As to conscious intention, I wrote two indie novels, Tessa’s Dance, and its sequel, Signal Peak,1 for several reasons: I wanted to depict the heroism of Yakama Nation youth while trying to tell a decent story; I felt a duty to reflect an alternate view of reality in a way that academic and applied psychology wouldn’t sanction; and I felt told to write them.
In his review of my books, my friend Steve Newcomb at Indian Country Today recognizes in Tessa’s “troubled, flawed . . . and fierce” spirit the “metaphorical chaining of our Nations and peoples” and sees both Tessa’s Dance and Signal Peak as “excellent works to assist us with the decolonization of our existence.” While I’m very grateful for his support, I’m convinced that two features of my books are what draw praise in that regard—the place of the psychologist’s dreams in the plotline and the use of indigenous Yakama language. The former was beyond my own sense of agency (that is, given to me) and the latter does not belong to me (shared with me).
I talked to my brother and esteemed colleague, Eduardo Duran, after he finished reading Tessa’s Dance, and he asked me (no doubt facetiously), “What about this is fiction?”1 I laughed and mentioned, “Well, all the dreams the psychologist has in the books are from my own dream journal while I was working at Indian Health Service.” Dr. Duran graciously offered me a blurb for the back cover in which he astutely noted: “Tessa’s Dance blurs the line between dreamtime and what is known as real time.”
This is how that dream unfolded. I was initially trying to write a nonfiction book about the incredible disconnect between Western mental health systems in Indian Country and the alternate reality I encountered with Yakama people. I wrote a couple of ‘scholarly’ chapters, showed them to a ‘prominent New York agent,’ she liked them, and promptly told me I’d get sued if I kept naming names in the Indian Health Service system. So why not consider ‘fictionalizing’ my experience?
I spoke to my kalá (adopted grandma) and she advised me, “You have to sing your song because it’s a gift from your Creator and if you don’t, it will make you sick.”
Shortly afterwards, the Universe intervened, and I very suddenly found myself recovering from surgery. I wasn’t able to do much except stare at my laptop for about a month. I tried to move forward into what I’d started but then considered how my fledgling ‘scholarly work’, if ever successful, would end up on some dusty university library shelf and then eventually get me sued. I couldn’t get any further.
I laid on the couch a little downhearted, contemplating whether I could actually write a novel (or two), my thoughts floating around in an analytic, left hemisphere, if-and-maybe space when a voice out of nowhere whispered to me —
Tell them about me.
Who are you? I asked. Are you me?
No, I’m Tessa, she said, I’ll tell you a story and you write it.
And I began writing.
Now, was I ‘channeling’ or ‘communicating with spirits’? Like my avatar psychologist Ret Barlow in the books, I’m not much of a New Age enthusiast.
I prefer sticking with the elder guidance I received—I was being ‘given’ a song, or its equivalent in the form of a story. As Tessa’s story unfolded before me on my laptop, which is exactly how it felt, the dream journal I’ve kept since I began working at the Indian Health Service came into play.
Use the dreams, I heard. It felt like an imperative, not an idea. It came out of nowhere. It was the voice of an elder named Elisi. This story is also about the psychologist’s dreams. Put them in there. Write. K’wyaámtimt.
K’wyaámtimt: The Yakama word for enacting truth, to be true to one’s bloodline, language, and culture, to behave honestly. It takes a lot of English words to explain.
I have hesitated until now to mention that while I worked at the Yakama IHS clinic, many of the dreams in my journal came true. All of the dreams included in both novels came true in my daily life. It’s not that my dreams often come true, but they did when I was working at Yakama IHS.
For Western social scientists wanting to scan my temporal lobe or discover the difficulties of my childhood, I’m not alone in having my dreams come true. Even from within a Western research paradigm, a large survey of mostly African American college students in Virginia found 66 percent had experienced ‘paranormal dreams’2 that is, dreams subsequently reflected within ‘actual’ events.
Of course, this same study seeks to correlate such paranormal experiences with symptoms of ‘mental illness.’ Since African Americans are three times more prone to receiving the DSM label of ‘schizophrenia,’ we might wonder in what ways having visionary experiences will get you labeled as psychotic by psychiatry. When my new filmmaking friends Phil Borges, Kevin Tomlinson, and Debra Harvey Thompson finish working on their wonderful CrazyWise project, we will have more to ponder on that subject.
Although psychiatric researchers have speculated that the rate of people within the (politically-derived, biologically-fictional) racial category of ‘American Indian’ who simultaneously fit into the DSM category of schizophrenia is no greater than the ‘general population,’ we should remember that there’s no word at all for being mentally ill or psychotic or schizophrenic in any traditional language among Native Americans. I feel confident in asserting that’s likely also true for traditional indigenous languages worldwide. This is likely so because visionary, dream-time experiences are not viewed as sickness.
