Dream Gates

Dream Gates

A singing shaman called by Owl, and dreams

One of the classic accounts of how shamans are called to their practice by dreams comes from Isaac Tens,  a Gitskan halaait (shaman) in the Pacific Northwest. The French Canadian scholar Marius Barbeau  recorded his narrative and his songs at Hazelton, British Columbia, in 1920. This is a fierce story, in which dreams spill over into the physical world and birds and animals behave like spirits (as shamans know them to be).

“Thirty years after my birth,” as Tens tells it, he was chopping firewood at dusk when a huge owl flew at him. “The owl took hold of me, caught my face, and tried to lift me up.” Tens lost consciousness. When he came round, he found he had fallen into the snow, and blood was streaming from his mouth.  His world became stranger. As he dragged himself home, the trees seemed to lean over him, and then slither after him like snakes. In bed, he fell into a chaotic state. He felt he had fallen into a whirlpool.


His family brought in two shamans, who recognized a possible calling in this spiritual emergency. They told Isaac Tens he was meant to become a shaman like them. He did not want to hear this. He recovered, and went hunting. After killing and skinning a couple of fishers, he saw another huge owl. He shot it and saw it fall. But when he went to recover the body, there was no trace of the owl. Returning to his cabin, he had the impression of a crowd of spirits, pursuing him. He fell down in trance, in the snow.

When he was able to make his way home, over a frozen river, his flesh seemed to be boiling, and a song burst from him. “A chant was coming out of me without my being able to do anything to stop it.” Around him, visible only to him, he saw spirit animals. “Such visions happen when a man is about to become a halaait. The songs force themselves out complete, without any attempt to compose them.”


The shaman-songs continued to stream from him. He now accepted his calling. To learn his trade, he was advised to live in seclusion, seeing only four cousins, fellow-members of the Wolf Clan, who watched over him. The key element in this period of training and preparation was dreaming. “I had to have dreams in order to act.”

Established medicine men shared their craft with him, when he proceeded to work with his own patients, but Tens’ primary guidance came from dreams and visions. “I began to diagnose the cases by dreaming.” His dreams showed him the right songs and charms and animal spirits to use in a particular case. To extract an ailment – or more exactly, the evil spirit that had carried an illness into a patient’s body – he would place a “charm” over himself and then extend it to reach or cover the patient. The charm “was never an actual object, but one that had appeared in a dream.”


Tens acquired a spirit canoe that he used in healing through a powerful dream. “In a dream I once had over the hills, I saw a canoe. Many times it appeared to me in my dreams. The canoe was sometimes floating on the water, sometimes on the clouds. When any trouble occurred anywhere, I was able to see my canoe in visions.”

He eventually gathered 23 songs on power and healing, mostly delivered directly to him through dreams and visions. He dreamed a song of the Salmon.

The village will be healed when my Salmon spirit floats in

He dreamed that his two deceased uncles gave him rattles for each hand, and that a Grizzly Bear ran through the house and then soared up into the sky, among the clouds. He chanted the sounds of the Bear making thunder in the Earth, then flying up, while shaking a rattle with each hand.


In a vision, he traveled in a strange country, full of bees. The bees stung him all over his body. Then an ancient woman helped him to grow. He sang:

Beehives were shooting my body
Grandmother makes me grow
in my vision. Eyiwaw!

In another vision, he fell from a great height into a canoe that carried him up between the peaks of the mountains, where he heard the mountain spirits talking to each other in voices like bells. He sang:

The mountains are talking to each other

In treating the most serious cases, Isaac Tens would dress in a bearskin robe with a bear claw headdress, assuming the power of the greatest medicine animal of North America, whose song he carried through his own dreaming. On such occasions, family, friends and fellow-shamans would be called together to create a healing community.


Soul retrieval was often the order of business. “If the patient is very weak,” the shaman “captures his spirit into his hands and blows quietly on it to give it more breath. If weaker still, the halaait takes a hot stone from the fireplace and holds the spirit over it. Perhaps a little fat is put on the hot stone to melt. The hands turn from one side to the other, thus feeding the sick spirit.” Finally, the spirit is transferred to the patient’s head.


Quotations are from Marius Barbeau, Medicine Men of the Pacific Coast. Bulletin 152, National Museum of Man, Ottawa, 1958. Versions of Isaac Tens’ songs here are my own, based on Barbeau’s translations.



  • Justin Patrick Moore

    Do you know if there are musical recordings of the songs available, or just transcripts?

    • Robert Moss

      Justin – Smithsonian Folkways has a recording that includes a reading from Barbeau’s transcription, with (as I recall) arrangements of a few of the poems by Jerome Rothenberg. As far as I know, we do not have recordings of the original songs, but you might want to investigate this further.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Niels

    Love this beautifull and yes, fierce story Robert, thanks for sharing it :D!
    Wow, synchronity at is best again for me,…. 😉
    I just arrive at home after working on my permaculture schoolgarden project, and while being on the bike,out inbetween the natural landscape of agricultural fields, water and reeds, in storm and rain,(holland) I first get ” a message” of ; pay attention from the messenger, the in dutch called “Ekster”, a crow-related black and white bird of which I don’t know the english name.

