Dream Catchers: History and Legends

May 06, 2019 3 min read 1 Comment

Dream Catchers: History and Legends

What's behind the Dream Catcher's meaning and history? You probably saw a dream catcher hanging from a tree, a porch or even in a souvenir shop and wondering about its purpose and significance. Learn more about the story behind the dream catcher's origins and the legend.

Authentic Native American Dream Catchers

Dream Catchers now come in a variety of different sizes and styles, originally created by American Indians. They usually consist of a small wooden hoop covered in a net or web of natural fibers, attaching meaningful sacred objects such as feathers and beads, hanging from the bottom of the hoop. Real authentic, traditional dream catchers are handmade and made from all natural materials only, measuring just a few inches in size. Usually the hoops are built from a bent Red Willow branch covered with stretched sinews. Another common finishing touch for "real" dream catchers is wrapping the frame in leather.

History of the Dream Catcher: Ojibwe or Lakota Origins?

Today the Dream Catcher is associated with Native American culture in general, but it is often believed that dream catchers originated in particular from the Ojibwa Chippewa tribe. The Lakota tribe also has its own legend about the Dream Catcher's origins, but most ethnographers believe that the Dream Catcher have been passed down through intermarriage and trade from the Ojibwe. The Ojibwe word for Dream Catcher is asabikeshiinh actually means "spider," which refers to the web woven to cover the hoop loosely. The dream catcher patterns are similar to the webbing used by these Native Americans to make snowshoes as well.

Ojibwa Legend & Story of the Dream Catcher

There are ancient legends about the Dream Catcher's history and origin among several Native American tribes, but mainly through the nations of Ojibwe and Lakota. While many cultures find spiders to be creepy crawlers, the people of Ojibwe found them a symbol of comfort and protection. A mystical and maternal "Spider Woman" served as the spiritual protector for the tribe, particularly for young children, children and babies, according to the Ojibwa story. As the Ojibwe people continued to grow and spread across the land, it was difficult for The Spider Woman to continue protecting and watching over all the tribe members as they migrated farther and farther. She created the first Dream Catcher for this reason. Following her example, the maternal keepsake would be recreated by mothers and grandmothers as a way to mystically protect their children and families from afar.

What Do Dream Catchers Do? Purpose & Meaning of the Dream Catcher

Ojibwe Dream Catcher have traditionally been used as talismans to protect sleeping people, usually children, from bad dreams and nightmares, sometimes referred to as "Sacred Hoops."

Native Americans believe that dreams, both good and bad, fill the night air. The dream catcher attracts and catches all sorts of dreams and thoughts into his webs when hung over the bed in a place where the morning sunlight can hit him. Good dreams go through and slide gently down the feathers to comfort the sleeper below.  Nevertheless, bad dreams are caught in their protective net and destroyed, burned in daylight.

Dream Catcher Meaning: Web, Feathers & Beads

All parts of the Native American authentic Dream Catcher have meaning tied to the natural world. The Dream Catcher’s shape is a circle because it represents the life circle and how forces such as the Sun and Moon travel across the sky every day and night. During the night, the Dream Catcher web “catches” the bad dreams and arranges them when the day comes. As far as the good dreams are concerned, the feathers act as a fluffy, pillow-like ladder which allows them to descend smoothly on the sleeping person. When it comes to the meaning of beads that often decorate the Dream Catcher, there is some argument. The beads symbolize the spider, the web weaver itself, according to some American Indians. Others believe that the beads symbolize the good dreams, immortalized in the form of sacred charms, that could not pass through the web. 

Dream Catcher Meaning Today: Authentic Symbol or Cultural Appropriation?

While Dream Catcher are quite prolific it’s not that easy to find true authentic Dream Catcher. Usually, real handmade Dream Catcher are small in size and feature sacred charms as feathers and beads. However, many Dream Catcher are much more American than Native American for sale today, often over-sized and made of cheap plastic materials. Many indigenous Americans still regard the Dream Catcher as a symbol of unity and identification among the many cultures of Indian Nations and First Nations. Nevertheless, many other indigenous Americans have come to see Dream Catcher as a symbol of cultural appropriation over- commercialized and misappropriated and misused by non-indigenous people.

 Written by James Miranda

1 Response

BNuddy Guillot
BNuddy Guillot

July 22, 2019

A very informative article and lots of history. As a fan and study of the native American Indians I knew the history but to others who may not know, it was presented very well.

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