Telling Secrets: Stories of the Vision Quest / Robin Ridington

What I’m Reading Today


Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6T 2B2.

Abstract  / The Dunne-za, an Athapaskan hunting people of northern Alberta and British Columbia, follow a vision quest in childhood. As the individual grows with worldly knowledge, such as techniques of hunting and the ways of animals, so too he acquires the knowledge of medicine power, with the mythic tales and responsibilities of an adult within the culture. The personal knowledge/power of each individual also becomes, through stories and the gradual awareness of others, that of the group over time. Thus the individual hunter both learns, and becomes part of, the lore of the community in the course of his journey from child to elder.


In traditional Dunne-za life, every person experienced a series of childhood vision quests to which he or she referred in later life as a source of power and identity. By the time a person had become an established elder of the band, his or her “medicines,” as these powers are called in English, were known to everyone within a circle of related bands. During the course of a lifetime, what had once been intensely personal became a focal point of public information.

The circle of a person’s life among the Dunne-za was a trail of telling secrets. The childhood vision quest experience is private and secret. If a child reveals the story that came to life during the dream space alone in the bush, the power may turn against him or her. Only the old people know, through their dreaming, what story may have possessed a child away from camp. Only people whose dreams visualize the trails of animals in the bush can articulate the vision of children when they are away from camp. Only by dreaming back to their own encounters with the medicine animals of mythic times can they see themselves in the visions of children. When the children return to camp from their time alone, they sense a balance has been realized between themselves and the old people. Growing up in camp, they had come to know the medicine stories active in the lives of the old people, but had not yet discovered their own connection to the medicines. They knew the taste of every kind of meat, the warmth of fur against their skin, but not the animals themselves, alive and autonomous. They knew the medicines within the old people but not these same medicines within themselves.

When the children return to camp from the bush they can look to the old people within themselves. They can look ahead to the circle of their lives, telling secrets of the vision quest. In the span of life between child and old person, the medicine stories of a child’s experience alone in the bush become an old person’s stories known by everyone in camp. The stories become real in the theatre of their telling. They always remain secrets but during the course of a lifetime become known to a widening circle of people. By the manner of their telling secrets, Dunne-za children establish themselves as people of knowledge. Thus, the story of an individual’s life becomes part of the stories known to all. This diffusion of information balances the vision quest during which a story known to all becomes part of the child’s experience. In any small scale society where every life is known to others as a story, transformation of personal experience into culturally recognized knowledge is a powerful medium for bonding people to one another with meaning. The art of telling secrets is an important medium of communication where people know one another from living together interdependently.

My own knowledge of Dunne-za medicine stories comes from participating for a time in this interdependence. As I came to know the old people, the stories of their lives became part of my own cultural competence. I learned in much the way a child learns before his or her own vision quest experience. During the course of daily life in camp I observed that the space around these old people was treated differently from other spaces. Each old person’s space was distinctive just as the life story of each one was distinctive. I learned, as a child would learn, the facts of life about what could or could not be done in the presence of each old person. I learned that one person does not eat red berries and that it is incorrect to throw egg shells into his fire or take flash pictures in his presence. In another person’s camp, the sound of a stretched string may not be heard. Another did not play the drum.

I was told these facts about the lives of old people because it was necessary for me to know how to act properly within their spaces. Direct inquiries about the meaning of these personal taboos were not answered. Receiving replies like, “Old person don’t like that kind,” I quickly learned that in this culture you must figure things out for yourself in order to claim the knowledge as your own.

In responding to me as a child, the Dunne-za showed me how they expect children to learn. Thus, I learned that they come into possession of knowledge only by putting together pieces of information into a meaningful pattern for themselves. Children and anthropologists learn to learn by interpreting the special attributes of old people. Later, as old people, they apply themselves to the more difficult task of interpreting the special attributes of children.

See the difference? Every person counts. What we have lost as “modern social people” is immeasurable, except as a feeling of immense grief.


Google Earth image shows beaver ponds and beaver control of the streams.
Below: The area in a 1915 edition of the National Atlas of Canada shows that the beaver landscape identified with Google Earth is part of the original territory occupied by the Beaver Indian First Nation, also known as the Dunne-za or the Tsattine, or “dwellers among the beaver”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s