There are scholarly avenues through which we can understand why psychiatric words can’t be translated into indigenous languages, i.e. don’t exist in the indigenous world, but you won’t find much help within Western mental health or social science research literature. Instead, I’ll commend to you the good works of physicist F. David Peat, who spent much time with Blackfeet, Cree, and other North American native elders3 looking for a bridge between their understanding of the nature of reality and his own understanding of quantum theory.
I’ll borrow from his ideas in trying to explain to you why I’m not psychotic if I say my dreams come true, and I’m given stories to write by voices I hear in my head.
Indigenous languages depict a different version of reality pertaining to one’s relationship to the Universe. You might first think of ‘problems of translation’ imposed by differing world languages, but consider for a moment that the language you speak depicts the entire world you know, all you perceive, think, and feel. Without this tool, we have no means of communicating our experience not just to others but to ourselves.
Realize that English language derives from the Indo-European family of languages, but indigenous languages do not. There is no relationship between the two language forms. Languages with a similar heritage are easier to translate between because they contain a similar understanding of the nature of reality. I spent six years in full time work as a psychologist with Yakama people, and we almost always spoke English—my home language, their imposed language. However, Yakama language was shared with me and explained from time to time in order to help me understand client and family experiences. This process was transformative for me and also sometimes awkward. Whether speaking English or discussing Yakama concepts, my clients and I were frequently negotiating differing cultural realities.
The DSM depicts a European understanding of reality not only through its use of categories but in being an English-language document. The desire to name and categorize is a motive that is inescapable within English and other European languages. Neolithic European farmers discovered they could plant big fields with a similar crop and increase their harvests. Therefore, the possession of more land would lead to more sustenance, i.e. more wealth. The land itself became ‘objectified’ and all that pertained to having ‘more’ of it became generalized into the ‘having of more objects’. These objects had to be named and ordered. Dominance over the land of others was informed by ‘classes’ and hierarchies of people and activities and legitimized by a language of category.
Similarly, Greek and Roman thought sought to thoroughly differentiate between the self and the object world, leading to advances in mathematics and the progress of Western science. The self could be deceived, the senses too. A method needed to be developed to capture the ‘objectified’ truth of what lay external to the category of self. Adherents to mind and spirit categories began to clash over the implications of ‘objective science’ and were separated and sent to opposite corners in Post-Enlightenment thought.
This categorical thinking surged Europeans forward in their technologies while instilling a constant hunger for survival through the domination of nature and the possession of wealth. Science and the domination of nature are the historical surround through which ‘ideas’ pertaining to DSM labels become reified into ‘things one has in one’s brain.’ The brain is conceived of as yet another ‘object’ and ideas about what occurs therein should fit inside somehow. There are those among us afflicted by a deep yearning toward that goal.
Moving back to where this all got started, the idea of ‘owning’ or ‘possessing’ land is ludicrous among traditional indigenous cultures. That which is ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ is not very carefully demarked while giving and sharing are highly valued. Colonialists were terribly confused in their attempts to treaty tracts of land and habitation between themselves and their native neighbors until they caught on that native people didn’t really understand how the land could be ‘owned.’ Thereafter, the Europeans imposed their own language heritage into pieces of paper within which they affixed signatures, symbolically representing their inner identification with the surveyed categories they’d invented regarding the sacred land the natives inhabited. What native people made of all that at the time we can’t be sure.
The Europeans handed these pieces of paper to native people as they’d done in back in Europe in order to signify what they owned and dominated and what the natives could still ‘have.’ As EuroAmerican wealth and land increased, the impetus toward domination and possession preceding from their own cultural heritage and their Neolithic European ancestors moved forth into what they’d once said the natives could ‘have.’
Land cannot be owned or possessed within indigenous reality, even though the people are in an ancient and constant relationship to it, and it is in a similar relationship with them. Iroquois farmers plant squash, corn, and beans together because these foods share a similar ‘story’—they are the Three Sisters, beneficent food spirits growing from the grave of Sky Woman and the sacred Earth since the time of Creation and inextricably linked to Tsi? Niyukwaliho’=t^ (gee knee you gwa lee ho tunh), ‘our kinds of ways, our ways.’ What Europeans would order in their language as the ‘objects’ of corn, squash, and beans are perceived by the Iroquois in their interdependency and context in the ongoing life of the People.
