roots 02For the final post in my series on shamanic dreaming, I’d like to consider the role of ancestors in the shamanic tradition, and in dreams.

Holly, a woman in her fifties who has been exploring shamanism, shared the following dream:

Relatives: At my grocery store, in my home town [Note: In waking life, Holly works for a grocery co-op, though it’s not located in her home town.] My relatives have arrived and are at the front end, near the checkstands, waiting for me. My aunt Catherine [who is deceased] with other aunts, uncles, cousins. I look down the aisle and see tall Catherine, and I walk up to her and shake her hand, greeting, welcoming. I shake hands with the others… As I greet everyone, I’m thinking, “I didn’t expect to be the last one, never imagined I’d be the last one of my family.” It is a solemn time. They are my relatives, but I am the last of my family. Sun shining through the window.

In her notes about the dream, Holly said that she was “the last, but not alone… my ancestors come to initiate, acknowledge me… Catherine is the matriarch, person of power… It is up to me, I need to step up, carry the torch forward… this takes place in my store, my community, in public, up front… somber, not sad, I feel the weight of responsibility…”

I believe that this dream reflects not only a profound personal journey, an “initiation,” but also a larger communal need for connection with those who have gone before us, and the experience—so prevalent in the modern world—of facing our responsibility alone. Here, the dreamer transcends the separateness of being “the last” by recognizing that she is supported by a lineage, and a part of something larger than herself. Such recognition of connection and acknowledgement of responsibility represent the kind of healing process that could be essential to our very survival as a species.

In the shamanic tradition, there are various ways of looking at our ancestors. Generally, the ancestors are described as our own blood relatives, going back for many generations, and there is a strong emphasis on recovering the sources of the unique cultural traditions represented by distinct lineages.

There is some concern within the modern shamanic community over the appropriateness or inappropriateness of following cultural models and teachings outside of our own particular ancestry. The concern is that many people of European descent turn to other cultures (especially cultures that have been subjugated or colonized by Europeans) and borrow their sacred traditions, often distorting or diminishing those traditions in the process.

There are certainly ways that cultures can learn from each other without exploitation, and there are definitely many respectful shamanic practitioners of European descent who have learned their art from ancestral traditions other than “their own” (having been accepted and taught by skilled practitioners within those traditions). However, spiritual teachers like Apela Colorado [see Indigenous Mind Program] from cultural traditions that maintain a close connection to their indigenous roots often encourage their students to explore their own ancestral lines and discover the indigenous cultural traditions further back in their own lines of descent. This is important work, since modern people of European descent need to find their own sense of connection, rather than believing that this connection lies in some “other” world.

Holly’s dream suggests the value of connecting with our immediate ancestors, those we know to be our blood relatives. However, implied in the dream and in the shamanic tradition, there is another way of looking at the whole concept of ancestral connection. If we go back far enough—to the origins of humanity itself—we all have ancestors in common. And in a very real sense, going back even further, we are related to all living beings.

For the earliest people, there could be no “us” and “them,” because communities were tiny (by today’s standards) and local, and everyone knew everyone there was to know in their immediate surroundings: not only other humans, but the animals and plants and natural features of the environment they inhabited. Eventually, there were separate bands of humans with separate interests, who could be considered “other”—but ultimately, there was a shared root from which these distinct groups originated.

When early shamanic people communicated with their Spirit ancestors, they meant their literal deceased grandparents and great grandparents, but also the parents and grandparents of everyone else in their immediate community (since everyone was related), and often the Spirit ancestors of the animals they hunted, and the plants they gathered, and the rivers and mountains that marked their world. In fact, they recognized that not only everyone was related, but everything, was related as well.

Later, different cultures called these ancestors by different names—there was Spider Grandmother in one culture, and a Thunder God patriarch in another culture—and we began to distinguish “our own” blood relatives as having special status. But the principle behind our sense of ancestry is larger, and it is really the essence of all shamanic traditions: We are connected, we belong to a living network (beyond our present life), and we follow in the footsteps of those who preceded us and shaped our world as we know it.

The role of a shaman within society is to sustain this connection through communication with the Spirits of the ancestors—not only his or her “own” personal ancestral relatives, but with the ancestral sense of relationship itself. So, when a shamanic practitioner asks the ancestors for guidance, or calls upon them to participate in a ceremony or initiation, the ancestors who respond may look like deceased friends and relations, but they represent a lineage that is all-inclusive.

Dreams, too, can take us on a shamanic journey to meet our ancestors. In Holly’s dream, and in other dreams of our relatives, or elders, or teachers, or Spirit Helpers, we have an opportunity to experience our ultimate connectedness directly. We can recognize not only our own uniqueness and distinction, but also our place in a lineage, our part in a larger whole.