What is a Dream Catcher?
A dream catcher is a handmade artifact with a wooden hoop, woven web, and feathers or beads. The common belief is that dream catchers are Native American craftwork that keeps nightmares away.
Origin of Dream Catchers
The Ojibwe Nation (also known as the Chippewa) called it the spider web charm or dream snare. The legend is that the spider webs were first created by a woman named Asibikaashi, a mystical spider-woman. She was a caregiver to the children and people.
As their population increased, she could not reach all the children. In response, the tribeswomen recreated the webs using wooden hoops, a web made of nettle-stalk cord dyed red with bloodroot and the inner bark of wild plum. These dream catchers were hung above the children’s beds to catch any harm or evil influences.
The Lakota Nation believes one of their leaders had a spiritual vision where he met a wise trickster called Iktomi. The trickster appeared in the form of a spider, making a hoop of willow and spinning a web inside of it.
Iktomi told the old Lakota leader that the dream catcher he made would catch the bright forces that enter people’s dreams and burn up the dark forces. He instructed the leader to make dream catchers for the Lakota people to make sure they capture all the pleasant dreams they get at night.
Purpose of Dream Catchers
According to a story passed on from generation to generation, the Ojibwe-Cree First Nations believe the dream catcher was created for the purpose of healing. It was an important tool for someone in emotional or physical pain. After contacting a healer or medicine man in the community, the person would ask their family for permission to excuse themselves from familial responsibilities while they sought healing.
Once all parties were in agreement, the person would work closely with their healer, and they’d start making their dream catcher. There was no set time limit for this process. It could take seasons or years to complete.
Materials would be found to make the dream catcher and included willow branches, sinew, stone, and any other items the healer decided on. During this time together, the dream catcher would start to take form.
The willow branch was bent to cross or meet in a circle, representing the beginning of life to the present, with sinew strung inside the circle like ribbons of time. Other items would be attached to the emerging sinew web to show important events and moments of pain.
After all the work and reflection, the person would finish their dream catcher at a place of hope and learning. The healing journey would come to an end and a new beginning celebrated in a ceremony.
The dream catchers were burned as a vital part of the healing process. As the years passed, the Sacred Hoop was used to protect children from bad dreams and nightmares. The dream catcher would attract and allow passage only to good dreams while the protective net caught the bad dreams and later destroyed them in the light of day.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a derivative form of a dream catcher was adopted as a symbol of unity for various Native American cultures. The name dream catcher was published in mainstream media and made popular outside the Ojibwe Nation.
Anatomy of a Dream Catcher
Each part of a dream catcher has a meaning attached to the natural world. The wooden hoop represents the Sacred Hoop and Great Circle of Life which all the people are part of. The web design is spun in one continuous strand as a symbol of the eternal spirit that lives even after death. The hoop and sand, rock, or clay beads used in making the supporting frame symbolize Mother Earth. The feather symbolizes air or breath that is essential for life.
The dream catcher would not be created without Father Sun or water, which are both represented by the elements of fire and water. All materials that are used to build a dream catcher need both the sun and water to exist. A feather from an owl is kept for wisdom and an eagle feather for courage. There is no restriction on which feather can be used.
Dream Catcher Variations
The dream catcher has transformed into a revered talisman of New Age culture. Some communities have created dream catchers for sale as souvenirs that do not resemble the earlier traditional style.
Others have incorporated materials that work against the intended purpose of the artifact. The dream catcher has become more American than Native American. They are made larger than the original design and of cheaper plastic materials.
Other materials used include fishing lines instead of nettle fiber, balsa wood in place of willow, and synthetic beads. Gemstones and synthetic feathers are used because the government forbids the sale of feathers from sacred birds. Parts like the end-point weave of a web pattern have been replaced by mid-point weaves, loops, stars, and other patterns.
Mass production by mostly non-Native Americans has caused conflict as Native Americans communities feel their spiritual traditions are being misappropriated for solely commercial purposes.
A dream catcher is a Native American icon and can be a symbol of hope and healing. Some American communities and schools that have suffered trauma and loss after horrible shooting incidents use a shared dream catcher to carry them through the healing process.
Some people have dream catchers on their front porches and in their vehicles to provide protection like a rabbit’s foot. People do not sleep on their front porches and cars. This might be unintentional misappropriation but is an opportunity for learning in today’s age of reconciliation.
This spiritual Native American artifact has increased in commercial popularity and is sold widely by Native and non-Native merchandisers. It is important, though, for buyers to understand the history and origin of this object and appreciate its symbolism on the power of dreams.