Now consider your brain as a similar system of interdependency and context. The currently much-lauded neural connections therein (which sum to more than the number of stars in the Milky Way) are being surveyed, mapped out, categorized, and delineated. There are even ethical disputes over whether psychiatrists can use coercive techniques to ‘treat’ these mapped out sections of your own brain without your consent. They would like to come onto the ‘land of your brain’ and possess and improve it. The folly of the biopsychiatric preoccupation with trying to tease apart neural elements and reduce them to names and categories lies in its flagrant disregard for the dignity and lived context of human beings.
But the connections by which they’re entranced are entirely different than the sum of their constituent mechanisms or parts or even the subsystems of relationships seen via PET scans and their like. You cannot have a thought without a brain, of course, but you can’t have a thought without the Universe you’re inhabiting either.
Your brain is an open system continually interacting with the Universe—sending photons of light to your eyes, signals regarding mass and density to your sense of touch, compressions of air pressure across the cilia of your inner ear, etc. This constant unfolding is felt, ignored, glimpsed, or perhaps even contemplated more carefully as you construct what you think, intuit, value, your motivations, what you feel, and your conclusions. You rely totally upon the language you inhabit with other people and which inhabits you for organizing and characterizing your experience.
In this way, we are permeated by our interrelationships with the Universe while simultaneously constructing our own inner Universe. On our planet, not everyone does this in the same way and this leads to major problems.
Our understanding of the Universe-as-a-whole exists ‘only apparently’ outside of our inner selves and is highly influenced by our particular language and culture. Furthermore, from relativity theory, we know that our context as observers and experiencers affects all that we observe. We can study light as particle or wave—it will behave paradoxically in either manner depending upon the context in which we observe it. But this paradox is resolved when we accept that we are in a constant ongoing relationship with the Universe.
That is an ancient indigenous understanding, and we arrive back at it through time’s circle as an alternate language within quantum physics emerges to challenge what the rest of Western science still chronically ignores.
According to F. David Peat, his mentor David Bohm called this language, ‘rheomode’, ‘rheo’ from the Greek and meaning ‘to flow.’ Before he died, Boem intended this new physics language to offset the nouns and static categories of English language that so fail to capture the quantum world. More dramatically, before he died, Boem “met with a number of Algonkian [indigenous] speakers and was struck by the perfect bridge between their language and worldview and his own exploratory philosophy.”4
Western science construes and studies parts or categories, while languages informing Indigenous science have detected and studied relationships for many centuries longer.
We are not just a ‘biopsychosocial’ Universe but much, much more. Think of the epistemologies, ways of knowing, forever lost as indigenous languages and their insights have been suppressed and even destroyed. We should do all we can to protect and preserve what remains.
Consider how ancient Mayan astronomers without telescopes dug deep trenches in which they could lay so as to limit their visual fields and maximize their acuity. This allowed them to develop such clarity regarding movements of stars and planets that they could calculate the length of a year at 365.242 days thousands of years before modern Western scientists improved upon the equation to derive 365.2422 days. Reconsider how such sensitivity and awareness in those times might have given rise to indigenous stories about humans communicating with animals and nature. Our collective memory regarding the achievements of our ancestors may seem quite short.
In Western mental health practices, the boundary between inside and outside our selves remains marked and enforced by a European language that serves cultural hegemony and doesn’t allow entry to competing epistemologies. Within this constricted reality, I am in the category of sleep because my eyes are closed, and I’m apparently unresponsive to a world categorized as ‘external.’ But even Western science has to admit that my brain is actively functioning; my senses are active; I remain in relationship to the Universe.
From an indigenous perspective, if overnight I wander this Universe in my dreams and then re-encounter what I experience when I’m awake, I’m only continuing my particular journey as a human being. In being alerted by my native friends toward recognizing the synergy between the Universe within me and beyond me (a demarcation imposed by the confines of my English language thinking), whose ‘mental health’ is actually being assisted?
“Pay attention to your dreams,” says my kalá, “because they’re important.”
There is no discontinuity, no categorical shift between dreaming and waking, only a need to further investigate our important relationship with the Universe.
When I say a story was given to me, voices spoke in my head, and I was thereby helped to write my novels, you now have some understanding of what I mean. It arose from my interaction with the Universe and is offered back like the songs I have heard in so many sweatlodges. Thanks for reading and sharing them with others.
But please don’t tell the biopsychiatrists.
* * * * *
2 McClenon, J. (2012). A community survey of psychological symptoms: evaluating evolutionary theories regarding shamanism and schizophrenia, Mental Health, Religion & Culture
3 Peat, F. D. (2002). Blackfoot physics. Phanes Press. ISBN 1-8890482-8
4 Ibid. p. 238
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.