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Dream Catchers


The history of the dream catcher has nearly been lost in the turmoil of cultural mixing and destruction that followed on the heels of the European invasion.  Fortunately, at the beginning of the last century, Frances Densmore conducted a careful and extensive study of the culture of the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) living in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. The information can be found in the book, Chippewa Customs, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul) in 1979.  She described articles looking like spider webs that were usually hung from the hoop of a child's cradle board.  She said that 'they catch and hold everything evil as a spider's web catches and holds everything that comes into contact with it'. These 'dream catchers' were wooden hoops with a 3 1/2 in. diameter, woven with a web made of nettle-stalk fiber that was dyed red with the red sap of the root of bloodroot or the inner bark of the wild plum tree.   A facsimile of this traditional dream catcher can be seen at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation in central Minnesota.  The spider web dream catcher shown at the left is very similar to the original dream catcher that has been a tradition for a  very long time.  

The common dream catcher weave seen today is the traditional weave used for other articles, most commonly the hoop for the hoop and stick game of many tribes. Woven with strong rawhide with a hole in the center, the children would roll the hoop along the ground and another would try to throw a wooden spear through the hole in the center.  Stories of the dream catcher legend that describe the dreams going through a center hole are of recent origin.  The original dream catcher had a very tiny hole in the center and the legend describes ALL dreams being caught in the weaving.

For many years, only Ojibwe people made dream catchers as each tribe made only its original crafts.  In the mid 70s, dream catcher earrings became popular and many people of other tribes began to make dream catchers.  Not knowing how to weave the spider web or not wanting to take the extra time needed they chose the mid-point weaving style of the hoop and stick instead of the end-point weave of the ancient spider web.  Many people, not knowing the significance of the twig or not being able to find the beautiful red willow of the northern woodlands, began to use metal rings wound with leather or string.  The thread of tradition was lost.  Now in the time of the Seventh Fire, the traditions are being returned to the people. 

Each tribe and clan, however, has its own oral tradition and memory.  Passing along that memory by storytelling has not been easy with the traditional culture challenged, the tribal languages fallen into disuse, and poverty, drugs, and conflicting values have created a climate of fear, anger, despair, and confusion.  Now there are many legends of the dreamcatcher from many different Native American cultures.  Sometimes Anishinabe tell the story of the Lakota dreamcatcher with the "Shinob" traditional spider web, and Lakota tell the "Shinob" story with their "Lakota" dreamcatcher.  Authenticity is difficult, if not impossible, given the intermarriage among many tribes, with non-Indians, and the loss of the continuity historically provided by traditional elders.  I have encountered a few traditional elders who wanted to learn how to weave the dreamcatcher but they could find no one in their community who would or could teach them how to weave the ancient designs of their culture.  They had come to me. 

In 1996 I taught Ojibwe people at the Rediscovery Center on the White Earth Reservation how to weave their traditional dream catcher and, with the elders, was given gifts and danced the honors dance.  These dream catchers and instructions to weave them are now available here, in many stores and galleries world wide and at the Museum of Ojibwe Culture in St. Ignace, Michigan.

Imagine cooking without tomatoes or peppers, a picnic without potato salad, a world without canoes or hammocks, or representative government or the equality of women.  These are the some of the many contributions of Native American cultures that flourished long before Columbus got lost on his voyage to the Orient.  Perhaps you can get along without corn, beans, squash, or wild rice.  Some families cannot imagine a night without dreamcatchers.  "Ever since I made a dreamcatcher for my daughter she hasn't complained of bad dreams.  My son even takes his dreamcatcher with him when we go on vacation," a mother volunteered a few years ago.  For thousands of years Native Americans have woven dreamcatchers to provide dreams of goodness and beauty for their children.  Yet the dreamcatcher is not for children alone.

After teaching several thousand people, I developed dreamcatcher weaving kits with illustrated instruction books.  A man in Pennsylvania gave one to his mother who worked in a nursing home.  She wove it for an old Jewish man who had survived the Nazi death camps but not the nightmares of those times.  She gave it to him and told him the legend of the dreamcatcher.  His nightmares did not return. He lived the end of his life in peace.

Many people have told us how much their dream catchers have changed their life, especially their capacity to dream and to dream beautiful dreams.  We would like to hear your stories, too.  With your permission we will post them on our web site.

Before use, the dream catcher is often cleansed  in a ceremony of purification by passing them through the smoke of smoldering sage--the sage ceremony.  Sometimes, if the dream catcher is not in a well-lit room, it  becomes overloaded with energies that need to be cleared.  For us, each breath is a prayer and so each dream catcher is woven with the energies of love and blessing.


If you have questions about dreams or want to know what your dreams may mean, email me!! But remember only you know what your dreams are telling you!