The History & Origin Story Of The Dreamcatcher

Dreamcatchers seem to be everywhere--tattoos, museums, gift shops, wall decor. But where do they come from? Find out the story of these beautiful items.

By Daina
The History & Origin Story Of The Dreamcatcher

Dreamcatchers: A History and Origin Story

You may have seen these tattooed on bodies, used in spiritual rituals, in museums, on t-shirts, or you may have even made them youself in Girl Scouts. Dreamcatchers are scattered about society today. They are beautiful to look at and artistically designed, but where do they actually come from? Who designed them? What is the meaning behind them? What are they used for? Why did they become such a craze? 

I'm going to answer all that and more. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and it'll feel like you're watching a documentary (one with a lot of subtitles that you'll have to read and only pictures of dreamcatchers to accompany them). 

But first, I guess it is important to know what they actually are. 

Dreamcatchers are defined as wooden hoops that are covered in a thread or fiber (when made for spiritual reasons, they are made with all-natural materials). The bottom is adorned with spiritual items, as the picture depicts beads and feathers. The middle of the dreamcatcher has interwoven threads that create a defined mandala-like structure. Different colors and materials can be used throughout it. Personally, I have never seen two handmade dreamcatchers that look exactly alike, so the artists take time and care to handcraft each individual dreamcatcher. 

Where did dreamcatchers originate from?

If you've ever walked through an American museum, you will notice dreamcatchers in a certain section of history. In fact, I remember the first time I saw a dreamcatcher was when I was in elementary school and took a field trip to the Pequot Museum in Connecticut. The gift shop had them in all shapes and sizes. 

Dreamcatchers are a meaningful part of Native American history. Specifically, they are tied to the Chippewa tribe, a tribe that originated from the north of North Dakota/Michigan and the south central part of Canada. 

The Chippewa tribe is referred to as other names as well: The Ojibwe and the Ojibwa. Every name is defined as the same tribe!

#handcrafteddreamcatcher ~ A beautiful day for ... DREAMING ☁☀☁

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The Chippewa Tribe

The Chippewa tribe is also known as the Ojibwe tribe. This name is derived from three different meanings: one that refers to their heat fusing technique to make them waterproof; another meaning refers to their documentation of history and recording using pictures; and the last meaning was given to them by another Canadian tribe to descirbe the Ojibwe language. 

Although they come from both the northern tip of the United States and the southern part of Canada, most of the Chippewa tribe is from the Canadian side (although, you should remember that back then, there were no "sides" or countries). In terms of population, the Chippewa people made up the second largest tribe in Canada. 

The Chippewa people are known for their wild rice and their use of other natural resources, such as birch trees and copper, all of which flourish in that area of the country. They are also known for their written documentation. They didn't have laptops or printers, or even paper and pens, to write down their history. So how do we know about the history of the dreamcatcher? 

The tribe used tree bark as scrolls to record history, knowledge of the tribe, and even songs. However, written language was also a barrier. They did not have written language like we do today, so they used pictures to convey what the meaning, which had then been passed down and used in combination with their oral storytelling. 

The name

If you studied Chippewa culture, you might have seen the word "asabikeshiinh" before. That is actually the word for dreamcatcher. "Asabikeshiinh" translates to "spider", which is interesting since the dreamcatcher has a woven design much like a spider web. But these items seem to have nothing to do with spiders. So what were they actually used for? And why are they called spiders? 

I will get into the use of them in a bit. But Chippewa people actually valued spiders! The things that we are terrified of today (with no good reason, as we are much bigger than them) were actually seen as spiritual creatures. The Chippewa people saw spiders as symbolism for safety--they believed spiders were protective. 

One of the origin stories of the Chippewa tribe included a "Spider Woman". And before you ask, no...Spider Woman was not married to Spider Man. However, they did have a lot in common (possibly Marvel used the Chippewa tribe's origin story as inspiration for its beloved mutant character?). Spider Woman, like Marvel's Spider Man, protected her people. She mostly cared after the young, as they could not take care of themselves. However, Spider Woman cannot be everywhere at once (even though it's a mythological story, they do try to put some sense into it!). So Spider Woman created the dreamcatcher. 

