Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

pp 1859-1861

Vision Quest

  • Richard W. VossAffiliated withDepartment of Undergraduate Social Work, West Chester University of Pennsylvania Email author 
  • , Robert PrueAffiliated withSchool of Social Welfare, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Missouri – Kansas City

Ate wiohpeyata Father, to the West

nawwajin yelo. I am standing.

Waayanka yo! Behold me!

Ite Otateya nawajin yelo The wind blowing in my face.

I am standing.

Vision Quest Song (Lakota Ceremonial Songs 1983).


The term “vision quest” describes a psychological metaphor based upon or inspired by the spiritual practice among Native American Indians. As a psychological metaphor, the “vision quest” has been used by some clinicians to illustrate the journey of understanding one’s dreams and experiences in terms of archetypical symbols related to self-understanding and individuation (see Temagami Vision Quest Program, http://​www.​langskib.​com/​outdoor-programs-for-adults). However, as the indigenous, American Indian practice, “vision quest” is what the traditional Lakota call the Hanbleceya or “crying for a vision” ceremony (see Black Elk 1953; Lame Deer (Fire) 1972; Lame Deer (Fire) 1992). Elsewhere, this ceremony is also called a “pipe fast” since the individual faster seeking to complete the vision quest often does so holding a “loaded” pipe, filled with a tobacco mixture that has been prepared by the individual (often a medicine man or holy man; see Black Elk 1953, p. 45) who has agreed and committed to assist the individual complete his or her commitment to undergo this ordeal. Native Americans have used ceremonies to encounter the spirit world for thousands of years, and the Hanbleceya (pronounced han-bi-lech-ia) is such a ceremony.

Hanbleceya: Crying for a Vision

“Are you ready to die?” was the question posed to the first author when he spoke to a medicine man about his desire to complete a Hanbleceya. That question reflects the traditional indigenous perspective that the “vision quest” or Hanbleceya is not something one undertakes lightly or casually. It is something one does under the careful supervision of a recognized medicine man or shaman or spiritual advisor (Wicasa Wakan) who serves as one’s spiritual guide and interpreter of the spirits (Little Soldier, 1998, personal communication). Traditionally, only males conduct the Hanbleceya ceremony. No “fees” are charged for the ceremony – although a star quilt is generally given to the medicine man in gratitude for the ceremony and there is often a wopila or thanksgiving feast which concludes the ceremony where everyone is fed a meal, often comprised of meat (beef or buffalo) soup, fry bread, and chokecherry or berry sauce (wojape) by the faster. Traditional beverages offered at the meal include mint tea, coffee, Kool-Aid, or Gatorade.

One does not enter into a Hanbleceya without proper guidance and preparation. Generally, the preparation requires a year, during which time the individual faster (as he or she is called) gathers all of the materials required for the fast, which includes hosting a feast or closing meal for all those who helped with the ceremony or served as supporters and assistants, as well as prepares spiritually for the ordeal. It is important to note that completing a Hanbleceya ceremony does not make one a medicine man.

The Hanbleceya may be done by anyone; traditionally, it was only done by males, and this has changed in recent years where women also fast. Generally, the vision quest or pipe fast ceremony is undertaken by an individual who is drawn by a dream or a spiritual inclination to undergo this ceremony which incorporates a rather strenuous physical ordeal – a total solitary fast from food and water which may last anywhere from a half day or night up to 4 days and 4 nights. The medicine man chooses the location of the ritual site because of the spiritual significance or value rather than “natural beauty” of the place. Typically, such sites are often in a remote place without the intrusion of any outside interruptions or distractions. There are some well-known sites in North America where indigenous people seek visions; however, because of extensive exploitation of indigenous rituals, one should not journey to those locations unless accompanied by a recognized spiritual leader from an indigenous community. The individual faster’s own vision or dream is also taken into consideration in selecting the appropriate site for the fast. For example, one may dream of praying inside the earth, in a pit – close to the Unci (grandmother, Earth) or on a hill close to the Tunkasila (grandfather, Sky). So, all of this is discussed with the medicine man who then prepares the suitable place for the fast.

