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October 21, 2017
The dream catcher is one of the most enduring and widespread symbols associated with Native American culture. It’s commonly believed that the iconic hoop-and-web form is meant to protect sleepers from bad dreams by “catching” them, while letting good dreams pass through, hence the name.
However, the real story behind dream catchers is a little more complex. While some see it as a symbol of unity among tribes, others feel the dream catcher has become misappropriated and over-commercialized. Despite this polarization, the origins of the dream catcher and the beliefs surrounding it remain a fascinating part of American history.
Protective fetishes (objects believed to have special powers) appear in numerous indigenous cultures, but the dream catcher typically associated with Native Americans originated in the Ojibwe (Chippewa) culture. Traditionally made from a willow branch hoop, nettle fiber or sinew, and decorations such as beads and feathers, the origins of the dream catcher are associated with a figure from Ojibwe mythology known as Asibikaashi, or “the Spider Woman.” This mother-figure was a protector of the people, especially children. Dream catchers became a proxy for Asibikaashi as the Ojibwe nation spread over a larger geographical region, a tool hung over children’s beds to capture any bad or evil before it could cause harm.
As Western tribes gradually contacted one another through trade and intermarriage, the dream catcher legend permeated other cultures. The Lakota have their own dream catcher legend associated with a trickster god, Iktomi, who often appeared in the form of a spider. In Lakota culture, dream catchers represent “the web of life,” with its many good and bad choices. The dream catcher is meant to filter the bad ideas of society from the good, leading the people to achieve their dreams and visions. During the Pan-Indian movement of the late 20th century, when many tribes of indigenous peoples sought unity for cultural stability, the dream catcher became widely associated with many different Native tribes and nations.
While many people find dream catchers beautiful and the protective intention behind them compelling, they’ve caused some controversy over the years. Some people feel that the use of dream catchers outside of Native culture is a form of cultural appropriation, particularly when non-Natives profit from the sale of Native-inspired crafts. Legality became an issue as well. As dream catchers became increasingly popular with the New Age crowd starting in the 1970s, some unscrupulous crafters were passing off their wares as “genuine Native American” crafts, marketing them as being made by a particular tribe, for example. Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1990, making it illegal to falsely advertise that Native American-inspired artwork, such as pottery, baskets, jewelry, and totemic items like dream catchers, was made by Native Americans when it was not.
Controversy over cultural appropriation doesn’t mean non-Natives can’t appreciate and display Native arts and crafts like dream catchers. When approached in a way that respects the history and culture behind the craft and recognizes the artisan, hanging dream catchers can be a beautiful way to honor the people whose rich tapestry of beliefs carpeted this land long before European settlement.