A boy and His Vision Quest
About eight thousand years ago (6000 BC), long, long before the prairie provinces Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta ever got their names, the Plains Indians lived together in families, spread over a huge territory. There were several different nations of people including the Blood, Sarcee, Peigan and Blackfoot. They hunted buffalo and used parts of the animal to make almost everything they needed: food, clothing, weapons and coverings for tipis.
There was lots of space on the wide-open prairie. If you divided the total area of land by the total number of people living there, there would have been about ten square miles for every person.
And each person was important. Each one had a purpose: hunters and shaman, mothers and warriors. No one told a person what they would be and they didn't have to go to school to learn how to do their job. The Blackfoot believed that men and women would each find their role on their own, in the great silence of the prairie.
Young boys would find their role by going on a vision quest for their guardian spirit. At the time of puberty, probably around the age of 12 to 14 years old, the boy would go off alone, being very quiet, to find out what his role in the community would be. It was important to choose a place that would be far away from any other people so the boy could face the challenge of nature on his own.
In 1954 a Sarcee elder named Pat Grasshopper described the puberty ritual.
"To get some of the... power from nature and to find a spirit that would be his protector through life, a boy would go out alone on his guardian spirit quest," he said. "He would first bathe until he was very clean and then he would live alone for three or four or five days without food."
It could sometimes take quite a while for the vision to come. Pat Grasshopper explained that while a young person was waiting he might see snakes or hawks or wolves out on the prairie but the Blackfoot believed the boy would be safe if he waited for the vision. The quest was a challenge of the boy's strength.
"Only a strong person can stay until the vision comes, for it often comes first in the form of a dangerous animal," he said. "The animal tests the person's courage. If he does not run away from it, something talks to him, something he cannot see. The voice tells him to stay a certain number of nights. At the end of that time the spirit gives the person power and tells him what his protector will be."
After the ritual the boy didn't become an adult right away. He would return to his family having changed a little from his time alone. The ritual was a way for the family to begin to let the boy grow up. The community would respect the boy's interpretation of his vision quest and they would help the young man grow into his role. When he was 16 or 18 the older people in the community would begin to train him for his task, whether it was to fight as a warrior or hunt as a hunter or heal as a medicine man.