    Then shortly after it while singing on the bike strangely in a free improvisation, my favorite bird of prey, the marsh harrier, flies over and crosses my path in a way I know it is telling me somthing.

    30 meters later my eye catches a yellow paper folder next to the road, a bit wet allready from the rain.
    It is from a woman who works as a therapist for horses, massage and other therapies.
    I had just made an appointment last week for the week next to come, with a stable owner for a new vacant position on her farm she has, and also told her I can do reiki and other things for horses and work as a shaman……

    After picking it up and smiling when I read it and being happy with this spiritual guidance/affirmation, I moved on.
    On my bike, in the wind and rain, and I suddenly had a thought I was pretty much aware of for some moments.
    I was singing like mad ,improvising, just thinking and saying to my bird of prey while it flew away in the distance, I want to sing for you, and I was thinking about the spiritual connection established this way, by being tought a song from the spirits. ;D
    I love this synchronity with your article i just run into now. And I love singing like mad in the rain. :-) 😉

    • Robert Moss

      Niels – Thanks for sharing this magical sequence. Magpie (thanks to Savannah for the translation) is highly regarded as a shamanic ally in old European (and Australian) traditions. Grand that your favorite raptor appeared to reinforce the signal to be on the lookout for a message that then came through in such and unlikely but legible way.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Don

    I have never heard the stories you posted about owls and shamanism. You are far and away better informed on that sort of thing than I am.

    There is a knoll, a steep hill, near here which seems to have a power spot on top of it. I like to go up there when I do rituals or prayers that are important to me. What is interesting, in connection with what you posted, is that there is often a Great Horned Owl perched in the area. And I have often found an owl feather on my way up there. When I find one, I take it up to the “power spot” and place it under an oak tree.

    I notice a reverent connection with owls when I attend local Powwows. People whom I know who like to be out in nature are usually more than just curious about them. And I, too, feel the same way.

    What you posted has a lot of depth. Thank you very much posting it. It is meaningful to me.

    • Robert Moss

      Don – I so love your deep connection with nature and the hill you describe sounds like a real “place of power”. Wonderful that the owl speaks to you there, in the language of feathers.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Savannah Caitlin

    Thank you for this fiercely fascinating tale from BC history Robert! My recent dream encounter with Owl now seems rather tame by comparison though certainly no less awe-inspiring; I was curious that the Owl in that dream seemed connected to a musician’s spirit also.

    The mention of 23 songs grabbed my attention as I immediately flashed on the 23 paired chromosomes in a human cell. Intriguing to think about a cycle of songs carrying the essence of spirit or something like a sound based DNA code for spiritual healing.

    [Niels, I think the “ekster” is called a magpie in English.]

    • Robert Moss

      Savannah – Your own owl dream (posted on our forum at Spirituality & Health) is, for me, a marvelous and quite shamanic invitation to accept and work with an ally from the realm of the animal powers, and it is lovely that this came to you in a gentler way than it did for the Gitskan shaman. That is a most interesting observation about the 23 chromosomes. I’m sure that Isaac Tens would not have known about that, in the terms of science, but Owl is wise and he may have known in other ways.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Niels

    Magpie, sounds good and even familliar, I’ll remember that, thank you Savannah ;-)!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sal

    Robert, you are a master story-teller…

    I have never heard, or read, anything about Isaac Tens before, but everything that you retell about what/how sequence of events occurred to him shimmers with what I’ve been able to understand as powerful and significant chronological events in anyone’s life. For example: Thirty years after Tens’ birth; Ally from the sky (Owl, no less: silent–and composed–observer, tempered spirit, powerful predator, and with telescoping eye-sight and hearing–exactly the characteristics of that of a God, or demigod would have); time of day event occurred.

    It’s as though he was inoculated–first, smudged himself, to then descend through a spiral stair-case to learn that it’s some sort of worm-hole that carries passage to the upper worlds where spirits and gods have their conferences after he his spirit has become immunized to a foreign antigen of some kind.

    It’s as though a “tear/puncture” from beyond the deeper/counter-part world that corresponds to this physical world–from a thrice-heaven, or quattral–took place because of how Tens ignored, or did away with, the signs and gentle invitations he must have experienced before he chose to fulfill and complete his calling/contractual agreement.
    Excellent sharing around the “virtual” camp-fire!

    • Robert Moss

      Sal – thanks for sharing. Yes, it does sometimes feel as if the powers of the deeper reality come to find us by tearing a hole in the world we know. We can travel to meet them on their side in a similar way…

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Samuel Prentice Jr

    Tens comment, “I had to have dreams in order to act”, is as clear, concise and wise as can be stated.

    • Robert Moss

      Samuel – I agree. Sometimes the really important things are very simple.

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