Dreaming History

At the time of Spanish contact, the natives of the peninsula did not have any written language to preserve their culture through periods of transformation. We hope that someday archaeologists will uncover evidence of writing systems in the peninsula like the Book of Mormon describes.

Although we don’t know about any alphabetic writing systems, one thing worth noting is John Harrington’s description of how tribal knowledge was passed on from one generation to the next among the Yuman tribes just north of the peninsula.

Through many interviews he found that the way that history was passed from one generation to another was through dreams. Now, this initially sounds like a horrible way to preserve history, but there was more to it than just going to sleep, seeing your history, then waking up and telling it. They would be taught about the details of their history from certain elders who had been dreaming such dreams for most or all of their lives. This means that a person dreaming an historical dream would know what they were supposed to see and experience in the dream beforehand. They would then purposefully try to have that particular dream and if they thought that they were successful, they would need to describe every detail that they could remember from the dream to their tribe’s elder ‘dreamers’, almost like reporting it to a committee of people who were each already considered to be an expert in that particular dream.

The new dreamer would receive criticism and correction from these tribal elders which they were expected to fix the next time that they dreamed the dream.

In contrast to this, when we read books or hear stories, our minds imagine the people and places that are being described, but we rely on the written words themselves to be accurate enough to give us the right ‘picture’ in our minds of what it is describing.

Oral traditions among the Yuman tribes are not comparable to our modern style of storytelling. The sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the world that they saw in their dreams was subject to scrutiny and correction until a person could actually experience exactly the same dreams as each other. They got to each experience the exact dreams that their elders had learned from the elders before them and then they would spend the rest of their lives working with others to make sure that the next generation could see their history as perfectly as they could.

I find this whole concept quite fascinating because in our society, each of us can consider the written evidence about a primitive culture, but one person may view the written history and decide that Native Americans were cruel and warlike while another person may conclude that they were ‘noble savages’ that were just misunderstood…but no matter how hard we study all of our written evidence, none of us can see or touch or hear or smell a scene from that history in the way that a Yuman dreamer could.

In relation to the prehistory of the Baja peninsula, please ask yourself what must have happened to the history of cultures like the Yumans when the vast majority of their elders were wiped out in epidemics. It would have been completely catastrophic to their cultures.

Most of what we know about the ethnology of the peninsular inhabitants comes from the writings of Jesuit priests, but the Jesuits didn’t start missionizing the peninsula until more than 150 years after initial contact with Europeans and their diseases. We know almost nothing about the effects of diseases during those first 150 years. The descriptions of the Jesuits, however well-intentioned (or not) that they might have been, were descriptions of cultures that were probably already in a state of significant decline.

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