so he could use it during his lifetime if possible. It could help him and be kind to him during his lifetime. [2]

I know how this works too. When I was living at the farm, a fire caused by a neighbor's effort to burn trash in big kerosene drums came raging over the hill on the south side of my property and soon claimed twenty acres of tall dead grass. Pushed by a strong south wind, the fire raced to the edge of the drive in front of my house. I had called the fire department, but there was no help in sight, and I had only a garden hose and a bucket, facing what was now a major wildfire. I was ready to jump in my car with my dogs and the unfinished typescript of my new book, when I remembered that it never hurts to ask for help.
     I walked to the western edge of the fire and did just that. I asked the elements for help.
     The wind shifted in an instant. Now it was blowing hard from the west instead of the south. It drove the fire towards the main road, and dry spruce and pine made the noise of popping firecrackers as the flames took them.
     The local fire chief turned up ten minutes later. He told me, "We didn't save your house."
     "I noticed that," I told him.
     "Your house ought to be on fire. You must have some powerful protection."
     What do you say about an episode like that? I said thank you. [3]


1. Louis Bird, The Spirit Lives in the Mind: Omushkego Stories, Lives and Dreams.  (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007) 85
2. ibid, 92.
3. I write about these and other personal encounters with elemental powers, especially lightning, in Conscious Dreaming and The Boy Who Died and Came Back.

Images (1) Painted skin representing thunderbird from the Great Lakes, 18th century. Now in the Musée du quai Branly, Paris. (2) Louis Bird in 2002, from The Spirit Lives in the Mind.

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