Mon. Jun 24th, 2024

A story of life’s techniques

from Life in Blackfeet Country


By: Ronald West

My view was of the prairie where it meets the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front. When the dream came, all trace of western civilization was absent, this earth was unharmed by mankind. I was sitting on the ground, Indian style, facing the South. The wind was steady from the North West, sustained, yet not particularly strong, but with a gentle power, moving the native grasses in a continuous flutter that was perfect to behold. A small sagebrush, five or so feet in front of me, was alive with a supernatural energy that embodied the spirit voice of a nearly black Bison bull, standing, chewing its cud, only a few yards away to the East. For many hours, a time in which I did not become tired, bored or excited, but only knew a sense of well being and completion, the Bison instructed me in the nature of the Holy Woman, the Spirit of the Earth, and the powers of the Sage. Everything was taught in a very old dialect of Indian language that my spirit completely understood. When I woke up, I knew I had the power, the gift of knowledge was true. Now I only had to live my life in a certain way. No harm could come to me before my work was finished.

If the anthropologists were ever to psychologically dissect the so-called ‘Vision Quest’, they could without a doubt arrive at the conclusion that the successful questing individual had experienced a severe episode of ‘psychosis.’ A medicine man that was schooled in the Anglo concept of psychology could easily describe a successful vision quest as the ‘Big Psychosis’ without experiencing any of the negative contexts of the term and without feeling compelled to prescribe anti-psychotic drugs. Au contraire. In the Medicine Mans’ world, one prepares for the Big Psychosis as a matter of transformation to a more complete and evolved being.


The only real qualitative differences between the Anglo psychosis and the Indians ‘Big Psychosis’ is the Indian expects it, is not afraid of it, plans to come out of it, and will spend the rest of their lives learning from it. Consequently, the embraced Indian memory of the event allows for a semi-psychotic vision or ability to see, ever thereafter. In other words, the event embraced rather than suppressed, allows for the utility of the right hemisphere of the brain in the waking state via an exercised subtle shift in consciousness, post Big Psychosis. So the successful quester can‘dream state’ at will. And the Indian understands and recognizes this state for what it is and can differentiate between this state and a more ‘normal’ state. This is how the Medicine Men ‘see’ and are able to diagnose or divine, and come up with insightful answers and solutions to peoples problems. Effectively they have learned to read and heal peoples psyche, and the psyche takes care of the body.

Typically the quester is instructed, sometimes for years prior to the event, in preparation. The quester is informed that the ‘evil ones’(your ego, fears and everything in you that is ugly) will manifest first and you must remain steadfast against these things in order to accomplish arriving at the place of learning in your vision. For the true quester, actual psychosis is induced through thirst, hunger and privation and its attending chemical imbalances in the body. Via this artificially acquired near death experience, the ego breaks down and allows for what would have been previously abnormal traffic to occur in the brain. Barriers have fallen. Fear dies in your consciousness. Then the waking and dreaming states intermingle. You remember your training for this event and must remind yourself that to follow the initial fantasies and move from your  perch on the mountain precipice is lethal. These first fantasies are the false dreams. You sun and wind burn in the day and freeze during the nights. But if you are lucky, if you are strong and persevere, you will see something bigger, and begin your journey on the road to knowledge. This is when the Sovereign I, the real self, your greater potential, manifests in the archetypal beings who instruct you in the ways of superior consciousness. This is your vision. Then you will be tested. That is your life that follows.

My own fast was on the cliff of a mountain overlooking Badger Canyon just north of Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, during the spring of 1978. My Big Psychosis lasted days, even weeks after I came off of the Mountain. I slipped in and out of an altered state as my learning circumstance demanded, and I finally came to settle down in a more ‘normal’ state after an incredible adventure (following story.)

It was my old people, Alfred and Agnes Wells that set up my ‘Big Psychosis.’ Where I stayed with these old people, Badger Canyon and Heart Butte area were, up to the 1970’s, an isolated pocket of the old Indian world, far off the beaten track and had been accessible only by primitive dirt roads, old wagon roads, barely improved by the sparse grading of the trail. For much of the 20th century Heart Butte was literally cut off from the rest of the world due the primitive nature of access- winter with the roads drifted over with snow, and then high water making the fords these barely improved old wagon trails traversed impassable for stretches that lasted weeks on end. Long after the rest of the Blackfeet Indian world in Montana had been caught up by western civilization, largely due to this reservations proximity to Glacier Nation Park and the easements across the reservation of US Highway 2 and the Great Northern Railroad, Heart Butte had remained an off track and isolated hamlet largely untouched by the outside world.

