People have asked me about Vision Questing and there is really no common way that a quest is done. There are common elements, but it really depends on the elder or person who is leading the quest. The quester needs to ask questions to know how their leader shares the tradition. While my elder shared his way… my preference is to adapt to the person and what they are asking. Thus this is a story about how I quested with my elder’s assistance and what he taught me. But beware the cookbook variety of a quest – there is no singular right way.
I think it is a valuable thing to ask why quest at all? There are points in my life that I was called to quest… to retreat and sit on the earth, on a mountain or next to a stream in silence and call for spirit and to listen. The first time I did so was early in my work with sweat lodge. I wanted to understand the call to hold sweats for other people and how. While I had learned from several elders the traditions, I had not really listened to my heart and spirit concerning the connection to the lodge. So I sat on a mountain about 2500 feet above the area where I lived for 2 days and 2 nights. When I returned to the valley, I became very committed to holding lodge for others in my community and the world… that has not changed for 18 years.
The second time I quested was to create a relationship with my medicine man and elder. While it was the shortest time that I quested, it was probably the most intense as it was to learning his traditions that I was dedicating my link. On my fourth formal quest I was intending holding a sacred chanunpa for community. This four day and four night quest was about a whole life time commitment. So there are many reasons to quest. A few others reasons could include a change in life that is significant, like initiation into adulthood or a relationship or a new circumstance in life. People quest for those that are ill so they will be healed. People quest to discover a new song or medicine in their lives. My elder’s brother quested late into his 70’s as he aged every year on the same spot. The point is that we are willing to put it all on the line and listen to spirit in terms of the change which is occurring in and with life.
To work with a leader or an elder on a quest means asking them to pray, lead and take care of you during the time before, during and after the quest. This link should be with a person of trust and clarity. Conversations and sharing intention long before a quest is good, but I have also put someone on the mountain who had prepared and came to the mountain seeking someone to put them up. The mountain is a place where the spirits and ancestors come to one and we sit and listen to the earth. In some cases it is a sacred place held for generations for this kind of work… in other cases it can be a location near the elder’s location and they know the spirits of that place.
The quest is made up of sweat lodges, walking to spot, creating a circle or pit for questing, prayers and songs as well as community support for the person on the quest. When I quested, I had to request the quest not only informally of my elder ahead of time, but also the day of the quest I asked him with a loaded chanunpa and offered him tobacco for the quest. Not everyone holds a sacred pipe, some hold bundles or some hold a sacred drum or object. The point is there is an item that represents and holds prayer for the individual. Bundles are the easiest and one of the simplest ways to hold prayer. I offered my pipe to my elder and he spoke to me about what I had prepared for the quest and what I needed to do on the quest. He also shared with me how long he felt I should be there. When I first went to the mountain it was 2 days, but with my elder he started with 1 night and 1 day. Then we worked up to longer periods. But he was the final decider of the time I needed to sit on the mountain.
I was also asked to create prayer ties and flags for the area where I was going to sit. Ties are small squares of colored fabric tied with tobacco, corn mean or sacred dirt in them onto a long string. Since he asked me to make 4 lines of ties for each of the sides of my questing spot, I had a very long string of ties for my quest. In his case, I worked with the colors related to his medicine wheel. The colors depended on the symbols which we discussed. But the essence of the ties is to create protection around the spot while on the mountain praying. The flags are the colors attached to a stick for the four corners of the spot. Onto each stick I wound my prayer ties so they could easily be unwound for the quest.
In some cases, especially with a pipe, there may be other prayer flags made for a place to set the pipe. But these are unique to the tribe. For those that hold a bundle, I ask them to choose a rock or stone from near the spot to have in their circle. On this stone they can burn sweet grass or sage as they pray and hold their bundle. Some traditions use wooden bowels and these hold corn meal or sacred food for the spirits. In any case, the center altar or sacred spot is a place of focus, to do something and to link to the spirits of the place. Offering tobacco or meal to the directions as one sits on a spot is a common tradition among many elders.
The quest begins in our tradition at the point the fire is lit for the first sweat lodge. But many start fasting at sun rise. My elder loved to put people on the mountain at dusk. I prefer late afternoon or noon. But the time to go up will determine the fire start. We use rocks in this lodge at about half or less the than a normal full lodge. It is not about being hot or healing heat, it is about prayer for this lodge and setting the community intent and linking with the quester. So I like 7-14 rocks to represent the directions.
