Debate Magazine

Research Riches & Plains Visions

By Cris

One of the fantastic and daunting things about a project which seeks to comprehend “religion” in its historical entirety and cultural variety is that it’s impossible to read everything. The field for this kind of project is enormous and is touched upon, in one way or another, by nearly every discipline in the academy. This means I can never run out of research material and if one aspect of study becomes tedious or plays itself out, it’s easy to find something new and at least for the moment, more exciting.

In this context, “new” is a relative term, given that so much material touching upon religion is old and often obscure. When the itch develops I can go to Google Scholar, plug in search terms related to religion, and have 50 articles in short order. Many will have been published years ago in obscure journals and have been largely forgotten — or worse, were never acknowledged because they were read only by the author’s peers, which may mean that perhaps 100 people read the article. Discovering these articles, many of which are brilliant, is an immense pleasure. Though I wish I could cover all of them, other projects like books, work, and teaching prevent this. Speaking of books, during the recent course of writing one I’ve had the pleasure of reading several articles which deserve mention. Over the next few months, I’ll be covering as many as I can. Some will have more coverage and some less. My hope is to bring attention to superb or provocative work which languishes in the archives.

For those interested in historic Native American religion, I strongly recommend “The Plains Vision Experience: A Study of Power and Privilege” (1971) by Patricia Albers and Seymour Parker. This is one of those rare or old school articles in cultural anthropology where the authors formed a hypothesis and tested it with ethnographic data. They hypothesized that the social construction and cultural import of the vision experience would vary in accord with societal type. They identified three kinds of Plains societies: peripheral hunter-gatherers (e.g., Shoshoni, Flathead, Kutenai), True Plains societies (e.g., Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow), and peripheral farming groups (e.g., Pawnee, Mandan, Hidatsa). Those familiar with Native American ethnohistory will recognize these as valid ecological-economic classifications. All lived on the Plains and all cultivated the vision experience to one degree or another.

Research Riches & Plains Visions

Rita Joyce Copyright

As predicted, each group constructed and construed the vision experience differently. Moreover, the differences systematically varied between groups. The authors make a strong case for a regular relationship between type of society and type of vision experience. Before anyone’s eyes start to glaze thinking this is one of those dessicated research projects demanding that anthropology be a nomothetic science, it isn’t. The authors have a deft touch and deep understanding of cultural complexity. They are quite sensitive to lived experiences. I’ve read most of the material on the Plains vision complex, and this article is one of the best. It brings some order and understanding to a field content to collect cultural butterflies in the past (i.e., Ruth Benedict’s work on the vision complex).

The summation is reminiscent of Julian Steward, and worth quoting at length for those who don’t have institutional access to the article:

Given the findings of this paper with respect to the relationship between social-structural variables and the vision experience, it would seem reasonable to assume that socially recognized visions provided an ideology to “explain” and to support the existing societal opportunity structure. In hunting and gathering societies they served to explain inequalities in personal talents and achievements. In True Plains societies they no longer merely validated differences in personal attributes and achievements but represented a means for justifying existing differences in wealth. Finally, in farming societies the institutionalization of standardized visions served to validate the transfer of inherited property and to legitimize ascribed status positions. Further, these visions supported and reinforced the formalization of status inequalities.

This paper also suggests that the specific functions of visions as a form of anticipatory socialization were not uniform. While it seems clear that in all of the societies under consideration visions have an important role in motivating people to conform to existing institutions, they vary in terms of the nature of the conformity that is encouraged. In the peripheral hunting and gathering societies, as well as in the True Plains societies, most socially recognized visions can be seen to function in encouraging personal achievements, initiative, and independence. However, when the symbolism in visions becomes standardized and is associated with social groups, as in the peripheral farming societies, it appears that visions served to reinforce anchorage in and dependency upon organized collectivities. Therefore, depending on the symbolism manifested in visions, they can be seen as rein- forcing either psychological independence or dependence.

Our paper supports the position that the relative importance of purely individualistically defined religious experiences decreases as one moves to societies with greater economic surplus and social complexity. The growth of status inequality and formalized modes of status allocation are accompanied by increasing restrictions on the incidence, occasions, and participants in personal-spontaneous religious experience that are publicly sanctioned. Private religious experiences, however, do not disappear but increasingly become articulated with formal social groups and their activities. Further, when societies develop larger and more complex corporate structures, such religious phenomena no longer provide a viable or socially acceptable mechanism for status allocation and the assumption of secular power. Societal myths develop to provide a satisfactory rationale for identity with and anchorage in a more complex sociopolitical structure. There is another important factor, however, that comes into play: namely, the increasing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, power, and privileges, and the increasing stabilization of this differentiation. This influence increasingly serves to limit access to and control over supernatural powers. The ideology underlying the vision thus serves (a la Marx) to support the existing distribution of secular power.

That’s really good stuff. The implications for other societies and religions are pretty obvious.


Albers, Patricia, & Parker, Seymour. (1971). The Plains Vision Experience: A Study of Power and Privilege Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 27 (3), 203-233

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