Here as a young man I discovered a world that was populated by people whose psyche had changed little since the days of their great Chief Three Suns, who had the difficult task of bringing his“Pagan” (the Baptist minister/Indian Agent of those days hated this man) band of Blackfeet into the captivity of the Whiteman. Settled into what became the village of Heart Butte, these people were luckier than many Indians, in some respect, not only were they camped out long term in close proximity to their ancient holy sites, the abode of their Heroes and Gods, they were also pretty much forgotten by Washington DC, and ignored by their Christianized fellow tribesmen that ran the Tribal Headquarters at Browning, Montana. So other than the few military veterans that domiciled in the village* and had seen the outside world in its larger context, here was a village population with a very cursory and out of context English language education, and little had changed socially for nearly a century. These people had remained Indians. The medicine men still pantomime for Holy Hand game as the power animals they became in that ceremony, and in the other, related game, called stick game, the sorcerers (‘Witches’, as Floyd Heavy Runner describes them) practiced their open field combat with magic and spells as the game leaders attempted accurate divinations through the blocking spells protecting the ‘bones’ while power songs and hand drums made it all but impossible to hear during the big games at the stick game tournaments in Heart Butte’s little ‘Round Hall.’ In the surrounding area, there were a few truly wicked sorcerers who whiled away the years taking‘shots’ at each other, entertaining themselves with the powers they still knew from the generations of Indian magicians of the past. And it was through a circumstantial experience with this last, evil genius, that I first employed the power my ‘Big Psychosis’ had bestowed on me.

*A couple of young white women from the outside once accosted by chance one of these Heart Butte veterans of the Korean war and asked him how to find the house where I stayed in this hamlet of 400 or so people. He told them with a straight face something like “Ron lives up on 103rd Street by the Civic Center.” When the girls burst out laughing, he smiled and gave them proper directions.

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7 thoughts on “My Big Psychosis”
  1. Decidedly unfinished this story is…

    I agree the “Big Psychosis” has become so maligned that modern witch-doctory in the form of psychology almost has the decendants of the first people believing they should abandon it or at the very least hide it. I worked for many years with a youth who had been orphaned and taken in by his aunt. Before his parents died he was being prepared for his visions. It should have come to no surprise that as he reached puberty he began having them. Yet his aunt had lived too long in the white world and wanted the disconcerting visions to go away. You see they began troubling her too and she was not prepared at all to look at herself. However fortunate or unfortunately she gave up custody and he ended up in a different living situation. What I noticed was giving him permission to have his visions when they leaked through and encouraging him to embrace them went a very long way to making him psychically happy and strong.

    A lot of people have this need inside of them. It does no good to stuff it. It is for our use. It is better to have a guide, but our societal group can be our guide if we stop cutting off everything that makes us slightly uncomfortable.

  2. This is an unfinished story, but it pleased me because it illustrated that breathless threshold into another reality, another culture, a separate point of view. Without the first step, the first experience, you have nothing except speculation. Without the initiation, you have only the skeptic’s language trying to categorize something s/he didn’t see, hear or feel, therefore cannot possibly understand.

    I think the vision quest is a stronger force than many people realize. What drives a person to take psycho-active drugs if not a craving for a vision? Why do people practice yoga, tai-chi, meditation, even prayer? They beseech something beyond and outside their normal field of vision to communicate with them. They wish to feel connected with a force greater than themselves. That first connection is only the beginning of a story that has no true ending so can never truly be called complete.

