How Dreamcatchers Went from Sacred Tradition to the Malls of America - Atlas Obscura
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How Dreamcatchers Went from Sacred Tradition to the Malls of America

Hanging out to catch some dreams. (Photo: Janis K./flickr)

This is part four of a five-part series on sleep and dreams, sponsored by Oso mattresses. Read the others herehere, and here.

The dreamcatcher, that classic children’s craft, hangs from rearview mirrors and earlobes across the United States. The story that’s commonly associated with the round hoop strung like a spider’s web and festooned with feathers can be conveyed quickly—“You hang it above your bed to catch bad dreams”—and the object holds a wide appeal to sentimental Americans, standing in as part of an apparently usable American Indian past. 

I was given a dream catcher as a child, when I had persistent night terrors. Like the Guatemalan worry dolls that showed up in my stocking one year, the small token had the taste of authenticity that soothed an anxious child; if people had been using this method for years, I thought to myself, it must work. It was later that I began to see the object move to a different, more kitschy realm: think airbrushed t-shirts, sold ironically at Urban Outfitters or sincerely at the state fair.

My journey with dreamcatchers is by no means unique: For the past two decades, the object has come to imply wilderness, spirituality, and a certain kind of freedom in mainstream American popular culture. A 1994 Terry C. Johnston Western novel used the word for its title and the object as a pivotal plot point. In 2003, the title got recycled for a terrible Stephen King horror movie, reaching for a sense of otherworldliness in the Maine woods setting. And in 2009, a dreamcatcher showed up in the Twilight movie “New Moon,” when the Native American werewolf Jacob gave one to the heroine Bella, who hangs it on her headboard. You can now buy a replica of Jacob’s gift on Amazon for $99.50.

A whole fleet of dreamcatchers in a small town in Mexico. (Photo: Son of Groucho/flickr)

How did dreamcatchers transform from Native American religious object to revered totem of New Age culture? The story is complicated, and the answers point to the workings of the consumer marketplace, the forces of cultural appropriation, and late-20th-century Native solidarity movements.   

The first mention of a dreamcatcher in ethnographic literature came in the early 20th century. In her 1929 book Chippewa Customs, self-taught anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore recorded the results of almost two decades of fieldwork in Minnesota among the Chippewa (who also call themselves Ojibwa, or Ojibwe). In a list of “charms” she recorded, Densmore cited “’spiderwebs’ hung on the hoop of a cradle board.” These items were three and a half inches in diameter, “filled with an imitation of a spider’s web made of fine yarn, usually dyed red. In old times this netting was made of nettle fiber.” For the Ojibwe, the dreamcatcher was not the only dream-related item to find its place in a child’s space. In this list, Densmore also recorded that those who had named a given child would sometimes create a “miniature representation” of a powerful object that occurred to them in a dream, and hang the item on the child’s cradle-board in order to attract its qualities. 

Half a century passed before the dream catcher became one of the objects Americans bought and sold as commercial tokens of sympathy with Native spirituality. Historian of religion Philip Jenkins writes that over the last 150 years in the U.S., “the mainstream view of Native religions has more or less reversed itself, from a shocked contempt for primitive superstition verging on devil worship, to an envious awe for a holistic spirituality that might be the last best hope for the human race.” Although white Americans “played Indian” before the United States was even formed—as historian Philip Deloria points out, the colonists who dumped tea into the Boston Harbor were dressed as generic “Indians,” symbolically referencing a spirit of rebellious defiance—20th century interest in Native cultures didn’t turn toward spirituality until the  1960s and 1970s. 

Let the dreaming begin. (Photo: Orangefox/pixabay)

In those decades, a new passionate investment in Native spirituality—maybe best exemplified by the successful republication of Black Elk Speaks (1972) or the publication of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (1974) —grew among white Americans. While in earlier decades some might have taken an interest in certain Native cultural artifacts—buying Hopi baskets, or building tipis for their children at summer camps—it was only in the New Age 1970s and 1980s that Native ceremonies and practices were tapped into (or, depending on your beliefs, imitated) by white seekers of spiritual truth. Anthropologist Cath Oberholtzer, author of a book on dreamcatchers, traces the increased commercial popularity of the object to the mid-1980s (right around the time I first encountered a dreamcatcher, as a scared and nervous child). Since that time, the item has been widely sold by both Native and non-Native merchandisers. 

How widespread was the use of the dreamcatcher among Native people, before it took on significance as a commercial item? Oberholtzer writes that indigenous people in many areas of North America have recorded traditions of using types of “small netted hoops imbued with inherent symbolic protection” as tokens meant to insure well-being. Sometimes this round object was not a catcher of nighttime dreams, but a “miniature netted shield,” used to attract protective spirits and defend from malevolent ones. In the beliefs of some tribes, the netting in these objects was meant to symbolize a spider web, which had the power to catch and frustrate evil in its sticky thread. According to anthropological records, the East Cree used a charm similar to the Ojibwa dream-catcher to forestall bad dreams, but Oberholzer found no record of pre-1970s use in ethnographies of other tribes, like the Micmac or Iroquois. 

Nonetheless, many tribes now claim some form of the dreamcatcher legend as their own, and sell variations on the objects and their legends to consumers. Oberholtzer suggests that tribes inspired by the pan-Indian movement of the 1960s and 1970s may have adopted the dream-catcher as an icon of solidarity, finding common cause in the popular object that harks back to the many symbolic uses of a round, webbed hoop. 

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