Most anyone can identify a dreamcatcher on sight, but far fewer know the spiritual and cultural history of this potent symbol. From t-shirts to tattoos, the image of the dreamcatcher is everywhere, but what is a dreamcatcher exactly and what is it meant to do?
According to NativeAmericanVault.com, dreamcatchers were first described to non-Native people in 1929 by Frances Densmore, an ethnographer working among the Ojibwe People. She described them as small webs hung over cradles as a protective charm for the little ones. Any harmful or negative energies in the air would be caught by the netting, just as a true spider web catches anything floating by.
While the first written record of the dreamcatcher relates to the Ojibwe People, there are two different stories about how this sacred item came to Native American culture.
The Ojibwe origin story tells of Asibaikaashi, or Spider Woman, a maternal figure who was responsible for the well-being of all the children of the world. To protect infants, Spider Woman would weave a special web above the baby’s cradle board while they were sleeping. As the population grew, it became too difficult for Spider Woman to keep up, and so she decided to share her wisdom with women, mothers and grandmothers who would take up the job of weaving dreamcatchers for their babies.
A very different origin story comes from the Lakota People. In this tale, Iktomi, a wise trickster spirit, appears to a spiritual leader. While sharing his wisdom about human life, Iktomi weaves a web within a hoop of willow. Once he is finished, he advises the leader to take the hoop and share it with his people. Their good thoughts and ideas will become caught in the web, and the bad will pass through the center. Because of this variation in origin story, the Lakota believe that the dreamcatcher holds their destiny as well as protecting against evil.
The Pan-Indian Movement
While the oldest origins of the dreamcatcher are found in Ojibwe and Lakota culture, the image and use of dreamcatchers is found across Native Nations. This is due, in part, to the Pan-Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This effort attempted to unite the many diverse indigenous groups of America into one powerful force, despite differences in geography, language, and culture. The dreamcatcher became a symbol representing all of Native America in this push for Native rights and representation. According to PowWows.com, the dreamcatcher now serves as a “general indication of Native American identity.”
Every element of the dreamcatcher can have a meaning. As sacred objects, a great deal of care goes into making one in the traditional style.
The Hoop- Circles and spirals are often held sacred to indigenous cultures around the world. In the case of the dreamcatcher, the wooden hoop represents the circular shape of the earth.
The Center- The hole in the center of the dream catcher is essential to its function, but has a different purpose depending on the Native nation. In Ojibwe culture, the center of the dreamcatcher allows for good dreams to come through and filter down to the dreamer. In Lakota culture, bad dreams or energies are believed to be trapped in the web and released through the center hole. In another variation, the bad dreams are trapped in the center of the web until the sun rises and destroys them.
The Feathers- Often from owl or turkey, the feathers hanging from the hoop can have various meanings between cultures. However, the predominant belief is that the downy feathers provide a soft ladder of sorts for good dreams to slide down into the dreamer’s mind.
The Points of Connection- A lesser known symbol in a dreamcatcher is the number of connection points between the web and the outer hoop. If the twine or sinew overlaps the edge at 13 points, this is said to relate to the 13 phases of the moon. Other numbers have meanings as well. Eight points represent Spider Woman’s legs, six points represent an eagle, and five points a star.
The Stones or Beads- Many special items can be interwoven within the web of a dreamcatcher, but stones and beads are a common choice. There are as many meanings for these items as there are options, but generally, they can represent good dreams. If only one bead is present, it often indicates the Creator.
Cultural Appropriation versus Appreciation
As with so many symbols from indigenous cultures, the dream catcher has become disconnected from its original meaning. Low quality, plastic dream catchers are often sold as cheap souvenirs to white tourists in Native Country. These sales rarely benefit the communities from which the sacred symbols were taken.
Does that mean non-Natives should never purchase a dream catcher or items featuring the symbol? Most Indigenous people say no. Anyone can appreciate the beauty and power of a dreamcatcher. We can all benefit from the protection imbued in this sacred symbol, no matter our cultural background. What matters most is the way we think about our engagement with Native culture. If we come from a place of reverence and respect, understanding the importance of the object, we transform cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation.
The dreamcatcher has become a powerful symbol for Natives and non-natives alike. With the right intention, these beautiful hoops can bring peace into your space and maybe even your spirit.
WRITTEN BY AMY