We begin this look at the history of the WGC and the modern western vision quest, with a poem by one of our long-time members. It is an homage to a man who attended a Gathering many years ago and who left us with questions about who we are as well as a load of heavy rocks that we carried in our Bundle until 2006. The weight of those stones may have been removed from the Bundle yet the Bundle still holds a symbol (not as heavy) of our ongoing desire to continue questioning the diversity of our membership.
A large paleface man with long blond hair
sits on Vision Quest in his wheel chair
Is it his chair, his handicap, his burden
We see first
or the man
Who carries the burden, the disability, the challenge?
Has he given us some of his burden to carry?
his special needs mirroring
the special needs or special entitlement
of other designated and labeled special
or different groups?
Are we to carry and care for this burden, this extra weight
until we find a solution to the special difficulty
these rocks represent?
We could leave these rocks behind
lighten our load
and perhaps not remember as keenly
the unresolved balance they represent
Certainly we have made some progress
Our African brothers and sisters sit in seats of honor
at our councils with no greater or lesser entitlement
than the rest of us
A handful of Metis of the First Nations of the
grace us with their presence and their
contributions to our work and wisdom
Are a few extra pounds of stone
too great a reminder that our work
is only partly done?
As a representation of the larger world
the circle of our council is not unbroken
Our outreach and collaboration is far from complete.
That man Graham from Great Britain
whose Medicine Name is Red Grizzly
acted according to the nature of his Medicine Power
Like the Grizzly that people ignore to their peril
he has made us all continue to pay attention
to the issue of his heart
Expressing it as he did with the primitive
Red instinct of the South
He has been our guide
speaking through his rocks
to the shadow of our self-congratulations
Though we are doing great work
our work is far from done
Perhaps we can all carry an extra stone or two
to fill in the holes in our circle
and in the global community
Perhaps in the balance of things
Red Grizzly has been forcing us
to carry just the Right Stuff
--Keith Howchi Kilburn
For a good historical overview of vision questing and rites of passage, and of the Wilderness Guides Council, see the excerpts from published material in the sections that follow, or go directly to their sources.
Background Information: The Vision Fast and Rites of Passage
FOSTER, STEVEN. 1998. RITES OF PASSAGE IN THE WILDERNESS: A THERAPEUTIC SOURCE OF CULTURAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL RECOVERY.
In: Proceedings, 6th World Wilderness Congress. Vol. I, Watson, Alan E; Aplet, Greg, H.; Hendee, John, C., comps. 1998. RMRS-P-4. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Research Station. 105-107
For untold thousands of years, our indigenous ancestors practiced a primitive form of "psychology" that was so effective it insured the continued survival of our species through times of great upheaval. This psychology focused on rites of passage that guided individuals through personal crises and imbalances that might other wise have jeopardized tribal welfare and security. These rites confirmed the passage of the young into adulthood and the mature into their ever more mature states of being.
These rites ordinarily took place in wilderness settings, outside the village or camp. Everyone paid careful attention, for through these rites of passage the people formed a collective identity. Certain rules and teachings were followed in these rites, for the health of the community depended on their successful performance. By participating in the rites, whether as initiate, initiatory "midwife," or elder, the people created and nurtured their own names and lands, and the names and lands of all their earthly relatives, their myths, their legendary leaders and heroes, their sacred ancestors, and the symbols of their unity, health, and destiny. The rites of passage enriched the collective body, psyche, mind and spirit of the culture. And the "therapy" practiced by elders and maieutic teachers was far more enriching and complete than what we call therapy today because it took into consideration the health of the individual, the community, and the natural environment.
We can learn a great deal from these therapeutic practices that were so functional to the survival of primitive cultures, for we are beset on all sides by grave challenges to our survival. The same problems the ancient rites addressed are relevant today, perhaps even more so. It is not that we, as human beings have changed, but that the environment we have created to live in has changed. In terms of our "human nature," we appear to be much the same as our distant grandparents.
