Legend of the Dreamcatcher

Introduction to the Legend

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. 

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More About Dream Catchers

Classic Navajo Dream CatcherDreams have always been a fundamental part of Ojibwe culture and have many purposes.

  • Prophecies:  Dreams can show future events that will affect a tribe or individual person.
  • Names:  Spiritual leaders can receive the name of a newborn child through dreams.
  • Spiritual Strength:  Many Ojibwe people pray, meditate, and fast in order to bring on dreams that will give them spiritual guidance during difficult times.
  • SymbolismDreamers will often see a symbol that has personal meaning to them throughout their lives.  Many Ojibwe make a charm to keep with them to remind them of the symbol.  Some even take them to the grave when they die for strength in the afterlife.

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.

What is a Dreamcatcher?

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.

History of the Dreamcatcher

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.

Two Dreamcatcher Legends

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.
Ojibwe  Legend
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.
Lakota Legend
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.

Design of the Dreamcatcher & What the Parts Mean

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.

  • Hoop:  The wooden hoop was either circular or teardrop shaped.  It served primarily as a frame for the web, but some believe it represents the circle of life.
  • Web:  The web, traditionally patterned after a spider’s web, was to catch bad dreams (good for Lakota) and keep them from entering the dreamer’s head.
  • Feathers:  Numerous purposes are assigned to feathers that hang from the hoop.  Many believe they provide a soft ladder for the good dream to glide down and gently enter into the dreamer’s mind.

In more modern times makers have added other items to dream catchers.

  • Beads:  A single bead often represents the spider that made the web.  Many beads or hanging beads can represent good dreams that trapped during the night.
  • Gem Stones:  Because it is illegal for most people to posses certain types of feathers, gem stones are now used to replace the symbolism feathers once held.
  • Arrowheads:  For increased strength and protection, some makers add arrowheads.  For other, arrowheads point to the four corners of the earth, directions from which the wind blows.

Design Variations & Commercialization

Dreamcatcher War ShieldSince 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. 

Protecting the Culture of Dream Catchers

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.


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