Dream Voices of the Elephants
John O’Neal, actor, director and founder of the Free Southern Theater that accompanied the Freedom Riders in their quest for civil rights, says the following in his play, Don’t Start Me to Talking or I’ll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones: “I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you. Then I’m going to tell you. Then I’m going to tell you what I done told you.”
This is what it takes, he knows, for us to hear.
The elephants first came to me in 1999. I was so sure I understood what they were saying, I wrote about it and then I acted on it and went to meet them. On Epiphany, in the year 2000, the elephant, we now call The Ambassador, and a small group of us met in Botswana. Then I met the Ambassador again, and then again, and then there were other elephant encounters. I speak of these events repeatedly because they are such extraordinary events that we cannot, even ten years after that first experience, claim to understand within the ordinary reality in which we live day to day.
The advent of the patriarch, the Elephant Ambassador, the circumstances of his arrival, his appearance, again, to my husband and myself in the summer of 2001, were events so compelling, demanding and humbling that a small delegation of the wide ranging everyday gandhis team from North America, Liberia and Southern Africa traveled to Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana in 2006 to document, if we could, the reality of the Ambassador. The Ambassador came again, and introduced us to his family, entwining his trunk with his mate’s, and acknowledging their two young calves.[i] Witnessed and photographed, he then astonished us by engaging in ritual contact, literally “throwing us a bone.”
We caught it!
It must be noted here that it was an ancestor bone, an elephant thighbone,. Thus he called us into a sacred event of the highest order, offering us a mandate whose nature we cannot entirely understand yet and shaking the entire foundation of our thinking about the true nature of the world.
We did not know how to meet this event; we continue to ponder it actively. Accordingly, however, Cynthia Travis and I took the ‘Future Guardians of Peace’ – five ex-combatants and one former child refugees and other members off the everyday gandhis peacebuilding team on safari to Tanzania.
Another reason we went on this safari with the ex-combatants is that the appearance of an elephant and her calf during the Liberian civil war caused the LURD rebel Minister of Defense, known as Master General, now on our peacebuilding team, to tell his 36,000 soldiers to lay down their arms because, elephants are a sign of peace.[ii] The indigenous wisdom tradition of Liberia, as in much of Africa and many parts of the world, is based upon being guided by dreams, divination, signs and unusual events, such as the appearance of these elephants “The war is over,” Master General said. He considered this a message or commandment from Spirit that he could not refuse
The young men and woman who came with us on safari had never seen an elephant in the wild. Though elephants are native to Liberia, the war had destroyed their habitat and they were hunted for food. The elephants who survived had gone into exile in Guinea. That is another but related story of how the elephants in Liberia, as elsewhere, exiled themselves during the war and returned when it was safe … or so they hoped.
While waiting for the ‘Future Guardians of Peace’ to join us in Tanzania, we spent a few days on safari at the Ruaha game reserve.
We hoped but could not ‘expect’ the elephants to meet us as they had in the past. But they did. The elephant we call Spirit Sister came to me, Cynthia Travis, her son and his fiancé in the Ruaha. The one we called the Delegate came later in the Selous reserve. We name them thus because of the undeniable intentionality with which they met us.
Though quite a young elephant, six or seven years old, Spirit Sister, left her mother and approached us as we were parked above a watering hole. Alternately, she drank water and sprayed us for twenty minutes or longer. Then she, her mother and two other siblings climbed up the embankment and waited alongside us as her twin brother approached from the bush. We were all so close they could have stroked us with their trunks as these introductions were being made.
Later, we met the Delegate, a bull elephant, in the Selous reserve. Some hours after engaging in ritual activity of invitation, we came upon him in the forest. Solemnly and carefully, he advanced on our open trucks, his tusks almost grazing the rails and our arms. We all recognized him as a delegate from the animal world coming to meet his counterparts, the young, healing future guardians of peace. This encounter is documented with photographs and text by the young people in everyday gandhi’s Tanzania Safari: Future Guardians of Peace. 2009.
Since the advent of the Ambassador, we have received many dreams, testimonies and recounting of personal experiences and associations with elephants. Shortly after being in Chobe and receiving the ancestor bone from the Ambassador, we gathered in Santa Barbara for the eg annual meeting and were astonished at the threshold of the meeting by the remarkable article in the New York Times Magazine by Charles Siebert, “An Elephant Crackup?”
We immediately understood that the stresses that elephants and ex-combatants and child soldiers suffer are the same, that their anguish, its symptoms and consequences are the same, and that the ways of healing are the same and equally valuable for all beings and the restoration of the earth.
After reading Siebert’s article, I contacted Gay Bradshaw whose work was the foundation of Siebert’s article and brought her into our circle of consciousness. Her remarkable book, Elephants at the Edge which details the similarities between elephant suffering, behavior and healing, and human suffering, behavior and healing, was published in 2009.