The breakdown of the quality of modern life is profoundly connected to the rapidly disappearing wilderness. Unless we provide for our children's healthy growth into a mature understanding of their place within their earthly home, we will never be able to assure the health of our natural environment and its priceless wild resources. For we will not have taught our children that they are of nature, and nature is in them. What happens to nature will happen to us.
…Modern Wilderness Rites
A movement has been gathering momentum throughout the world, and especially in Europe and the United States, that seeks to reconstitute in a modern framework, the ancient rites of passage-and to restore a portion of their therapeutic effectiveness within human personality and culture. Wilderness rites, commonly called "vision quest," "vision fast," "walkabout," and other initiatory-style experiences in nature, are consciously linked to the old ways and are gaining advocates and influence, but not without difficulty.
At any given moment, in hundreds of wilderness locales, the passage rites built on "old ways" are taking place. The people who choose to experience them come from all walks of life. Usually, they are in the midst of some kind of crisis or life transition and are ideally looking for a way to confirm to themselves and others that they have passed through the difficulty, that they have moved from a state of confusion to a state of resolution or new understanding. They have left an old life behind, and are ready to begin a new life, and they have attained the next life station or status.
This old way must be made available to everyone. It could, in fact, be a key to the initiation of our young into adulthood. Wilderness passage rites must come into existence within our communities, as a means of bringing up our children and celebrating our passage through the predictable crises of life. If the movement should fail, we will be deprived of an authentic means of maintaining our place in the interconnected web of nature, and perhaps history!
As we face the 21st century, we must face the possible demise of our species. Our collective future may indeed depend on men and women who have returned from the sacred threshold world with the daring to implement their visions in the modern world.
The answers for our species are born there, in the family, in the neighborhood, in the schools, in the roots of the culture, and then what is born extends to the wilderness, to the ecosystem, to the bio-sphere, where the solutions to our cultural predicament wait like golden elixirs to be found and distilled into visions of health for the people. In the words of my former colleague, anthropologist Virginia Hine, "Without rites, the people perish."
See entire article. Check Resources.
Background Information: The Wilderness Guides Council
RILEY, MARILYN FOSTER. 2000. THE WILDERNESS GUIDES COUNCIL: EXPANDING PROFESSIONALISM AND COMMUNITY AMONG LEADERS OF WILDERNESS VISION QUESTS AND RITES OF PASSAGE PROGRAMS.
In: Proceedings, 6th World Wilderness Congress. Vol. II, Watson, Alan E; Aplet, Greg, H.; Hendee, John, C., comps. 2000.
RMRS. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Research Station.
The Wilderness Guides Council is a global network of leaders offering modern wilderness vision quests or vision fasts, rites of passage in nature, and other earth-centered healing activities. By 1988, there were enough leaders conducting rites of passage that many of them wanted to share their common concerns and interests. So, from an initial meeting that year of 16 guides, periodic gatherings every few years evolved into the Wilderness Guides council of 250 members that now meets annually.
Evolution of Modern Wilderness Vision Questing
The modern vision quest was energized in the 1970's by several people whose efforts contributed to the growth of questing and thus to the formation of the Wilderness Guides Council. Among these pioneers were Joseph Jastrab in the Northeast, John Milton in the Southwest, and Sun Bear in the Northwest. However, the modern vision quest evolved primarily from the efforts of a cluster of vision questing pioneers in California.
In 1973 Tom Pinkson, then a budding young psychotherapist was studying the effects of outdoor activities, such as mountain climbing, river rafting, cross country skiing and the new (old) activity of vision questing, on recidivism of substance abusing youth. His research indicated that the vision quest, with its time for deep reflection by the young addicts on what they were doing to their lives, was most effective (Pinkson 1975).
Today, Dr. Pinkson, now a psychotherapist in private practice, continues to lead quests for clients seeking vision and meaning as part of his therapeutic practice.
