A vision quest is a rite of passage in some Native American cultures. It is usually only undertaken by young males entering adulthood. Individual Indigenous cultures have their own names for their rites of passage. "Vision quest" is an English-language umbrella term, and may not always be accurate or used by the cultures in question.
Among Native American cultures who have this type of rite, it usually consists of a series of ceremonies led by Elders and supported by the young man's community. The process includes a complete fast for four days and nights, alone at a sacred site in nature which is chosen by the Elders for this purpose. Some communities have used the same sites for many generations. During this time, the young person prays and cries out to the spirits that they may have a vision, one that will help them find their purpose in life, their role in a community, and how they may best serve the People. Dreams or visions may involve natural symbolism – such as animals or forces of nature – that require interpretation by Elders. After their passage into adulthood, and guided by this experience, the young person may then become an apprentice or student of an adult who has mastered this role.
When talking to Yellow Wolf, Lucullus Virgil McWhorter came to believe that the person fasts, and stays awake and concentrates on their quest until their mind becomes "comatose." It was then that their Weyekin (Nez Perce word) revealed itself.
Use by non-Native Americans
Non-Native, New Age and "wilderness training" schools offer what they call "vision quests" to the non-Native public. However, despite the name, these experiences may bear little resemblance to the traditional ceremonies beyond fasting and isolation. Such use of the term "vision quest" has been criticized as "cultural appropriation", with those leading the exercises derided as "plastic shamans". Such exercises may include New Age versions of a sweat lodge, which has at times led to untrained people causing harm and even death, such as in the James Arthur Ray manslaughter incident, which involved a 36-hour, non-Native idea of a vision quest, for which the participants paid almost $10,000.
Like a number of other Indigenous ceremonies, the vision quest has been mentioned in statements by Indigenous leaders concerned about the protection of ceremonies and other Indigenous intellectual property rights; one of these documents is the 1993 Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality. In 2007 the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which has given further support to Indigenous people's rights to protect their cultures and ceremonies, and address restitution when intellectual, religious and spiritual property is taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.
- Irwin, Lee. “Dreams, Theory, and Culture: The Plains Vision Quest Paradigm.” American Indian Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Spring 1994): 229-245.
- Irwin, Lee. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
- Martinez, David. "The Soul of the Indian: Lakota Philosophy and the Vision Quest." Wicazo Sa Review 19, no. 2 (Autumn 2004): 79-104.
- McWhorter, Lucullus Virgil (1940). Yellow Wolf: His Own Story. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, Ltd. pp. 295–300.
- King, Thomas, "Dead Indians: Too Heavy to Lift" in Hazlitt, November 30, 2012. Accessed April 3, 2016. "A quick trip to the Internet will turn up an outfit offering a one-week “Canyon Quest and Spiritual Warrior Training” course for $850 and an eight-night program called “Vision Quest,” in the tradition of someone called Stalking Wolf, “a Lipan Apache elder” who has “removed all the differences” of the vision quest, “leaving only the simple, pure format that works for everyone.” There is no fee for this workshop, though a $300-$350 donation is recommended. Stalking Wolf, by the way, was supposedly born in 1873, wandered the Americas in search of spiritual truths, and finally passed all his knowledge on to Tom Brown, Jr., a seven-year-old White boy whom he met in New Jersey. Evidently, Tom Brown, Jr., or his protégés, run the workshops, having turned Stalking Wolf's teachings into a Dead Indian franchise."
- Sheets, Brian, "Papers or Plastic: The Difficulty in Protecting Native Spiritual Identity", Lewis & Clark Law Review, 17:2, p.596.
- G. Hobson, "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." in Hobson, Gary, ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978: 100-108.
- O'Neill, Ann (22 June 2011). "Sweat lodge ends a free spirit's quest". CNN. "But she forged ahead in the next exercise, the 36-hour vision quest. She built a Native-American style medicine wheel in the desert and meditated for 36 hours without food and water."
- Chidester, David, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture. University of California Press; 2005; p.173: "Defenders of the integrity of indigenous religion have derided New Age shamans, as well as their indigenous collaborators, as 'plastic shaman' or 'plastic medicine men.'"
- Metcalfe, Jessica, "Native Americans know that cultural misappropriation is a land of darkness". For The Guardian. 18 May 2012. Accessed 24 Nov 2015.
- Fourmile, Henrietta (1996) "Making things work: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Involvement in Bioregional Planning" in Approaches to bioregional planning. Part 2. Background Papers to the conference; 30 October – 1 November 1995, Melbourne; Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories. Canberra. pp. 268–269: "The [western] intellectual property rights system and the (mis)appropriation of Indigenous knowledge without the prior knowledge and consent of Indigenous peoples evoke feelings of anger, or being cheated"
- Arizona sweat lodge sentencing, CNN
- Mesteth, Wilmer, et al. (June 10, 1993) "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." "At the Lakota Summit V, an international gathering of US and Canadian Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, about 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of the Lakota unanimously passed a "Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality." The following declaration was unanimously passed." "WHEREAS pseudo-religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony "sweat lodges" and "vision quest" programs;"
- Taliman, Valerie (1993) "Article On The 'Lakota Declaration of War'."
- "Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature. ... States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions, and customs. - Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples" - Working Group on Indigenous Populations, accepted by the UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Archived 2015-06-26 at the Wayback Machine; UN Headquarters; New York City (13 September 2007) p. 5.