  3. Nice observations. In the ancient Blackfoot way, one begins lower on the mountain and travels to the top over the course on a life time. Maybe three, four or five times (maximum) but most frequently once or twice will have been sufficient. It is also known as ‘setting out to destroy’ one’s self, or that is, to let go of personal history, to be recreated. In the past, as one moved through life’s events concurrent to this experience, the letting go also could be tied to a name change, for instance Angry Bull became Turtle, a notable example from Blackfoot Oral History. Ever after, when Turtle recalled Angry Bull, it would be as though talking of a different person altogether. So, in that sense it is a story that should not be completed except that one lives a full and complete life in a sense of personal evolution which is unending. And it is also true, some people prepared from childhood never required the physical experience in this severe form, but developed these gifts of ‘sight’ and a lifetime of personal evolution simply through wise and nurturing upbringing. All in all, it was so completely different (and private and personal) compared to the modern stereotype and it’s pop culture manifestations, there seems (to me) little left of what is real, and not only on the outside but withing the native world as well..

  4. I never was much for “vision questing” (personally, I don’t see it as more than a reified drug trip – but then again drugs have inspired some interesting cultural developments, so I will refrain from casting too many stones here…) – but the idea of the “great psychosis” decribed here in many ways reflects my own personal development: the idea of self-recreation, removing barriers placed upon you by society and transforming into an altogether different person. Of course, my method of self-recreation follows the path of the Nihilist rather than any kind of spiritual vision quest – but the outcome is quite similar.

    I’m reminded of a scene from a sci-fi horror film called “Pandorum” – in this scence one of the priciple charaters realizes that he is afflicted by Pandorum (a form of psychosis that is the priciple plot device in the film), but instead of viewing it as debilitation he sees a form of twisted enlightenment within it: he comes to the realization of life’s most primal truth – that life feeds upon life and all other values are derived from this principle. For me, coming into a “great psychosis” was a similar (albeit less dramatic) experience of realizing how artificial and vapid the mores and values of the culture I was raised in are and that I can create new ones to supplant the old (hence the self-recreation aspect of my own experience).

  5. Well, we had our indigenous sci-fi horror flicks in a sense of stories complete with twisted monster persona, invariably concluding people who embraced a dark view would have their heads smashed in with a large stone hammer in a cosmic/holistic cultural sense of ‘getting balanced’.. all going to a philosophy of living as a collectively beautiful organism oriented to the ‘light’ and within that framework, everything required to survive was acquired with permission in a framework of reciprocity

    In relation to the older native forms of understanding, ‘spiritual’ is a mistranslation or cultural misunderstanding reflecting western morality bias, ‘ethical’ is a better description in relation to one’s expected interaction with our surroundings (nature)

    And though drugs may be useful and known in some indigenous cultures in a sense of breaking down barriers, by no means were it universal. The system I was taught relies solely on disciplining the self and rejects mind altering substances as ‘cheating’

  6. The ethics of Native American culture are a good starting place for anyone seeking to find asylum in the country. It eases integration into communities that have never bowed to Colonial power, have always been poor by Colonial standards and have existed side by side with each other for centuries, without finding it necessary to brutally torture each other.

    Even for those who find integration difficult, learning to attune with the natural forces is an advantage. You become more aware of the changes in weather and what they mean. The wildlife give you clues as to where to find water, edible plants and the presence of predators. The soil between your fingers tells you whether it’s alive or has been damaged with poisons, devoid of nutrients.

    These are skills you can’t learn in the city, and all the technology you bring with you might not always save you, but knowing how to be one with the country will give you a fighting chance. For myself, it is a spiritual experience. I hear the heart beat of the earth in the drums. I see the eagle circling during the dance. I feel nature breathe in and expire. It gives me joy. It’s when i’m my most joyful that i see what a wonderful, breathing creature nature really is.

  7. @ Ronald West,

    Well, unlike the movies there’s no cosmic “balancing act” on the part of the universe to do anything for or against anyone – those who consider themselves “righteous” perish just as quickly and in manners often similar to those that society calls “wicked.” Those of us with the darker, more cynical point of view actually have certain advantages over the naive idealists: we’re far less likely to throw our lives away “for the sake of the cause” when some incorporeal entity calls for us to do so or to allow ourselves to be ruled by absurd notions of “law” and “morality” (which are wholly artificial).

    Regarding the drugs, I don’t use them myself but hold it against people that do – if some guy thinks he’s attaining some kind of “enlightenment” from smoking some pot or some such, more power to him (I think such folks are idiots, but I won’t lift a finger to stop them…).

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