How much do you really know about dream catchers?

A dream catcher against the sunset By marina shin/Shutterstock

Have you noticed that during this pandemic, masks have become the new rearview mirror decoration? I’ve liked that, because masks have replaced the dream catcher as regularly featured mirror decor, a choice that has bugged me for years. Along with headdresses, the dream catcher is one of the most appropriated and exploited Indigenous symbols. There are lots of dream catcher tattoos out there. Miley Cyrus has one. Now, there are claims to Cherokee ancestry in her family, and that might be true, but guess what? Dream catchers aren’t actually from the Cherokee. Whoops.

Whoever you are, if you’re going to display a dream catcher, you should at least know its meaning, value, and symbolism to the appropriate Indigenous people. I’ll get you started. The dream catcher is a part of the Anishinaabe culture. There is no way to determine how long the dream catcher has been around—colonialism’s impact extends to our histories as Indigenous people—but it was first documented in the 1920s by anthropologist and ethnographer Frances Densmore. Dream catchers are traditionally constructed out of a hooped willow branch and a sinew net inside the hoop. Objects such as beads are often woven into the webbing.

As the name suggests, dream catchers are used to filter dreams, blocking bad ones by catching them in their net, and allowing only the good dreams to pass through, easing their way down the feathers to the person dreaming, typically a child. That’s why they’re often made out of willow and sinew; they aren’t intended to last forever.

They break down as the child ages. I’ve always hung my dream catchers by windows—which makes sense to me, because dreams probably don’t bust through walls, but traditionally dream catchers were hung over beds.

Of course, dreams aren’t exclusive to Indigenous people. We all have them. And the use of dream catchers, appropriately, has spread, first through the pan-Indian movement of the mid-twentieth century, to the shared symbol of hope they are today.

A dance group from Red Lake Indian Reservation, for example, has travelled to many schools that have experienced shootings and gifted them dream catchers. So, I’d say it’s okay to use dream catchers, but try to respect their purpose. And unless you’re planning to fall asleep at the wheel, maybe leave the job of rearview mirror ornaments to fuzzy dice.

This article was originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.

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