For as long as dreams have been reported, there have been stories of both blissful dreams and of terrifying ones-as well as a desire to control the content of dreams. The Native Americans were among the first people to formalize a method of harnessing good dreams and repelling nightmares. Their answer was the "dream catcher." Representations of dream catchers now appear in museums and stores, and some people hang them in their cars as good luck charms. But the history of the dream catcher runs deep, and has serious, spiritual origins.
The dream catcher legend
Dreams hold great significance in Native American tradition. Stories and legends abound of key moments when nightmares heralded disaster. According to Native American beliefs, the night air is filled with the potential for both good and bad dreams-and either can reach the dreamer.
The concept of the dream catcher originated among the Ojibway and Anishnabe tribes. The Ojibway believed that dreams occurred as a result of many factors, but one prominent one was chance-this meant that any individual could be visited by a troubling dream. The wise folk, or "medicine people," sought a means of stopping negative dreams from reaching people. Thus evolved the concept of the dream catcher.
What is a dream catcher?
It is said that an elder of the Anishnabe tribe described a vision that he had had of a spider's web, which was located inside a hoop. Attached to the web were a feather and a bead. These would hold on to positive dreams, his vision told him, while letting negative dreams pass through. Thus the first dream catchers were made, using willow, the feathers of an owl, and a bead or stone.
Today, the idea of the web continues to play an important part in the meaning and fashioning of dream catchers. Not all dream catchers have stones or beads attached, however.
How it works
The dream catcher is placed above a sleeping area, in a position where it can attract the first rays of the morning light. According to Native American tradition, certain dreams are intended for particular people, conveying messages that are relevant only to them. The dream catcher cannot prevent these dreams from reaching the designated recipient; these dreams will always pass through the web, and the dreamer must dream their important symbols or messages.
The dream catcher can, however, block the free-floating bad dreams that are believed to inhabit the night sky. In the absence of dream catchers, these bad dreams drift unchecked, and can visit sleepers, troubling them. The dream catcher holds back the bad dreams, which are then destroyed by the rays of the early morning sun. It is said that a dream blocked and destroyed in this way cannot revisit the dreamer-nor can it float away to pursue another dreamer.
A good dream is believed to follow the bead or stone into the center of the web, and then into the mind of the person sleeping beneath the dream catcher. The good dreams are allowed to move back and forth through the center of the dream catcher, and can thus be dreamed again, by the same person or by other dreamers.
A feather's breath
It was the grandmothers of the tribe who fashioned the early dream catchers. These were given to newlywed couples, to be placed in their lodges, and also to babies. The dream catcher had a special importance for babies, because of the feather's association with air, and therefore breath, which is crucial to life. The baby would be amused by the swaying of the feather on the dream catcher as it moved through the air, while also learning the importance of pure air and its gift of positive life.
Hoops and webs
In the early part of the 20th century, dream catchers were usually made of a wooden hoop, 3? inches (87mm) in diameter, which was filled with a web made from nettle-stalk cord. The cord was dyed red with juice from the inner bark of the wild plum, mixed with blood root (to create a deep shade of red).
Dream catchers for babies and children were made from willow and sinew. They were not intended to be long-lasting; as the willow dried, the sinew collapsed-and the dream catcher would fall apart. This disintegration was symbolic of the passing from youth to adulthood.
Today, most dream catchers are made of woven fiber. In certain parts of the northeastern United States and Canada, dream catchers are shaped in the form of a snowshoe or a teardrop.
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