The Sky, Clouds & Visions in Native American Beliefs

Plains people see the sky and clouds as a reminder of the impact of nature on daily life.
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The historic figures of Red Cloud, an Oglala Sioux warrior, and the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, a name meaning shooting star or panther moving across the sky, took names influenced by weather and nature. Americans Indians frequently take names related to the sky and clouds, and the Indian nations also rely on dreams and visions as part of tradition, heritage and spiritual life.

1 Time and History

The sky and clouds play major roles in American Indian and Alaska Native life to help define time before the use of clocks and watches. Weather and astronomical conditions such as fierce storms or unusually bright meteor showers keep track of history for the living generation. Grandparents and parents share important events with new generations who hear the collected knowledge in the form of stories and legends. Traditional stories sometimes link the actions of people to the weather conditions to warn children against failing to protect the natural resources needed for life, including fresh water and animals used for food.

2 Day and Night Sky

The sun and stars played an important part in the history of native life, and modern Americans Indians continue to use the sky as a calendar guide for traditional ceremonies. All Native peoples have legends and stories about the sky, including origin myths to explain the creation of light in the world and the reason for the position of star constellations. Some American Indian and Alaska Native beliefs associate sky features with religious meaning, but other legends offer only a source of stories to tell to children for entertainment.

3 Cloud Symbols

American Indian art and decorative symbols represent clouds, rain, sunshine and lightning. The Nevada State Library Reference Services notes that different Native Indian groups developed unique symbols and not all art, carving or weaving use the same imagery. Rain clouds for native people relying on the water for crops, for instance, typically have a good meaning. The Dine Nation of the southwest has separate words for the soft, helpful "female" rain clouds and a different word for the violent, damaging "male" thunderstorms, according to the Official Navajo Nation Visitor Guide. A rainbow symbolizes harmony and visits people existing as one with all living things, according to Dine tradition, and rainbow spirits appear in traditional sandpainting designs.

4 Visions and Dreams

Some American Indian practices send people to seek answers through dreams and visions. Children moving into adulthood go out into nature to look at the sky for life-changing visions, and some nations use traditional herbs to create hallucinations as part of the quest for visions. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that some native groups in the American Southwest regularly use the hallucinogen peyote, a spineless cactus, as part of formal religious ceremonies to help observe life in new ways. Dreams also offer insight for some American Indians, and the interpretations of the nighttime visions frequently focus on symbols from nature, such as stars or clouds, to find meaning. The Nevada State Library Reference Services reports makers of ceremonial objects sometimes use dreams to reveal the designs for traditional spirit shirts.

Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.