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Everyone dreams. Psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have tried to interpret dreams and our subconscious thoughts. Though these modern scientists have provided multiple theories and vast quantities of written analysis, they are by no means the first to have taken on this eternal and elusive subject.
Dream interpretation has directly influenced Native American cultural and spiritual beliefs for centuries. American Indians believe dreams influence the conscious soul of the dreamer, oftentimes acting as a means for change in personality traits such as confidence, maturity, kindness, and loyalty.
Dreams have always been a fundamental part of Ojibwe culture and have many purposes.
The Ojibwe people, often referred to by their anglicized name, "Chippewa", so insightfully understood the importance of dreams, especially in children, that they attempted to assist a child’s ability to receive good dreams and filter out dark or negative dreams with the use of a dream catcher.
Frances Densmore, a renowned ethnographer who dedicated decades of her life to working with many Native American tribes, including the Ojibwe, wrote in her 1929 book, Chippewa Customs, about the longstanding existence of dream catchers:
Infants were given protective charms in the shape of “spiderwebs” that were hung on the hoop of a cradleboard. Traditionally, two spider webs were hung on the hoop, and it was said that they protected the child from harmful dreams and other dangers passing through the air.
In other words, a dream catcher would trap the bad dreams that blew freely in the night air and keep them from entering the mind of those it protected.
In her writings, Densmore dispels a common misunderstanding of the Ojibwe dream catcher by indicating that its purpose was to ensnare harmful influences in its web, thereby keeping them from reaching the dreams of children.
The Ojibwe people believe that the dream catcher’s web will trap bad dreams or dark spirits, thereby allowing the good dreams to escape through a small hole in the center and enter the child’s dream.
Beyond the protection and enhancement of children’s dreams, dream catchers were believed to have worked equally as effective for adults and families. Many Ojibwe lodges had a dream catcher hanging above the family’s sleeping area in order to filter bad spirits from all of their dreams.
As intermarriage and trade contact with other tribes increased, the concept of dream catchers spread to nearby tribes such as the Lakota who, over time, developed their own traditions.
In modern times, particularly during the American Indian Movement (AIM) of the 1960s and 1970s, when a pan-Indian mindset developed in the United States, many other tribes accepted the concept of dream catchers and incorporated them into their own cultures as a way of retaining traditional spirituality.
Today, only 40 years since the AIM movement took place, the common misconception remains that dream catchers have always been an integral part of most Native American cultures. But the truth is that mainly the Ojibwe people and Lakota were the early adopters and until more recently, were the only possessors of the traditional dream catcher.
Dream catchers have two legends about their beginnings; one told by the Ojibwe and another told later by the Lakota after they learned about them through trade and intermarriage with the Ojibwe people.
A grandmother watched patiently each day as a spider spun his web above her sleeping place until one day her grandson noticed the spider and tried to kill it.
“Don’t hurt him,” she told the boy in a soft tone, surprising him.
“But grandmother, you should not protect this spider.”
When the grandson left, the spider thanked the woman for her protection and offered her a gift. “I will spin you a web that hangs between you and the moon so that when you dream, it will snare the bad thoughts and keep them from you.”
At this, grandmother smiled and continued to watch the spider spin his web.
While receiving a spiritual vision high on a mountain, a Lakota leader met Iktomi, a trickster who also held great wisdom. Appearing to the leader in the form of a spider, Iktomi made a hoop of willow and spun a web inside of it.
He told the aged Lakota man that many forces, both bright and dark would attempt to enter peoples’ dreams and that the dream catcher he was making would catch the bright forces and allow the dark ones to slip away and burn up. Iktomi instructed the old man to make dream catchers for his people so they could all achieve a bright future by capturing the good dreams that are blown about by the winds of the night.
As you can see, in the Lakota version, dream catchers trap good dreams, just the opposite of the Ojibwe belief.
Once again we turn to Frances Densmore to learn about dream catcher design in ancient times. She writes “These articles…consisted of wooden hoops about 3 ½ inches in diameter filled with an imitation of a spider’s web made of fine yarn, usually dyed red. In old times this netting was made of nettle fiber.”
Nearly every part of a dream catcher had a meaning.
In more modern times makers have added other items to dream catchers.
Since the common acceptance of dream catchers in the 1970s, many variations have appeared. The end-point weave of a spider web pattern is now uncommon, giving way to mid-point weaves, loops, stars, and other decorative, frilly patterns. The traditional use of feathers and beads is still in practice, but the symbolism only remains in non-commercial uses.
Some Native American individuals and groups feel that the commercialization of dream catchers is an unfortunate misappropriation of spiritual traditions, while others actively engage in their manufacture and sale.
Marketing and mass-production methods have left customary materials at the wayside in favor of easily obtained supplies such as fishing line instead of nettle fiber, balsa wood instead of willow, and synthetic feathers and beads. Many non-Natives also produce and sell dream catchers, further confusing the item’s important spiritual traditions.
Fortunately, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 prohibits manufacturers from suggesting that their products are Native-made or have any connection with a Native American group unless they are “a member of any federally or State recognized Indian Tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe.” Furthermore, listing the tribal affiliation of the producer of the items is required. This, at least, will allow consumers to know if they are purchasing an Ojibwe, Lakota, Cherokee, or some other design of dream catcher.
Dreams of the Fathers
Despite the many styles available today, and notwithstanding the different versions of the origin of dream catchers, they are very popular across cultural boundaries. Perhaps this widespread acceptance is a symbol itself of the power of dreams to affect reality.