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What is a Dream Catcher? Meaning, Purpose and Symbolism

Dream catchers are arts and crafts of the Native American people. The original web dream catcher of the Ojibwa was intended to teach natural wisdom. Nature is a profound teacher. Dream catchers of twigs, sinew, and feathers have been woven since ancient times by Ojibwa people. They were woven by the grandfathers and grandmothers for newborn children and hung above the cradleboard to give the infants peaceful, beautiful dreams.

The night air is filled with dreams. Good dreams are clear and know the way to the dreamer, descending through the feathers. The slightest movement of the feathers indicated the passage of yet another beautiful dream. Bad dreams, however, are confused and confusing. They cannot find their way through the web and are trapped there until the sun rises and evaporates them like the morning dew.

Originally the Native American dream catcher was woven on twigs of the red willow using thread from the stalk of the stinging nettle. The red willow and twigs from other trees of the willow family, as well as red twig dogwood can be found in many parts of the United States.

These twigs are gathered fresh and dried in a circle or pulled into a spiral shape depending upon their intended use. They used natural feathers and semi-precious gemstone, one gemstone to each web because there is only one creator in the web of life.

How Do Dream Catchers Work?

There are many theories as to how dream catchers weed out the bad dreams and foster the good. While every dream catcher has a hole in its center, it is debated on how this hole is used. The first theory states that bad dreams get caught in the web in the center while good dreams flow down the feathers. Another theory believes the good dreams are filtered through the net in the center.

What Do Dream Catchers Do?

Sometimes referred to as "Sacred Hoops," Ojibwe dreamcatchers were traditionally used as talismans to protect sleeping people, usually children, from bad dreams and nightmares. Native Americans believe that the night air is filled with dreams, both good and bad.

When hung above the bed in a place where the morning sunlight can hit it, the dream catcher attracts and catches all sorts of dreams and thoughts into its webs.

Good dreams pass through and gently slide down the feathers to comfort the sleeper below. Bad dreams, however, are caught up in its protective net and destroyed, burned up in the light of day.

Dream Cacher Meaning

Each part of the dream catcher had meanings tied to the physical world. One notable meaning is the dream catcher has a round shape that represents the earth's physical shape.

The web absorbs terrible dreams at night and discharges them during the day. The feathers act like ladders allowing good dreams to descend on the infant or adult who is sleeping.

Ojibwe Dream Catcher Legend

Dream catchers can be traced back to the Ojibwes. The Ojibwe people started the phenomenon and over time, dream catchers became adopted by other tribes, cultures and even Nations.

It is believed that dream catchers originated with Asibaikaashi who was known as the Spider Woman. She was a custodian of all the infants and the adults. It became a difficult task for her to take enough care of all the Ojibwe people as they started spreading geographically even to the hooks and crannies of North America.

According to Ojibwe tribal legends , it was believed that a mysterious Spider Woman' acted as a spiritual protector of their tribe, especially for the young children and new-born babies. It became difficult to watch over the whole tribe as it grew bigger. 

Ethnographer Frances Densmore in 1929 recorded an Ojibwe legend according to which the "spiderwebs" protective charms originate with Spider Woman , known as Asibikaashi ; who takes care of the children and the people on the land. As the Ojibwe Nation spread to the corners of North America it became difficult for Asibikaashi to reach all the children. [2] So the mothers and grandmothers weave webs for the children, using willow hoops and sinew, or cordage made from plants. The purpose of these charms is apotropaic and not explicitly connected with dreams.

"Spider web" charm, hung on infant's cradle (shown alongside a "Mask used in game" and "Ghost leg, to frighten children", Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin Ethnographer Frances Densmore in 1929 recorded an Ojibwe legend according to which the "spiderwebs" protective charms originate with Spider Woman , known as Asibikaashi; who takes care of the children and the people on the land. As the Ojibwe Nation spread to the corners of North America it became difficult for Asibikaashi to reach all the children.

So the mothers and grandmothers weave webs for the children, using willow hoops and sinew, or cordage made from plants. The purpose of these charms is apotropaic and not explicitly connected with dreams.

Even infants were provided with protective charms. Examples of these are the "spiderwebs" hung on the hoop of a cradle board. In old times this netting was made of nettle fiber. Two spider webs were usually hung on the hoop, and it was said that they "caught any harm that might be in the air as a spider's web catches and holds whatever comes in contact with it." Basil Johnston, an elder from Neyaashiinigmiing , in his Ojibway Heritage (1976) gives the story of Spider ( Ojibwe : asabikeshiinh, "little net maker") as a trickster figure catching Snake in his web.

Traditional Dream Catcher

However, these resemblances are very little. There is still a wide gap between the original and the modern ones. These new styles are made, sold, and exhibited by the modern era which is considered, by some, to be a violation of the culture, beliefs, and traditions attached to the traditional dream catchers.

Dream catchers are one of the most fascinating traditions of Native Americans. The traditional dream catcher was intended to protect the sleeping individual from negative dreams , while letting positive dreams through. The positive dreams would slip through the hole in the center of the dream catcher, and glide down the feathers to the sleeping person below. The negative dreams would get caught up in the web, and expire when the first rays of the sun struck them.

Modern Dream Catcher Uses

While Dreamcatchers continue to be used in a traditional manner in their communities and cultures of origin, a derivative form of "dreamcatchers" were also adopted into the Pan-Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a symbol of unity among the various Native American cultures , or a general symbol of identification with Native American or First Nations cultures.

The name "dream catcher" was published in mainstream, non-Native media in the 1970s and became widely known as a "Native crafts item" by the 1980s, by the early 1990s "one of the most popular and marketable" ones.

Dream Catcher Symbolism

While dream catchers have become widely popular phenomena outside the Ojibwe indigenous people, and even extended beyond the Pan-Indian communities, there have been multiple types of dream catchers. When one takes a good look at these dream catchers, you can still see that they bear some resemblance to the traditional ones.

However, these resemblances are very little. There is still a wide gap between the original and the modern ones. These new styles are made, sold, and exhibited by the modern era which is considered, by some, to be a violation of the culture, beliefs, and traditions attached to the traditional dream catchers.

This has made it very daunting to find authentic dream catchers. In recent times, dream catchers have been said to be more American than Native American. They are made of cheap materials, and usually oversize.

Dream Catcher Summary

Dream Catchers are a spiritual tool used to help assure good dreams to those that sleep under them. A dream catcher is usually placed over a place you would sleep where the morning light can hit it. As you sleep all dreams from the spirit world have to pass through the dream catcher. Only good dreams can pass through to the dreamer while the bad dreams are caught in the webbing and are destroyed by the first rays of the morning light.

Using a hoop of willow, and decorating it with findings, bits and pieces of everyday life, (feathers, arrow heads, beads, etc) the dream catcher is believed to have the power to catch all of a person's dreams, trapping the bad ones, and letting only the good dreams pass through the dream catcher.

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