Its origins notwithstanding, the Native American dream catcher is an expression of man’s obsession, fascination, fear and wonder with the world of dreams. And the belief in the power of dreams, and bad dreams especially, to spell doom in a person’s life is ubiquitous in all cultures. The tradition of the dream catcher in Native America art rests on this sense of foreboding.
The dream catcher that is prevalent amongst the American Indian tribes is actually a handcrafted object resembling a hoop usually made from willow covered with sage around which a loose net is wound. The original Native Indian dream catcher stemmed from the Ojibwa (Chippewa) tribe. They would weave deer sinew or nettle stalk around a tiny round or tear-shaped wooden frame and decorate it with beads.
The abiding belief amongst the various Native Indian tribes who have adopted this tradition was that the dream catcher would trap the nightmares in its web and let the good dreams drift ever so gently into the sleeper.
The dream catcher meant for a child can also have a feather strung to its center, just as an added means to guide the good dreams on their way. It is also believed that the feather symbolizes air, which is so essential for life. And with the notion of gender roles quite common amongst the Native American tribesmen, it is a regular practice to have an owl’s feather, signifying wisdom, in a baby girl’s dream catcher and an eagle’s feather, denoting courage, in a baby boy’s one.
The feather is not attached to the dream catcher of an adult.
The dream catcher is hung mostly over sleeping children as a charm to protect the young ones from nightmares. In fact, it is believed that the ancient dream catcher, called the “Sacred Hoop” was fashioned by a concerned parent. However, the Lakota myth is that the netting in the dream catcher will entrap your good ideas while letting the bad ones pass through the net.
Though its origins cannot be vouched for, the dream catcher has some captivating pieces of myths surrounding it.
According to the Ojibwe legend, the Spider Woman or Asibikaasi who brought back the sun to her people, asked the women of the tribe to make a dream catcher out of willow hoops to protect their children from nightmares. The netting was fixed to the hoop in eight places in order to signify the eight legs of Asibikaasi or seven to denote the Seven Prophecies.
The legend of the dream catcher takes on different shades across the various American Indian tribes. The Chippewa tribesmen hold that the dream catcher was made according to the wishes of the medicine who asked the women of the tribe to fashion out a dream catcher out of love and willow hoop to protect their wards from evil spirits. The dream catcher would have a notch at the center in the shape of a heart through which the good dreams would pass.
The Lakota legend has that Iktomi, one of their greatest teachers appeared in the dreams of an elderly tribesman and instructed him to weave a dream catcher out of a hoop, feathers, horse hairs and beads. He explained that the Good Spirit would filter away the bad dreams and ideas to help the tribe lead a peaceful life.
The Native American dream catcher is an abiding belief amongst the Native Indian tribes and has now spread to other cultures of the world.