The history of dream catchers has nearly been lost in the turmoil of cultural mixing and destruction that followed on the heels of the European invasion. Dream catcher history is known with some credibility due to the dedicated field work of Frances Densmore at the beginning of the last century. She traveled from her home in Red Wing, Minnesota to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota just south of the White Earth Indian Reservation where she set up a recording studio in the back of a music shop. For five years she recorded the music of the Ojibwe for the Smithsonian Institute Bureau of American Ethnology. Her careful and extensive study of many Native American cultures including that of the Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) living in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada.
In Bulletin 86, plate 24 from the Smithsonian Institute Bureau of American Ethology is a photograph of an early, authentic Ojibwe dream catcher and on pages 51, 53, and 113 she described articles looking like spider webs that were usually hung from the hoop of a child's cradle board. She said that 'they catch and hold everything evil as a spider's web catches and holds everything that comes into contact with it'.
These 'dream catchers' were wooden hoops with a 3 1/2 in. diameter, woven with a web made of nettle-stalk fiber that was dyed red with the red sap of the root of bloodroot or the inner bark of the wild plum tree. This information can be found in her book, Chippewa Customs, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul) in 1929 and reprinted in 1979. A facsimile of this traditional dream catcher can be seen at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation in central Minnesota.
spider web dream catcher shown below right is very similar to the original
dream catcher that has been a tradition for a very long time. It is about 3 ½
inches across, made of red willow gathered in early spring when it is the
brightest color. Feathers were often added so that the parents could see the
good dreams slipping down the softness of the feathers. We use 8 turns around
the spiral to represent the number of legs of the spider, and a single stone in
the center represents Asibikaashi, the spider. The seven points or rays
represent the Seven Fires, the seven prophecies brought to the Anishinabeg by
the Seven Prophets.
For many years, only Ojibwe people made dream catchers as each tribe made only its original crafts. In the mid 70's, dream catcher earrings became popular and many people of other tribes began to make dream catchers. Not knowing how to weave the spider web or not wanting to take the extra time needed they chose the mid-point weaving style of the hoop and stick instead of the end-point weave of the ancient spider web. Many people, not knowing the significance of the twig or not being able to find the beautiful red willow of the northern woodlands, began to use metal rings wound with leather or string. The thread of tradition was lost. Now in the time of the Seventh Fire, and the traditions are being returned to the people.
The common dream catcher weave seen today is the traditional weave used for other articles, most commonly the hoop for the hoop and stick game of many tribes. Woven with strong rawhide with a hole in the center, a child would roll the hoop along the ground and another would try to throw a wooden spear through the hole in the center. Stories of the dream catcher legend that describe the dreams going through a center hole are of recent origin. The original dream catcher had a very tiny hole in the center and the legend describes ALL dreams being caught in the weaving. Each tribe and clan, however, has its own oral tradition and memory. Passing along that memory by storytelling has not been easy with the traditional culture challenged, the tribal languages fallen into disuse, and poverty, drugs, and conflicting values have created a climate of fear, anger, despair, and confusion. Now there are many legends of the dream catcher from many different Native American cultures. Sometimes Anishinabeg tell the story of the Lakota dreamcatcher with the "Shinob" traditional spider web, and Lakota tell the "Shinob" story with their "Lakota" dream catcher. Authenticity is difficult, if not impossible, given the intermarriage among many tribes, with non-Indians, and the loss of the continuity historically provided by traditional elders.
Imagine cooking without tomatoes or peppers, a picnic without potato salad, a world without canoes or hammocks, or representative government or the equality of women. These are the some of the many contributions of Native American cultures that flourished long before Columbus got lost on his voyage to the Orient. Perhaps you can get along without corn, beans, squash, or wild rice. Some families cannot imagine a night without dream catchers. For thousands of years Native Americans have woven dream catchers to provide dreams of goodness and beauty for their children. Yet the dream catcher is not for children alone.
Many people have told us how much their dream catchers have changed their life, especially their capacity to dream and to dream beautiful dreams. We would like to hear your stories, too. With your permission we will post them on our web site.
Before use, the dream catcher is often cleansed in a ceremony of purification by passing them through the smoke of smoldering sage--the sage ceremony. Sometimes, if the dream catcher is not in a well-lit room, it becomes overloaded with energies that need to be cleared. For us, each breath is a prayer and so each dream catcher is woven with the energies of love and blessing.