The dreamcatcher is an easily recognized item from Native American culture. Throughout the Southwest in areas where Native American influences have grown, the dreamcatcher adorns walls and decorates homes without the person doing the decorating actually knowing much about them at all.
Most people consider the dreamcatcher to be a Native American religious icon that is meant to capture bad dreams before they can happen. Of course, like so many other cultural icons, there has been a great deal of modern fable mixed in with the original Native American purpose of this object.
Let’s take a look back at the history and actual purpose of the dreamcatcher.
The Origin of the Dreamcatcher
The origins of the Native American dreamcatcher cannot be found with a specific tribe of Native Americans. Instead, the origins of the word can be traced back to the original Ojibwe language, which is still used by several different tribes.
In 1929, a researcher recorded an Ojibwe legend that described the protective spiderweb charms that originate from a Native American legend known as the spider woman or spider grandmother.
As the story goes, there is a being called Asibikaashi that takes care of the people on the land, but especially the children. The legend goes that as the Native Americans grew in the tribes within the Ojibwe nation and spread out to all corners of the North American continent; it became impossible for the spider woman to watch over everyone. So webs were created by the mothers and grandmothers of the tribe to protect the children.
However, these were not necessarily to protect against bad dreams. They were an overall protection charm for the children. It was only later that the object became known as something that captured and ensnared bad dreams.
This was a very common practice among some Native American tribes, and every child from infants to older children was often protected by at least one of these dreamcatchers. Sometimes several were hung over an infant’s crib or on their cradle board as well as over the sleeping areas.
The legend tells of these devices being able to catch harm as it passes over the children in the same way that a spider web might catch insects that come in contact with it. Stories of the spider woman vary from one tribe to another, with some considering her a protective grandmotherly figure while others depicting a trickster creature that could catch all kinds of things in its web.
The Popularity of the Dreamcatcher
During the 60’s and 70’s the dreamcatcher became popular as a Native American craft item that many tribes sold to tourists and others who are interested in their culture. In fact, the term itself was adopted by those that were part of the pan-Indian movement so they could be identified as a Native American craft item. The term dream-catcher was first published in non-Native American media sometime in the 70’s.
The item itself was quite popular, especially among the Native American fairs and events that were held in order to attract tourists to the reservation, mainly because of the newly built casinos. In the 1990’s, popularity of the dreamcatcher exploded and people all over the country were buying them by the droves. Demand for the dream-catcher dropped off by the end of the twentieth century, but it is still one of the most well-known Indian craft items and is sold in some shops, particularly Native American ones, and on a number of websites online.
The Eye of God
An item that is related to the dreamcatcher is a Mexican and Mexican-American craft item known as an “Ojo de Dios,” or in English, an Eye of God. This is made by weaving patterns through a standard Christian cross in much the same way the patterns are woven through the Native American dreamcatcher. Although this item is barely related to Native American culture in the United States, it can be commonly found throughout the history of the native tribes in Mexico and some areas of the Southwest.
The Composition of the Dreamcatcher
In the past, dreamcatchers created by the matriarchs of Native American tribes were made from willow hoops and sinew, or from the pulpy material created from plants. Another form of these “spiderwebs” was made from circular wooden hoops that were around three inches in diameter with extremely fine yarn (that was often dyed red) woven into them. With more modern incarnations of the dreamcatcher, hoops of bone or wood were created with intricate web patterns woven into them and various sacred items such as feathers or beads added on to the dreamcatcher.
Of course, dreamcatchers are a common item for crafting in the United States. Most instructions say to take a wooden or metal hoop anywhere between 3 to 9 inches in diameter and wrap the hoop in leather, suede, lace or any material you like. You also need some flexible string that has some strength to it such as waxed nylon or silk. Weaving the patterns does take some practice, but there are lots of tutorials to teach this particular art form. You can add anything you like to the dreamcatcher, although most people use traditional Native American themes such as multicolored beads or feathers.
The Native American dreamcatcher is one of the most recognizable craft items of the Native American culture. Even though the dreamcatcher may not have been intended to actually catch bad dreams, the original purpose was to protect children and others from harm and that is the way that it is used today by those who believe in the myths of the dreamcatcher. Those who take a more logical view to the item may simply use it as a decorative addition to a Southwest or desert theme. But no matter what you believe about the dreamcatcher, there can be no doubt that is one of the most popular craft items from American history.