Dreamcatcher Meaning: History, Legend & Origins of Dream Catchers

by K Shabi PUBLISHED 14 July 2016

What is the meaning and history behind the dreamcatcher? You've probably seen a dream catcher hanging from a tree, a porch or even in a souvenir shop and wondered about its purpose and meaning. Learn more about the story and the legend behind the origins of the dream catcher.

Dreamcatcher Meaning: History, Legend & Origins of Dream Catchers, Indian

Authentic Native American Dream Catchers

Originally created by American Indians, dreamcatchers today come in a variety of different sizes and styles. They usually consist of a small wooden hoop covered in a net or web of natural fibers, with meaningful sacred items like feathers and beads attached, hanging down from the bottom of the hoop. Real authentic, traditional dream catchers are handmade and crafted only from all natural materials, measuring just a few small inches across in size. The hoops are usually constructed of a bent Red Willow branch covered in stretched sinews. Wrapping the frame in leather is another common finishing touch for "real" dream catchers.

History of the Dreamcatcher: Ojibwe or Lakota Origins?

Today the dreamcatcher is associated with Native American culture in general, but dream catchers are often believed to have originated from the Ojibwa Chippewa tribe in particular. The Lakota tribe also has its own legend about the origins of the dreamcatcher, but most ethnographers believe the dreamcatchers were passed down from the Ojibwe through intermarriage and trade. The Ojibwe word for dreamcatcher asabikeshiinh actually means "spider," referring to the web woven to loosely cover the hoop. The patterns of the dream catcher are similar to the webbing these Native Americans also used for making snowshoes.

Ojibwa Legend & Story of the Dream catcher

Ancient legends about the history and origin of the dreamcatcher exist among several Native American tribes, but chiefly through the Ojibwe and Lakota nations. While many cultures find spiders to be creepy crawlers, the Ojibwe people found them to be a symbol of protection and comfort. According to the Ojibwa story, a mystical and maternal "Spider Woman" served as the spiritual protector for the tribe, especially for young children, kids and babies. As the Ojibwe people continued to grow and spread out across the land, The Spider Woman found it difficult to continue to protect and watch over all the members of the tribe as they migrated farther and farther away. This is why she created the first dreamcatcher. Following her example, mothers and grandmothers would recreate the maternal keepsake as a means of mystically protecting their children and families from afar.

What do dream catchers do? Purpose & Meaning of the Dream Catcher

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 Catcher Meaning: Web, Feathers & Beads

All parts of the authentic Native American dreamcatcher have meaning tied to the natural world. The shape of the dreamcatcher is a circle because it represents the circle of life and how forces like the sun and moon travel each day and night across the sky. The dream catcher web catches the bad dreams during the night and dispose of them when the day comes. As for the good dreams, the feathers act as a fluffy, pillow-like ladder that allows them to gently descend upon the sleeping person undisturbed. There is some contention when it comes to the meaning of the beads that often decorate the dreamcatcher. According to some American Indians, the beads symbolize the spider—the web weaver itself. Others believe the beads symbolize the good dreams that could not pass through the web, immortalized in the form of sacred charms.

Dreamcatcher Meaning Today: Authentic Symbol or Cultural Appropriation?

Though dreamcatchers are quite prolific, finding real authentic dreamcatchers is not that easy. Real handmade dream catchers are usually small in size and feature sacred charms like feathers and beads. Many dreamcatchers for sale today, however, are much more American than Native American, often oversized and made of cheap plastic materials. Many Native Americans still consider the dreamcatcher to be a symbol of unity and identification among the many Indian Nations and First Nations cultures. Still, many other Native Americans have come to see dream catchers as an symbol of cultural appropriation, over-commercialized and offensively misappropriated and misused by non-Natives.

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