This incomplete chronicle does not, however, bring us closer to comprehending the reality that elephants and other animals are coming to us. Perhaps seeking alliance with us is a last resort for them and the planet. Writing an op-ed for a newspaper in Assam, India, after elephants had taken over the runway at a military airport, interrupting border skirmishes, I suggested that we may have been ‘contacted’ by elephants making a broad sweep, offering up a universal SOS, to see who would respond. I like this idea because it removes the human recipient from being special and honors the elephant as the originator of the energy of connection. Each time the Ambassador has come to meet us, he has demonstrated will and intention. A daunting idea, but, perhaps a necessary one, especially for these difficult times in human history when we are traveling so quickly away from our original interconnections with all life and all beings.
Now, additionally, we are being called to consider the plethora of dreams regarding elephants that are emerging in our far-flung community. We have communicated some of them and we are being guided according to the deepest held principles and understanding of many of us associated with everyday gandhis.
Ki’na Dark Cloud, Cynthia Travis, Elenna Rubin Goodman, Lawrie Hartt, Christian Bethelson, and others connected with everyday gandhis and the Topanga Daré[i] have had significant, even startling, dreams about elephants that have called us to a deeper consideration of the issues confronting us.
Ki’na Dark Cloud dreamed a young female who was dying of thirst because she couldn’t drink from water holes bloodied by war. A man pitied the little one and pledged to bring her water while her elephant mother took on the care of the man’s son. Cynthia dreamed that Bethelson was heading a phalanx of humans meeting a similar phalanx of elephants coming to each other to make peace. Another dream from a Liberian, J. Flomo Sawo described elephants carrying delegates to a peace conference between tribes when the roads were obstructed by heavy rains. As dreams teach us the mysteries of peacemaking to which everyday gandhis is devoted, we are increasingly aware of the appearance of elephants signaling peace.
For many, many years, I have honored the dream life, have lived my life accordingly, have written novels and a play that emerged from dreams given to me in the night. Every workshop that I lead starts with dream telling. However, in the past, we looked to see what the dreams mean. Although we didn’t seek psychological meaning, leaving that to psychotherapy, we still stopped after being satisfied about meaning.
This spring I wrote to the members of the dream class that I teach as follows:
“This circle seeks to restore the deep ethics and spiritual development of all dream cultures. Together we will re-enter the dreamtime, explore the dreams sent to us for the sake of community and the future according to the old, old ways and new vision. In the past, dreams served to reveal the soul’s path, to protect individuals and communities, to alert people to future events, to teach people how to live in the heart, to link people and communities over time and space, and to reveal the true nature of reality. We hope to be able to revive such dreaming skills and use them to bind community and communities together. Finally, we will learn what it means to live by dream as individuals and as a community.
“This morning, I responded to three elephant dreams, one from Ki’na Dark Cloud. The second dream is from Ki’na’s uncle, Ti’an Dark Cloud, a traditional Native American man living on the Navajo Reservation who never has thought about or dreamed of elephants. The third is from Patti Sheinman, new to our circle, who contacted me and came to Topanga for Daré mentoring after reading about my connection with the Ambassador. She dreamed the dream in Topanga.
“Ti’an Dark Cloud’s dream: “There were four bull elephants coming into a village where there were men with guns. Each elephant got in front of a man and turned to the side so that the men could not see whom to shoot. Then the men tried to hit the elephants with the guns because it was illegal to shoot them. The elephants made the men mount them after setting down their guns. They took the men away from the village to where the other bull elephants stayed when they went crazy. It was a place where they could get away from all the input of hate.”
“Ki’na Dark Cloud’s dream: “The same night as Ti’an’s dream, I dreamed that a family of elephants, including the aunties, were on a long walk trying to find a safe place for their brain injured loved ones. The brains had been injured from the repeated sound of gunfire and they were wailing from grief. The sounds were very similar in the elephant’s minds. An old female, a true grandmother, walked with the injured and made a chuffing sound that was soothing. I found myself following them and looking for my mother. An auntie began to walk with me, so that I would not be alone and outside of the family. We came into a place with pools of water and abundant foliage to eat. The healthiest of the family led the brain injured to the food and water and waited patiently for them to get their fill. Only after the injured had fed did the rest of the family feed. Then the healthy members encircled the injured and lay down around them so they would know they were safe.”
[We have to note that too many soldiers from Iraq are now suffering similar brain injuries and trauma from gunfire and explosives. DM]
“Patti Sheinman’s dream: “I’m in Haiti, a few days after the 2010 earthquake, standing on a mountainside, crying as I look at the mass graves. As I look from afar, I see elephants coming toward the graves. They stop at the graves and with their trunks, begin to cover them with leaves and brush until the graves are covered with their offerings.”
