Dreamcatchers come to us from Ojibwe (possibly mixed with Lakota) tradition, originating long ago in the Great Lakes region. There are a couple variations on their Ojibwe name: asabikeshiinh, is the inanimate form of the word for “spider”; or asubakasin, which means “looks like a net”; or bwaajige ngwaagan, meaning “dream snare.” The most basic dreamcatcher is a small willow hoop connected with spider web-like threads. The dangling beads, feathers, shells, and other ornamentation combine small sacred items and personal tokens.
Originally they were hung on the loop of a baby’s cradle board, to catch any harm that might pass in the baby’s direction overnight. The nettle stalk cord or sinew that formed the web would gradually dry out after a few years, and crumble away by the time the child was old enough to handle his or her own dreams. Traditionally they were dyed red, either with bloodroot or with the inner bark of a wild plum tree. The design of early photographs shows a spiral radiating from the center of a multi-spoked wheel, somewhat different from the more random pattern of modern ones--and much more like a real spiderweb.
One tradition says that dreamcatchers originated in the days when the people still lived on Turtle Island. Grandmother Spider showed them the pattern of her web at dawn, when the rising sun picks up the dew on the slender strands. Grandmother explained that she captures the sunrise on the tiny points of light that gather in the dew on her web. As a spider’s web catches insects that fly into it, so could the people make a web to hold on to spiteful spirits or nightmares until the sunlight came. Good dreams, meanwhile, would find their way through the maze-like web and slide down the feathers to the sleeper. This idea from Grandmother Spider inspired the first dreamcatchers.
It was traditional to include a feather on each one, because feathers represent air, and thus the baby would be reminded to keep breathing as it slept. Girls would get an owl feather, boys an eagle feather--symbolizing wisdom and courage, respectively. Because these feathers are now protected, gemstones are sometimes used instead, chosen to symbolize the four directions. Feathers of non-protected species decorate the hanging cords.
Dreamcatchers became a symbol of Indian unity in the '60s and '70s. Indeed, the dreamcatcher has become interwoven with the understanding of many tribes. For example, Lakota tradition holds that the night itself is full of dreams, both good and bad. People may use our creative powers to engineer filters, keeping a balance between these forces.
These more philosophical ideas give a rationale for using a physical object to control something as ephemeral as dreams. In the store, though, we notice that children intuitively grasp this idea. Even the word “dreamcatcher” seems to speak to something deep within us.