A vision quest is a rite of passage in some Native American cultures. It is usually only undertaken by young males entering adulthood. Individual indigenous cultures have their own names for their rites of passage. “Vision quest” is an English umbrella term, and may not always be accurate or used by the cultures in question.
Among Native American cultures who have this type of rite, it usually consists of a series of ceremonies led by Elders and supported by the young man’s community. The process includes a complete fast for four days and nights, alone at a sacred site in nature which is chosen by the Elders for this purpose. Some communities have used the same sites for many generations. During this time, the young person prays and cries out to the spirits that they may have a vision, one that will help them find their purpose in life, their role in community, and how they may best serve the People.
Dreams or visions may involve natural symbolism – such as animals or forces of nature – that require interpretation by Elders. After their passage into adulthood, and guided by this experience, the young person may then become an apprentice or student of an adult who has mastered this role.
When talking to Yellow Wolf, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter came to believe that the person fasts, and stays awake and concentrates on their quest until their mind becomes “comatose.” It was then that their Weyekin (Nez Perce word) revealed itself.
New Age misappropriation
Many Non-Native, New Age and “wilderness training” schools offer what they call “vision quests” to the non-Native public. This cultural misappropriation sometimes includes New Age versions of a sweat lodge, which has at times led to untrained people causing harm and even death, such as in the James Arthur Ray manslaughter incident, which involved a 36-hour, non-Native idea of a vision quest, for which the participants paid almost $10,000.
- McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil (1940). Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, Ltd. pp. 295–300.
- King, Thomas, “Dead Indians: Too Heavy to Lift” in Hazlitt, November 30, 2012. Accessed April 3, 2016. “A quick trip to the Internet will turn up an outfit offering a one-week “Canyon Quest and Spiritual Warrior Training” course for $850 and an eight-night program called “Vision Quest,” in the tradition of someone called Stalking Wolf, “a Lipan Apache elder” who has “removed all the differences” of the vision quest, “leaving only the simple, pure format that works for everyone.” There is no fee for this workshop, though a $300-$350 donation is recommended. Stalking Wolf, by the way, was supposedly born in 1873, wandered the Americas in search of spiritual truths, and finally passed all his knowledge on to Tom Brown, Jr., a seven- year-old White boy whom he met in New Jersey. Evidently, Tom Brown, Jr., or his protégés, run the workshops, having turned Stalking Wolf’s teachings into a Dead Indian franchise.”
- O’Neill, Ann (22 June 2011). “Sweat lodge ends a free spirit’s quest”. CNN. “But she forged ahead in the next exercise, the 36-hour vision quest. She built a Native-American style medicine wheel in the desert and meditated for 36 hours without food and water.”
- Arizona sweat lodge sentencing, CNN