This is my 3rd handmade dreamcatcher, it was also given to my friend as a birthday present. He loved in green and also had a tree in his given name, and thus, my plan is “Wood of May”. My “Tree of Life” is inspired by the wire tree wrapping work in the net. I’d want to say they are really pretty. Dark green man-made Cymophanite is used in this work. Although using the birth stone of May seems much better, Emerald is over my budget.(´・Д・)」 Making the wire tree wrapping is easier than it looks like, the most important thing is making the material measurement in advance. The second important thing is finding the fit-sized gem bead. And the third is patient. Although the final product is totally different with my first design, I love it very much. My first design is using each material in one color. However the chromatic among the cloth, bead, feather, thread seemed to be big. I did want my work looked sudden, and thus, I made it with multicolour material. Chamois cloth with two different colour of the outer circle, golden thread, star-like dyed turquoise bead, fresh green feather….. I’d want to say it was really pretty! I loved it really much that I thought it might impossible to make next work with such simple but elegant design(>^ω^<)! 這是我人生第三個捕夢網,本來也是給一個朋友作生日禮物。那位朋友喜歡綠色,而且名字中帶樹,所以設計的方向就是「5月的林木」。我被網上其他手工藝者用金屬線繞出生命樹這工藝所啟發,因為很美,於是打算繞出樹狀的「生命樹」。 我選用了顏色相仿的人造貓眼石,雖說用誕生石比較應節,然而,祖母綠真的完全不是我負擔得起來作手工的材料,所以只好作罷(´・Д・)」~ 「生命樹」製作起來說難不難,其實做好事前的工料量度就容易上手了~其次是挑選尺寸合適的珠子:太大裝不下、太小不好看,而且也蠻考驗製作者的耐心~ 成品跟當初的設計有很多少不同,但是我尚算滿意。當初我打算統一顏色,但因為綠色的麂皮、珠、羽毛、繞網線之間的色差很大;為了成品不會顯得太突兀而選用混色搭配弄捕夢網,但我得說成品真的出乎意料的好看!兩種不同的麂皮連接出來的外圈、金色絲線、染色松石星星珠子、翠綠的羽毛…… 我很滿意這成品,滿意到我很難相信我再很難再創作另一個如此簡單典雅的新作品(>^ω^<)! #EiWonderland #Ei想飾界 #dreamcatcher #handmadedreamcatcher #wirewrapping #treeoflife #treeoftheday #chromatic #turquoise #捕夢網 #金屬線編織 #金屬線飾品 #生命樹 #貓眼石 #松石

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What is the original use of dreamcatchers?

And there you have it, the first dreamcatcher was created as a way for the Spider Woman to protect children near and far, no matter where they are. Subsequent dreamcatchers that were made were given to children and family who were not close by, so that it was a meaningful way to protect them from evil spirits when the creator couldn't be there to protect them. 

Dreamcatchers then turned into the eponymous use: they were created, as the word defines, to catch dreams. While the family sleeps, who can protet children from bad dreams? Dreamcatchers were said to do just that. They "catch" all of the dreams and sort them out--the bad dreams get caught in the interwoven threads in the middle of the dreamcatcher and hold them there until they die from the sunlight. The good dreams are passed down the feathers and grace the sleeper.

Anecdote time: When I was little, and I heard this story, I thought dreamcatchers were real. I could not sleep without a dreamcatcher over my bed. One day, I was staying the night at my grandmother's and she had fallen asleep early. I stayed up and watched TV and then was about to go to bed before I realized I didn't have a dreamcatcher. I frantically starting making one out of a paper plate, thread from her sewing machine, and beads. I hung that up and had the best night of sleep of my life. 

Why are dreams so important to Native Americans?

The origin of the dreamcatcher is a way to ensure you have good dreams. Besides making sure you have a great night of sleep, what is so important about filtering out bad dreams? 

Dreams have been said to be the gateway to the afterlife. Many times, people dream of angels or passed loved ones, and a dream interpreter will tell you it is them reaching out to you from the other side. But that would be a good dream. What about bad dreams? 

Bad dreams were seen as evil spirits trying to pass over the mortal world. Native American culture is full of rituals to rid the tribe or a person of evil spirits. The point of the dreamcatcher was to catch these evil spirited dreams, which could not see the light of day. 

The Chippewa tribe also had a unique value in a person's dreams. There was a designated baby namer of the tribe (cool job description, right?). Unlike contemporary American culture where a baby is named immediately after birth (and sometimes even before he or she is born!), the Chippewa tribe waited to name the babies until the tribe-designated baby namer had a dream where godly spirits would direct the namer what to name the baby. 

Dreams in all cultures have a pretty significant meaning, which is why there are so many books on dream interpretation now. 

Dreamcatchers used in pop culture today

Dreamcatchers are used today for primarily symbolism throughout society today.. Very rarely do people buy a t-shirt with a dreamcatcher on it for spiritual reasons. Dreamcatchers are not given to babies at a baby shower for protection and comfort. 

Dreamcatchers are not even the same in size or made the same as they were made for spiritual reasons. Native Americans took care to make sure each one was used with natural materials, coming from the earth. They believed the earth was also a living being and would protect them, much like the dreamcatcher would protect their children. Today, dreamcatchers are made with anything that costs the least amount of money to mass produce. Very few dreamcatchers you see today (even the ones in the museum) are hand crafted with all natural materials. 

So what is the symbolism of the item today? 

Many people will get a dreamcatcher tattooed on their bodies as symbolism for natural beauty and Native American culture. However, very few use it as a means of protection. 

Contemporary Native Americans have seen dreamcatchers being misused and the meaning of the original dreamcatchers gone. The meaning of the origin story remains important to them. Most wish that those who have dreamcatcher merchandise learn the meaning behind the artifact and honor the origin of their spiritual item. 

Dreamcatchers: Beautiful, Meaningful, and Story-based

As Native Americans intended, real dreamcatchers are beautifully designed and crafted. They are full of meaning and stick true to the origins. Although mass produced dreamcatchers have caused an uprising of fake dreamcatchers, you will know a real dreamcatcher when you see it. They are:

  • Not perfect. Handcrafted means it is not entirely perfect and symmetrical. 
  • Made of all natural materials
  • Made with beads for a spiritual use, not beads that are sparkly and in the shapes of stars and hearts
  • Not flashy
  • Made with real feathers, not plastic feathers or fabric (which is used a lot in the place of feathers)
  • Small (at most, a few inches wide)
  • Not usually sold online (they can be bought at almost any Native American reservation throughout the country and some of Canada, as they have become a general Native American item, not just Chippewa).