Dreamwalker Apprentice: Life with the Dene Tha

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Dreamwalker Apprentice:

Life with the Dene Tha

By Narysse a’Jahar

Most readers familiar with Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series are also familiar with the concept of dreamwalking, a kind of lucid dreaming during which the individual is in full control of his or her dreaming state. There is one culture in particular in the Wheel of Time series, the Aiel, who have developed this ability to dreamwalk and consciously seek out those in their culture or, as in the case of Egwene al’Vere, some individuals from other cultures, who possess the potential to consciously touch what the Aiel call the World of Dreams.

These individuals—many of whom are female—are apprenticed to the Aiel elders, known as Wise Ones, who teach them how to control the World of Dreams and how to work it to their advantage. However, an interesting fact concerning dreamwalkers is that they may actually exist in real life, and perhaps are most notably visible in the Dene Tha culture of the northwestern portion of Alberta, a Canadian province.

At least two well known anthropologists (persons who study human culture in all times and places), Jean-Guy Goulet and Marie Francoise Guédon, have both spent several seasons living amongst the Dene Tha learning this culture, and in the process have noted several things about some of the Elders of the villages in which they lived. Firstly, there are certain Elders whom the locals call “ndatin, from the verb ndate, ‘he/she dreamed.’ When speaking in English, Dene Tha refer to such an elder as dreamer, prophet, or preacher” (Goulet 1994:25). This in itself is an indication that the Dene Tha ndatin are dreamwalkers or at least possess some ability to control their dream world.

Guédon describes the Dene Tha dream world as being very accepting of foreigners, very much as seen with the Aiel: my Nabesna informants assumed a deep connection between their brand of ‘medicine’ (i.e. shamanic practices) [sic] and other Dene, as well as Inuit, Tlingit, and even ‘white’ medicine. Indeed, none of my instructors presented shamanic practices as specifically Nabesna or Dene. Not only was it assumed that these practices could be understood and applied by anyone, it was also specifically stated that being non-Native did not bar one from dreaming and therefore from accessing shamanic powers. As for myself, I can only testify that whenever I inquired on such matters, my understanding and acceptance of the Dene perspective were tested by my instructors before they gave an answer.

While the notion that I could learn to speak the Nabesna dialect was debatable, my identity as a foreigner was never mentioned as an obstacle to my inquiring about or acquiring ‘dream powers’ (i.e. shamanic powers) [sic] (Guédon 1994:52).

For, as Guédon’s instructors informed her, “‘If you dream, everybody dreams, even little bit, you are little bit a sleep-doctor’” (Guédon 1994:52).

Goulet and Guédon both report that during their times living amongst people to whom dreaming is an important part of life, they both noticed that their ability to dream in indigenous symbols, and indeed ways, was becoming more and more pronounced (Goulet 1994:23; Guédon 1994:53). Goulet explains that this type of dreaming “clearly … would not have occurred had I not been deeply involved with Dene Tha elders, in their lifeworld. To the elders … this was a simple case of ‘knowing with the mind,’ a normal and recurring feature of non-verbal communication in their lives … Dene Tha speak of the elders’ ability to travel long distances in spirit, with their animal spirit helpers, to help the spirit of the individual who has asked for their help … I am satisfied with the notion that this is the particular idiom Dene Tha use to think and talk about such experiences, thus making them meaningful and intelligible” (Goulet 1994:29).

Guédon describes a similar experience, relating, “dreams were definitely part of Dene life. When I noticed that my own dreams were becoming clearer and stronger, I began using them as a starting point for some of my inquiries, and to test the reactions of my informants. They were most rewarding. Discussion of dreams soon became a welcomed ingredient in my interviews” (Guédon 1994:53). She further describes an incident that happened during a communal event in which she “mentally linked” with one of her instructors to heal a sick girl, the woman’s granddaughter, whose illness was blamed on a spiritual entity well known throughout the Dene culture as a prankster. Of the experience, Guédon says that “only several years later would I dream and experience in the dream what I described as ‘deliberateness’ and recognize then the touch of the grandmother’s mental state” (Guédon 55-56).

Are these and other experiences as related by anthropologists and others perhaps the sources that influenced Robert Jordan to create the Aiel dreamwalkers? Both Goulet and Guédon portray experiences in which dreams were important impacts on their daily lives—in Goulet’s case, even in the world outside the Dene culture, which is exactly how Robert Jordan portrays Egwene al’Vere’s experiences as an Aiel apprentice! In the later installments of the Wheel of Time, this idea of a World of Dreams becomes vital to the story Robert Jordan sets down. As readers, we do not dismiss this importance of happenings in the World of Dreams … and nor do some anthropologists. As anthropologist Edith Turner asks of the extraordinary realm, “is it correct for our discipline to close itself off from what is of major concern to its field people?” (Turner 1994:72)


Goulet, Jean-Guy, “Dreams and Visions in Other Lifeworlds,” in Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience, ed. David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press Ltd., 1994).

Guédon, Marie Francoise, “Dene Ways and the Ethnographer’s Culture,” in Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience, ed. David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press Ltd., 1994).

Turner, Edith “A Visible Spirit Form in Zambia,” in Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience, ed. David E. Young and Jean-Guy Goulet (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press Ltd., 1994)