The University of Arizona
 

AritFACT: Dreamcatchers

Detail of netting and beads in dreamcatcherDreamcatchers have recently captured the imagination of Americans of all different backgrounds. It seems no matter where you travel in the United States today, you find dreamcatchers inside the homes and cars of people from many different cultural backgrounds. Dreamcatchers have existed in various forms for generations among different Native American tribes.

What is a dreamcatcher? It is an object made in the form of a circle with a net or spider-web design inside. Some dreamcatchers are made with leather lace surrounding the circle and are adorned with beads and feathers, and some may have been made from umbilical cords.

The current widespread belief is that a dreamcatcher literally filters dreams. It usually hangs above the bed and captures the good in a person's dreams so that it remains with the individual for the rest of his/her life. Any bad or evil in their dreams passes through the hole in the center, and does not become a part of the person.

Oneida dreamcatcherAlthough dreamcatchers are experiencing a renaissance, they originated in traditional Indian beliefs. According to ethnographer Frances Densmore, among the Chippewa, net cradle charms protected a baby by catching "everything evil, as a spider's web catches and holds everything that comes in contact with it." Evil forces included colds, illness, and bad spirits. Similar beliefs are found across North America. Dreamcatchers have been recorded to be used by the Ojibwa, Cree, Crow, Zuni, Cochiti, Laguna, and the Huichol of Mexico. They have also been portrayed in murals produced by pre-Colonial peoples of Central America.

As a result of their current popularity, some tribes are incorporating the dreamcatcher into their oral traditions. For example, the Lakota Sioux have a myth to tie the dreamcatcher to "Iktomi," the great trickster and teacher of wisdom. In the myth, Iktomi appeared to an old spiritual leader of the Sioux in a vision. The spider, Iktomi, spoke to the elder about the cycles of life. As the spider spoke, he talked about the different forces and directions that can help or interfere with the harmony of nature. As he continued to weave his web, the spider said to the elder, "Use this web to help yourself and your people to reach your goals and make good use of your people's ideas, dreams, and visions." So, the Lakota elder passed his vision on to his people, and now the Sioux consider the dreamcatcher a symbol of the web of their life.

Another example of a tribe incorporating the dreamcatcher into their oral tradition is the Oneida of Wisconsin. In the new Oneida tradition, a dreamcatcher is hung above the cradle of an infant so that everyone in the household will have good dreams. The dreamcatcher allows only good dreams to enter the center hole and gently slide down a feather and enters into the persons sleeping, while all the bad dreams become entangled in the web. (Note the opposite function from the first example.)

Among European Americans, however, dreamcatchers are becoming identified with the movement of "conscious" or "controlled" dreaming.

Thus, dreamcatchers have expanded into a powerful multicultural symbol. Although being adapted by different groups for various purposes, dreamcatchers are an excellent example of oral tradition and material culture at work in the homes of many diverse cultural groups today.

Ronald Ransom

To Learn More About Dreamcatchers:

Adult literature:

Burkhart, Louise M. The Slippery Earth. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989.

Densmore, Densmore. Chippewa Customs. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society, 1979

Lentz, Mary Jane. The Stuff of Dreams: Native American Dolls. NY: Museum of the American Indian, 1986.

Toor, Frances. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. NY: Crown Pub., 1947.

Children's Literature:

Osofsky, Audrey. Dreamcatcher. NY: Orchard, 1992.

Internet Resources:

General information about the Oneida Indian Nation.
http://one-web.org/Opens in a new window

Photo:

Oneida Dreamcatcher, made in 1991 by Sheri Cornelius, Oneida artist of Green Bay, Wisconsin. ASM cat. no. 91-127.

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