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For The Home

Dream Catchers

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: July, 2013, Page 30
Photos by Garrett Cook

Above from left: This coral-colored dream catcher from the Heard Museum has an obsidian arrowhead tied to its center. n From Cleopatra Hill in Jerome, Arizona, this three-dimensional dream catcher from Funky Fiber Works boasts an intricate vortex weaving. A turquoise stone rests in the center. n This pale-gray dream catcher from Sedona, Arizona, has webbing of animal sinew—a fibrous tissue made from tendons and ligaments.

history, Highlights and helpful Hints

Dream catchers, as we know them today, come in every color imaginable, fashioned from an assortment of materials and glittering charms. They are common in the Southwest, seen hanging in road-side souvenir stores or swinging from a passing car’s rearview mirror. And many, it seems, come with a small sticker of origin reading “Made in China.”

But what many people don’t know is that dream catchers are considered a sacred craft to many Native American Nations, and date back thousands of years—to a time well before European settlers arrived to document the curious weavings and the purpose they served for those who made them.

Dr. Anton Treuer is the executive director of the American Indian Resources Center at Bemidji State University in Minnesota and author of the book, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask (Borealis Books). He also is a member of the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes region—the tribal nation credited with the creation of dream catchers. “It is believed that the Great Spirit has a plan for us all and through dreams we can get a glimpse of that plan,” Dr. Treuer explains. “Dreams can be taken and interpreted so that guidance can be offered.”

This heart-shaped dream catcher from the Heard Museum features an intricate web made of orange thread set in a
spider’s web pattern.
Through the tradition of oral storytelling, the Ojibwe have passed down multiple tales explaining how the dream catcher took shape. According to one version, the Ojibwe Nation was originally living in one place, referred to as “Turtle Island.” It is said that Asibikaashi (Spider Woman) took care of the people and when they dispersed to the four corners of North America (to fulfill a prophecy), Spider Woman had a difficult time making the journey to visit them all. The tale goes that Spider Woman liked to drop in on the cradleboards of infants and weave her “lodge” nearby to protect them from bad dreams. To assist Spider Woman and lessen her now much-longer journey, women of the tribe began the practice of weaving the magical webs themselves.

Traditionally, dream catchers are hung above Ojibwe cradleboards to comfort sleeping infants, or placed high in the center of a family’s lodge. “I have nine children and I used dream catchers with all of them, on top of their cradleboards or native swings that we use,” says Dr. Treuer. “It’s a nice part of our cultural repertoire that also helps calm and reassure them.”

Originally, Ojibwe dream catchers were constructed of willow and fashioned into a circle to represent the sun traveling across the sky. The webbing inside was made from a single strand of sinew or plant cordage, and had eight points of contact connecting to the willow hoop—to represent a spider’s eight legs. The web is said to catch only the bad dreams, allowing good dreams to slip through a hole in the center, where they can enter one’s mind. At dawn, the sun destroys any trapped bad dreams.

Made by Navajo artist Carlos Slim, this dream catcher has sinew webbing lined in rabbit fur. Hanging from it are quail feathers on suede strips. Juniper berries were woven in to encourage “protection and feelings of safety.” Also incorporated are black stones, which are said to drive away unpleasant thoughts.
Often, owl and eagle feathers were placed at the center of Ojibwe dream catchers, representing air and life. Owl feathers were chosen for girls to symbolize wisdom, while eagle feathers were used for boys to connote courage. Adults in the Ojibwe tribe also received dream catchers. Theirs, however, did not have feathers and were made from stronger fibers and materials than those used for a child’s version. Children’s dream catchers were deliberately designed to be weak and easily broken to signify the fleetingness of youth.

Over time, the practice of making dream catchers spread to other Nations, including tribes residing in the Southwest such as the Navajo and Apache. In more recent times, dream catchers have been seen as a sign of unity among the tribes and as a general symbol of identification for Native American culture.

Carlos Slim of the Navajo Nation has been making and selling dream catchers for 14 years. “My aunties taught me how to make them, and it is normally something that is passed down through family,” he relays. Slim recalls that when he was a child, a dream catcher crafted for him by his family members had juniper berries woven into it. “The [dream catchers] made for babies are small, and sometimes they put juniper berries on tiny wristbands for the baby as well. These things have good vibes and keep negative energies away from the child. It’s especially necessary for babies, as many people like to touch and hold them.

“I make sure to put nothing but positive things, as well as things that are valuable to our people, in mine,” Slim notes. “I place specific stones in the center for different reasons. Dream catchers make you feel protected because they are given to you.”

Michael Martin, also of the Navajo Nation, was given a dream catcher when he was 4 years old and living in New Mexico. “One [dream catcher] in particular was my grandmother’s, and it must have been around 100 years old,” he recalls. “It was simple—wrapped wood and sinew—and there was no feather. [Dream catchers] are very common now. I feel like they are losing their meaning. But I suppose they are also kind of iconic for us, like fry bread. All the tribes have a version of them; each is a little different.”

Common-day dream catchers often have feathers tied with string or leather to the bottom rather than the center, as was the original design so that good dreams can slide down the dangling feathers and into the sleeper’s mind.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: This White Crescent Moon Dream Catcher, by San Diego artist Kirra Reyna, was designed to mimic the night sky. Silver beads represent the stars, while the space between the dream catcher’s rings forms the shape of a crescent moon. • The Instant Karma Peacock Dream Catcher by artist Kirra Reyna is comprised of a brass ring wrapped in a flat suede cord, silver and metallic beads, long peacock feathers, and a small chunk of dangling turquoise. • This snow shoe-shaped dream catcher belongs to a private collector and was made by a Phoenix artist. The hoop is made of traditional willow and has a tiny additional weaving within a small loop at the top. The webbing is speckled with beads, turquoise and a quartz crystal. • A thick twig wreath accented with metallic beads and strips of dark suede forms the hoop of this dream catcher from the Heard Museum.
While many dream catchers are mass-produced, individual artists (both Native and non-Native) continue to make the delicate weavings. Non-native artists, in particular, keep pushing and expanding the boundaries of the dream catcher form. Some recent variations include substituting vintage lace as webbing, crafting dream catcher-themed jewelry made from pliable silver, as well as incorporating complex hybrid weavings.

Kirra Reyna of San Diego has been crafting dream catchers for the past two years, and has cultivated a business of selling them for the past year and a half. “I began by making jewelry and I had made some earrings that looked like dream catchers,” she recalls. “My friends asked me to make them actual dream catchers, so I taught myself how and began making them in my own style.” Reyna is not Native American, but says a deep love for the Southwest and Native American culture in general make dream catchers a prime craft to tie together her love of feathers and turquoise. Reyna’s more recent designs incorporate crochet work and dream catchers with large flowers woven into the center. “Personally, I’ve never had bad dreams since I put a crocheted one above my bed.”

Whether new or old, unique or common, Native-made or non, dream catchers are imbued with meaningful origins and a calming presence.
See Sources.

Where To Buy
Clear Creek Trading Company, Sedona, Arizona; Cleopatra Hill, Jerome, Arizona;;;; Heard Museum, Phoenix; powwow events.
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