(Six months after this essay was published in the everyday gandhis newsletter. Spring 2010, Ki’na’s father, Awé Che, a traditional Arikara elder, who was in no way concerned with elephants or the dreams referenced here, was astonished by a dream of an elephant calling him to climb Many Ghosts Hill on the Four Corners Reservation in order to sit in council with all the animals that the elephant was leading up the hill. Though very ill, Awé che, made the arduous climb up the hill in the company of a medicine man, to honor this call.)
“I don’t know what these dreams are really calling us to become though they are calling us to something of great importance, and we are to give up the lead and self-congratulation. Also we can’t explain the dreams away by thinking they come out of our own concerns, no matter how deep our concerns are. These dreams are not of our own creation; they are not from our unconscious or from the collective unconscious, unless you fully include elephant conscious and unconscious in the sacred collective. These dreams are not from ‘us’ alone.
“I don’t claim to understand fully how these dreams are from the elephants themselves, though I believe we are receiving them as such and this requires us to undergo a total change of consciousness and live accordingly. I hold these dreams as sacred. I am humbled before them. I see where we are being taken — as long as we don’t lead. A billboard in Botswana outside of Chobe, shows a procession of elephants following the elephant Matriarch who says “Follow Our Lead.” I am staying in ‘not knowing’ and also trying to follow her lead.
“The dreams indicate that despite ourselves, the elephants take us on their backs, transport us, and surround us because we are violent, crazy and brain damaged. Despite ourselves the elephants come and help us bury our dead in the profound and beautiful ways they bury their dead. They help us remember what we have forgotten. Following their lead helps me deal with the unbearable pain of knowing who we have become and how the animals are suffering from almost every movement we make.”
As I wrote this note to my students, I understood something I had not understood before: We are the hate-filled, violent and maddened, the brain injured, and still we are being surrounded by the elephants, we are being transported in order to engage in peacemaking. Thus they, the elephants, are healing us. The way they are healing us is through the dreams!
We are the mad ones. And we can be healed. We are brain injured and they are trying to take care of us. The very act of dreaming the elephants is placing us within the circle of their dreaming, their being, their healing.
“I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you. Then I’m going to tell you. Then I’m going to tell you what I done told you.”
The elephants told us what they were going to tell us. Then they told it to us. Now they are telling us again what they have told us. Again and again, until we understand.
When I had almost finished writing this essay, I dreamed that I saw a small elephant walking down the boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. I tried to catch up to her, but she was far quicker than I. She had a familiar bounce, and she was smiling, satisfied that she was pulling a fast one on me. She lived on the land of a woman whose last name was Ruachitta. I repeated the name again and again in the dream so I would remember it when I awakened. Cynthia and I had gone to the Ruaha in Tanzania. and ruach means wind, breath and spirit in Hebrew. I began writing about the elephants and dreaming and dreamtime and Spirit Sister come.
Perhaps I hear their call:
We will gather all the dreams and elephant experiences that have come to all of us. We will make their circle of healing accessible to all, so that we can be immersed in their healing activities, so we can heal. We will do this even if we cannot yet understand what they are saying to us and how we are being led. When we heal, we change, we transform. To immerse ourselves in such healing will be to experience, and later, identify the transformation.
In immediate response, I am initiating a project, Healing Voices – Dreamtime – The Elephants, under the auspices of my non-profit organization, Mandlovu[iii]. If you have dreamed the elephants or experienced their influence, if they have come to you in any way, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org [Needless to say, if you have had healing dreams from other non-domesticated animals, from animals in the wild, do send those dreams as well.]
We will gather these sacred moments and experiences and bring them together, as we are guided, as we seek to understand the true nature of the world and its creatures and follow their lead.
This essay was written originally for the everyday gandhis newsletter, Palaver Hut, Spring 2010. everyday gandhis is a Santa Barbara based NGO supporting grassroots and indigenous peacebuilding activities in Liberia and West Africa.
Daré means Council in the Shona language of southern Africa.. The Topanga Daré relies on Council, alliance with Spirit and the natural world, the rituals, practices, ancestor work and teachings of indigenous and wisdom traditions, music healing, dream telling, divination, kinship, and story telling to achieve personal transformation, community healing and social change.
[i1] I have written about this encounter in my book From Grief Into Vision: A Council, Hand to Hand, and in previous editions of the everyday gandhis newsletters.
[iii] The understanding of the role of elephants in peacebuilding in Liberia is documented in the everyday gandhis film, The Dead Will Guide Us, that premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 7, 2010.
[iv] Mandlovu is committed to the exploration, revitalization and preservation of indigenous wisdom and medicine traditions as paths to planetary healing and peace-making on behalf of all beings. Mandlovu is an African Ndebele word for elephant, and also is the name for the Great Mother. In addition, Mandlovu describes elephant consciousness – the spiritual group mind that arises spontaneously from the individual intelligences of all its members.