Often, people will refer to the entire experience as “going up on the hill” or “going up to pray” which reflects the common location for the Hanbleceya as a high elevated point. However, the site or location may also be in a pit or a hole dug into the ground which is then covered with tarps and earth so that the space is completely darkened. One may also complete the fast in an Inipi or sweat lodge, which is a small, low-lying dome-like structure. So, there is considerable variation here (Little Soldier, 1999, personal communication; Lame Deer 1992, pp. 190–200). The Inipikaga or purification ritual (also called a sweat lodge ceremony) is usually conducted prior to and after the Hanbleceya.

After the faster has decided to undergo the Hanbleceya or crying for a vision ceremony, he or she seeks out a medicine man-shaman, or spiritual leader (Wicasa Wakan), who is willing to take on this responsibility – it is important to note the relational quality to this ceremony. The medicine man who accepts the commitment of a faster also assumes a very serious responsibility for them, and to the spirits, as also, opens himself up to the spiritual consequences of such a commitment. If the faster is not sincere or undergoes the ceremony for the wrong reasons or is not prepared, negative consequences could result. Fr. William Stolzman has prepared an excellent instructional book, How To Take Part in Lakota Ceremonies (Stolzman 1995), which has a detailed description of the vision quest ceremony (pp. 23–39). The book is a non-Indian view of the ceremony and provides helpful advice to the non-Indian interested in learning more about the ceremony or if ever asked to assist in such a ceremony. Of course, this does not replace the instruction provided by the medicine man or spiritual advisor, who will give very specific instruction on the way he conducts the ceremony. It is very important if one is taking prescribed medications to inform the medicine man so that this can be taken into consideration in the preparations.

The Hanbleceya is often repeated; the second author has participated in numerous vision-seeking ceremonies: on the hill, in an Inipi (sweat lodge) and in isolated locations for periods of time up to four days. Having a vision is important for most Native Americans in the Plains of North America, but having a vision does not make one a shaman or medicine man (Benedict 1922; Little Soldier, 1999, personal communication). The vision quest is often the precursor to participate in the Wiwang Wacipi or Sun Dance (Standing Cloud, 1987, personal communication; Little Soldier, 1999, personal communication).

The Hanbleceya has the capacity to be a powerful adjunct to psychotherapy (Hawk Wing 1997), but should not be facilitated by anyone not properly sanctioned to do so. Native American medicine men are the psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers of their communities. The responsibility of facilitating these rituals often involves as much training as is involved with the training of a sanctioned clinicians, and it would be irresponsible to practice or lead Indian rituals without obtaining the proper training and permission to lead them.

It may be very difficult for non-Indians or individuals not familiar with the traditional ways of native people to comprehend this and other ceremonies. The ceremony is not a “show” or an adventure or some other kind of “personal enrichment experience.” It is a real spiritual encounter, which has concrete effects. “Are you prepared to die?” sums up the seriousness of these effects. There have been instances where the spirits “came for the individual” where the faster actually died while undergoing this ceremony (Little Soldier, A. 2001, 2006, personal communication), so the ordeal of the vision quest is very sobering and needs to be understood as such. One does not enter into this without due consideration of the possibility that one may not come back or that one may come back changed by their vision – it may not be the vision that one wanted. Archie Fire Lame Deer discusses this, how he went on a vision quest and when he told his visions to the medicine man learned that he was heyoka or a contrary, a thunder dreamer, which meant he would have to do the opposite (1992, p. 193).

It is important for the non-Indian to be aware of the profound spiritual significance of the vision quest ceremony for traditional American Indians, particularly if it is used or appropriated without proper authorization or permissions and preparation as a clinical method or metaphor – realizing the depth of tradition associated with this ancient ceremony.

See Also





Shamans and Shamanism


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