Learn About Dreamcatchers
There are all kinds of dreamcatchers nowadays. Big and small, made out of organic materials like yarn and wood or inorganic materials like plastic or metal. In addition to “regular” dreamcatchers, there are dreamcatcher earrings and keychains, and you can find images of dreamcatchers on websites like Pinterest that have a Pokemon or other fictional world “theme.”
Of course, most people know that dreamcatchers originated in Native American tradition, and have something to do with your dreams. But that’s where most people’s knowledge ends. So what exactly are dreamcatchers, where did they come from, and what are they supposed to do?
Dreamcatchers are an authentic Native American tradition, but they weren’t spread across the whole continental US. Not every tribe had them. Dreamcatchers have a very specific origin – in the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes region, living in what is the northern-central USA and south-central Canada now. The winters were long and dark, and the Ojibwe had a great deal of folklore and myths – and not all of them were pleasant.
The legend of the wendigo, for example, is one such terrifying legend. A wendigo is an evil man-eating spirit that can appear as a monster with human features or as an evil spirit that possesses a human and makes them monstrous. Wendigos were gaunt, with dry, thin skin that was an ash gray color pulled tightly over its skeleton. It had eyes that were deeply sunken in its eye sockets, and was associated with the north, the cold, the winter, and represented insanity, famine, and starvation. It could make those it possessed resort to cannibalism, or possess those who had participated in cannibalism already. The Ojibwe believed that it was better to kill yourself than to engage in cannibalism so that you didn’t become a wendigo.
The wendigo was also understood in a more abstract and spiritual way by the Ojibwe and neighboring peoples – as a symbol of a mind that was overtaken by greed, and that was out of balance with the surrounding community. These were the kinds of legends that the Ojibwe had alongside their more happy ones, and wendigo psychosis was a real, historical disorder that happened among the native peoples of the Great Lakes area, leading to cannibalism that went above and beyond what might have been necessary as a last-ditch way to avoid starvation.
Dreamcatchers were devised by the Ojibwe as a protective charm that was first created by “Spider Grandmother” or Asibikaashi, a mythical being who helped people and guarded children. The dreamcatcher represents the web she weaves to protect her children and is not limited only to “catching” bad dreams while the person is asleep.
Instead, it catches malevolent spirits as well as bad dreams that are “in the air,” much like a spider catches insects in its web. The Ojibwe believed that the night air has many such bad spirits and dreams. When hung in a place that receives morning sun, the Ojibwe believe that the bad dreams and spirits that were caught in the dreamcatcher’s web would burn up in the light of the day. This protective charm, the Ojibwe hoped, would protect themselves and their children from the terrible presence of a wendigo or other malevolent spirits that dwelt in the dark, cold forests.
Then, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, things changed.
The dreamcatcher was adopted by the pan-Indian movement as a symbol of unity and solidarity between the many diverse Native American and First Nations cultures in the US and Canada. The spider’s web of the dreamcatcher represented how these people were all interconnected, despite often speaking languages that other tribes couldn’t understand, performing rituals that other tribes didn’t recognize, and living on different ends of the North American continent. In the 1970’s, the wider North American culture became aware of dreamcatchers – they quickly became one of the most recognizable and popular “Native crafts items.” In the 1990’s, dreamcatchers became one of the most widespread Native American crafts items, most likely due to its appeal as a protective charm and its inoffensive nature, without any depictions of Native American gods or deities, which allowed even devout Christians and other non-Native American people to embrace the dreamcatcher.
Traditional Native American dreamcatchers are made of all-natural materials. The frame is usually made of a red willow branch bent into a circle and covered in sinews. Strings of yarn form the web itself, and meaningful sacred feathers and beads often hang down from the bottom of the hoop. A final touch is often strips of leather wrapped around the hoop. That is what a traditional Native American dreamcatcher looks like. Of course, there are many variations, and the dreamcatcher has taken on a life of its own outside of Native American, and even North American culture. You can buy dreamcatchers in the markets of Peru or on the streets of Europe. But it’s a good idea to learn about their origins and the meanings behind them so that you’re not simply buying a trinket to hang up, but helping to continue and pass on a tradition that started among the Ojibwe people, but which has now spread around the world.