Leading this first vision quest with Tom Pinkson was a young university professor in transition, Dr. Steven Foster, who had begun formulating the idea and need for contemporary rites of passage while teaching humanities at San Francisco State University. While studying mythology he began to envision a school to teach people in transition or crisis how to enact a meaningful, symbolic rite of passage in a natural setting to formally confirm the resolution of their crisis, and passage. (Foster and Little, 1988).
Following that vision quest with Pinkson, Foster pursued his dream and by the late 1970's, he and his wife, Meredith Little, were running vision quest programs in the San Francisco Bay Area in an organization called Rites of Passage, Inc. Over several years they and their staff (the author included) took hundreds of youth and adults on wilderness vision quests. From their efforts interest in vision questing grew, as did the bureaucracy and workload at the Rites of Passage organization.
In 1983 Foster and Little moved to Big Pine, California to establish the School of Lost Borders, where they still run vision quests, train vision quest leaders, and continue their scholarship (Foster 1995; Foster & Little 1998). I also left Rites of Passage that same year but continued the work and lead quests today with my own company Wilderness Transitions, Inc. The Rites of Passage organization continues under the direction of Mike Bodkin in Sonoma County, California.
During this same era, Professor Robert Greenway was establishing a wilderness psychology program at nearby Sonoma State University, where he imported methods he used in helping develop Peace Corps Volunteers' training programs using solo fasts. Several of Professor Greenway's former students have become vision quest guides and teachers, and his contributions to the field continue (Greenway 1996).
Even before modern vision questing was re-energized, other organizations were also using solo fasts as part of their wilderness programs, such as Outward Bound. Their efforts helped pave the way for fasting as a modern personal growth tool in the wilderness, but as outstanding as their programs were, and are, their emphasis is not on formal rites of passage or spiritual journeys.
This is a key difference, for it is the marking of life passages with a spiritual journey into the meaning of one's life that distinguishes vision questing from other outdoor programs using a solo fast.
Organizing in Support of Modern Vision Questing -The Wilderness Guides Council
By 1988 there were enough leaders conducting wilderness rites of passage that many of them wanted to share their common concerns and interests. Thus, the Wilderness Guides Council evolved from an initial meeting in 1988 of 26 guides in what is now Death Valley National Park, in California. In a beautiful desert setting we shared ideas from our programs, our concern for the wilderness and the impacts we encountered, and our common belief in the importance of this work. Our journal "Circles on the Mountain" was born at that meeting.
Four years later, in 1992, more than 50 vision quest and other rites of passage guides from all over the country met at a retreat center north of San Francisco. Concern was building about how our use was impacting the wilderness, and a main product of this gathering was the idea of self-regulation, in which the loose network of guides operating in California would register the wilderness sites they used with a "netkeeper." We also agreed to voluntarily limit use of our sites to once per year in desert areas and no more than twice a year in forested areas.
In 1993, we met again and took a further step toward organization by formally agreeing that all of us would follow a Wilderness Ethics Statement in leading our programs. It seemed an unprecedented achievement at the time, the agreement among these diverse and independently minded guides, to register and self-regulate their use and to follow strict, ethical guidelines.
We organized even more after that 1993 meeting and have had annual gatherings since then. At one gathering we developed a purpose statement, claiming: "We are a network of wilderness guides whose purpose is to maintain and improve the health of wilderness ecosystems." We used the word "guide" in the hope that we might appeal to a wider range of wilderness program leaders. We also continued to refine our wilderness ethics statement, and developed a PLAN, setting forth such things as membership standards and organization principles.
Our 1996 meeting was important because we invited outside presentations on permits, fees and liability insurance by wilderness leaders from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the Worldwide Outfitters and Guides Association - the largest insurer of wilderness programs. Following this meeting we formed an Insurance Committee, made available model permit applications for our members, and established a Steering Committee and a Gathering Agenda Committee.