Old Native American legends tell us the story of the Ghost Dance. American History enthusiasts (like me!) know that it was the Ghost Dance that contributed to the closing of the American West, back when white settlers and the Army Cavalry who protected them felt intimidated and scared by the ritualistic stomping and chanting designed to channel spirits (Mother Earth, the wind, the rain, and others). It seems that being afraid of things and people we don’t understand remains a tale as old as time.
The purpose of the Ghost Dance was two-fold:
On one hand, young warriors used the Dance to discover their animal spirits. This practice proves why many Natives traversed through several different personal names throughout their lives as their personalities changed, Pocahontas being one example. (Her names were Amonute, Mataoka and Pocahontas, respectively, as she grew from childhood to adolescence and finally to adulthood. Her final, Christian name was Rebecca so it’s true that she had at least four different monikers during her lifetime.
Around the age of puberty, young male members of the Plains tribes were put out in the wilderness and sometimes tied to hitching posts in the piercing, blazing sun for days and days without food or water. The heat itself was intolerable (I can’t even cut the grass for an hour. Can you imagine?) and the physical torture it entailed brought on hallucinations. This was exactly the purpose. It was believed that these hallucinations often beckoned forth the deceased members of their tribes, complete with visions and messages for these young boys seeking their identities. It was within these visions, a result of visits from their Elders, that young males learned of who they were supposed to be as adults.
Secondly, the Ghost Dance reunited tribal members who had departed to the Other Side with those still amongst The Living, giving those still inhabiting the earth a chance to learn and seek wisdom from those who had already crossed over. It is a pillar of all native societies that wisdom was to be gleaned from the old and wise ones, a practice that modern societies, sadly, no longer really emulate. In fact, across the globe, from ancient desert dwelling cultures of Nigeria to the descendants of the ancient Shang dynasty and everywhere in between, people have practiced channeling the spirits of the deceased in the pursuit of knowledge. They prayed for visits, embraced their visions and explicitly interpreted the dreams that came to them in the night, or sometimes in the blazing sun. They viewed every ethereal experience as a message and acted accordingly.
If you are still reading, you are probably a history enthusiast, or at least an avid reader. If you are still with me, congratulations…there is a point to my rambling.
I have not a drop of Native American blood coursing through my veins that I know of. In fact, I am the descendent of lines and lines of poor, illiterate Irish, English and Scottish immigrants and I have the Ancestry.com flowchart to prove it. I am as White and as Christian as it gets. But even Christianity teaches that there is a life after death, in a place called Heaven, and salvation awaits those who seek it…yes, an afterlife. It’s the same thing, no matter the culture, so don’t let people make you feel bad for considering that channeling the dead might actually be possible. So would you laugh at me if I told you I, too, pray for visits from the deceased? Well, I do.
The first time I considered that this kind of ‘visit’ might actually be a real thing was after my dad’s brother died suddenly of a massive heart attack in 2008. My dad was absolutely devastated, there was no closure for the two of them, and my dad ached to know what it was like in the new place his lifelong best friend now inhabited. Dad told me that he prayed for a visit every single night and when I asked him to explain what in the world he meant, with just a little curious prompting he revealed his very detailed and firmly held belief that if you are open to it and if you are patient, and if you pay close attention, your loved ones might come back to see you.
These visits are not to be confused with dreams. Dreams are memories and memories are not visits. Visits are just that: short, meaningful check-ins that usually contain information or an explanation for some unanswered question. They are usually symbolic and not literal, much like dreams are, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can easily tell the difference.
If you’re STILL reading, then I know you probably wish so badly for this to be true. Or maybe you just want to see how deep my ‘crazy’ goes.
Ten months after my uncle’s passing, my father reported that he received his visit. In the visit, my dad and my uncle sat on a stoop together and had a casual, easy talk. My uncle’s hands dripped in gold (he prided himself on his lifetime of working hard with his bare hands) and he reported that Heaven was “flat as a flitter” (his exact words) and that he cut grass all day, a testament to his love for working outdoors. He spoke of their misguided younger brothers, and expressed regret that he’d not done more to help them, as evidenced by the metaphorical whip marks he wore on his back and showed to my dad. In telling me this story, my dad’s emotions overcame him. There was a difference between this visit and all the other times his brother had shown up in the night in dreams. He just knew.
Other visits came because my dad craved them and prayed for them. They didn’t come often but since my dad waits for them like a child waits for Santa, he is ready for them and pays extra close attention to everything, trying to soak it all in when it does occur. Other visits had them walking down dirt roads as teenagers, rifles propped on their shoulders like they did a million times during their adolescence, speaking of magical days and special times gone by. Inevitably, they approached a fork in the road, other times it was a creek crossing, and my dad’s brother expressed sadness at having to take the path alone. He offered comfort to my grieving father and each time left him feeling loved and missed. That’s the difference, that’s how you know.
So after the passing of my husband in 2010, I also prayed for a visit and waited for his answers to come to me in my sleep. My nights were often filled with dreams of him, recollections of our years together riding in boats and drinking coffee at his parents’ house together. I still dream of him sometimes. But like I said, dreams are just memories regenerated by the brain as it cleans and resets itself each night. The dreams of my husband held sentimentality but never any answers, and no explanations. Then, after almost a year of waiting, he finally came to me. It was only once, but I immediately knew the difference when I woke up, my heart racing and my emotions overtaking me.
We sat together in a boat in our driveway, he was holding our toddler son in his lap (Ben was actually 11 at the time of the visit, but still vulnerable and sensitive, like a baby). His intent stare and focused request to me left little to my imagination: “You tell him,” he said, as he petted Ben’s blonde head, and I knew exactly what he wanted and why. His tragic, sudden death had left our child with uncertainty. Without needing to be told, I knew it was my husband’s request that I make sure to let our son know that he was loved deeply by his father. I just knew it. As sure as I wake and breathe each morning even now, I know. He has never visited since, but I still pray and wait for it if he ever decides to come see me again.
If you are STILL here, you may think I need a psychiatrist and that’s ok. But if I hadn’t experienced it myself, I would probably doubt, too. Nevertheless, maybe you’ve felt that same race of your heart to be able to see your mother again, your father, your best friend, your spouse, your child. If you were lucky enough or blessed enough to have gotten that chance, my heart spills over for you. If you haven’t, pray for it, wait for it, and be ready to listen if and when it happens. Thousands of years of history and generations upon generations of cultures and societies all over the world can’t be wrong.
(proper citations for the historical references I made are missing because I am a history teacher and I just know* these things. )
Author’s Note, April 19, 2016
I feel compelled to share a recent visit. In a series of events that can only be described as a real “March Madness,” my son Ben has given me quite a few sleepless nights as he learns how to be 16 in the most reckless ways possible. I will spare you the details but over coffee the other morning as he and I discussed his punishment options, he shared with me that his dad paid him a visit the night before. In stunned silence with my coffee cup frozen in space inches from where I was about to take a sip, I asked, “What did he say?” “He told me to straighten up,” Ben replied.
Thank you for that, Bobby.