In my case, I entered the lodge while the rocks were heating and sat in silence across from the door. My best friend and soon to be wife was my support person. She carried my fire, which means she asked for protection and actually kept a fire going the whole time I was on the mountain. This is sometimes not possible due to weather or fire bans, so this person is all about keeping their intention focused on the person in prayer… carrying the fire in the heart.
There was a rock carrier as well as others who helped with my quests. In each case, there is a burden created and I like to offer a give-away or gifts to each of them for their support. The community is connected to the vision quest while it is happening so these give aways are gratitude for what these people offer while one is on the mountain.
I followed my elder’s lead when it came to what, when to pray and how to act in the lodges. It is so different, that I can’t really say anything about it here. He liked to cover his questers with a blanket when they leave their opening lodge because the quester is now in the spirit world like a ghost. The other participants do not look directly at the quester at the end of the lodge. I have always liked this and feel that any way silence can be created around the person is preferable. Walking up the mountain, I was “carried” by my community and support people. I walked with my staff and pipe, but others carried my bundle of flags, ties and blankets for being in the circle. We stopped 4 times on the way up to take time, honor the spirits and rest.
Setting up the circle on the mountain is the responsibility of the support staff and elder. They will lay out the prayer tie strings and place the flags. In my case, there were songs sung for the directions and a calling song for the spirits. When all was setup as had been discussed a final song is sung and the support staff left me to be with the mountain. Since it was night, I curled up in my blanket and did my first prayers, but in general, there are four formal times to pray, sunset, midnight, sunrise and noon. But I find myself praying or singing songs throughout my time on the mountain. When I first went for one day, sitting in the circle was all I did. But on some quests I have walked out of the circle and moved around, but only during the day. All of this is done close to the spot.
As to a vision… well, it is about paying attention. The birds, the bugs, the branches of trees, the blades of grass…. Anything can become significant and important to intent. Being quiet and listening is the best. As the fast continues, the mind clears, the sun shines down on the real things of life. Stars illuminate what is key to living in a good way. What was important may fall away to nothing, what is important becomes very clear. In the end, the vision is something really sacred to the individual. I was taught that one does not share visions lightly, though one might share that they saw this or that bird or animal. What occurs to the heart and mind and calls one from spirit is really sacred, often shared only with ones elder for clarification.
When the quest is coming to a close, the elder will determine the right moment to return. He or she often checks on the person during the fasting time. We give water to the people questing. Some elders allow the person to have spirit food, which is small bit of dried meat and salt. But it depends on the elder and people’s ability to commit to their time on the mountain.
Upon return, the lodge fire is already going. In fact sweats will often be poured while the person is on the mountain. In some cases the fire is kept burning the whole time. Community gathers to send forth prayers for the quester and make sure the quester is being remembered. The closing lodge is short, two rounds, no more. This lodge is a time to say thanks and to share ones thanks for the community. We enter a ghost, but leave a reborn person. A closing meal is shared with community. The closing meal is often soup or something gentle because breaking a fast is hard on the body. We are restoring our body with our spirit complete and renewed.
Give away ceremony at the end is a way to honor those that help with the quest and often occurs after the meal. It does not need to be a big thing, but something significant for the people involved. I gave gifts to my elder but also a sizable donation of money because two to four days is a big commitment of his time and energy. It would be easy to say that there is an X charge for a quest, but these traditions are not about that…. But it is important to understand there are costs for food, wood, herbs and everything that makes up a quest. Elders can’t do these things for free…. And it is important to recognize how much it takes to be on the mountain. Plus, as my elder said, the more you are responsible for the burden placed on others, the more you become responsible for the vision and things that spirit has given for the time on the earth.
Vision quest for me is a commitment. It is probably one of the most beautiful things I have ever done and continue to do. I have spent 3-6 months preparing my heart, mind and body to quest, especially my longest quest. But quest can also be a return to the mountains in silence for a day and sitting with the earth after one has done a formal quest. I like to do this every year around my questing time to link to my commitments and to eliminate what is getting in the way of that important commitment.