Dreamcatchers are very fashionable pieces of home decor these days, but do you actually know about their roots? They’re much more than a trend—they’re sacred, spiritual tools with a rich history. Before you decorate your home with one of these beautiful handmade pieces in your bedroom, learn about the true meanings of dreamcatchers, their ties to Native American culture, and what to consider before purchasing one.
The History Of Dreamcatchers
According to the non-profit organization Native Languages of the Americas, dreamcatchers were first created by members of the Ojibwe (otherwise known as Chippewa) tribe. As members of the Anishinaabe people, they inhabited what is currently known as southern Canada and the Midwest United States.
The Ojibwe were known for many inventions, including hammocks and snowshoes. They are also credited with making the first dreamcatcher. The small handmade creation served as a protective charm during slumber; legend had it that bad dreams and energy would be caught in the talisman before it could reach the mind of a sleeping child.
This wasn’t the only nighttime ritual they practiced. The Ojibwe believe that after death, an individual’s spirit spends four days walking towards a final resting place.
“He doesn’t know it, but if he gets lonely, he may take someone with him,” says Dan Jones, Ojibwe language instructor at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
Fearing that babies and young children were particularly vulnerable to being taken, Ojibwe smudged charcoal on youngsters’ heads before bedtime. They believed it would protect them from those wandering spirits.
“When the spirit sees the charcoal, [the face] is blurred, and he can’t see who it is,” Jones explains.
Frances Densmore, an ethnographer and the author of the 1929 book Chippewa Customs, explained that dreamcatchers were meant to resemble spiderwebs. However, ensnaring bad energy was not its sole purpose. A small hole in the center of each dreamcatcher also served as an entry point for pleasant dreams to reach the child’s mind.
The Continued Evolution Of Dreamcatchers
As intermarriage among different tribe members increased over time, dreamcatchers also became a tradition among the Lakotas. The tribe even created its own unique origin story for the charm.
According to historical documents (via the Aktá Lakota Museum), Iktomi—a wise trickster who appeared in the form of a spider—came before a spiritual leader in a vision. In it, he spun a web using willow, feathers, horsehair, and beads.
“Use the web to help yourself and your people…to reach your goals and make use of your people’s ideas, dreams and visions,” Iktomi told the man. “If you believe in the Great Spirit, the web will catch your good ideas and the bad ones will go through the hole.”
Today, dreamcatchers are made by craftspeople from a myriad of tribes, including the Cherokee, Cree, and Navajo. While they aren’t necessarily longstanding traditions among all Native American people, they are now a shared symbol that links these Indigenous communities.
What Dreamcatchers Are Made Of
According to Densmore, dreamcatchers were originally meant to be hung on the hoop of a cradleboard. They were constructed of three-and-a-half-inch willow hoops, shaped in circles or teardrops. The rounded shape of the frame was meant to represent the circle of life.
The inner web was made with nettle stalk cord. Fibers were dyed with bloodroot or wild plum inner bark for color. The design, reminiscent of a spiderweb, “trapped” bad dreams and energy before they could reach the sleeping child below.
Feathers were more than a frivolous embellishment—they served as a ladder for good dreams to gently land in one’s mind.
But dreamcatchers have evolved over time. In recent years, it’s not unusual to see the addition of beads, which symbolize good dreams. Gemstones sometimes replace feathers, and arrowheads add an extra layer of protection for the child.
How Whitewashing Affects Dreamcatchers
Unfortunately, the sudden popularity of dreamcatchers means that most of the ones you’ve seen on the market are inauthentic. Mass production means they are often made with inferior materials: cheap balsa wood for hoops, nylon thread in place of cord made of natural fiber, synthetic feathers dyed in garish colors, etc…
A massive dreamcatcher hanging on a living room wall might look pretty in a Pinterest pic, but items like these do not serve their intended purpose by any means.
“[Dreamcatchers] have become the symbol of unity among Indian Nations and a symbol of identification with our first Native American Nations cultures,” reads an informational page for the Sherman Indian Museum. “However many Native Americans have begun to see dreamcatchers as over-commercialized, offensively misappropriated, and misused by non-natives.”
The writer continues, “In the course of becoming so popular outside of the Indian Nation, many varieties of dreamcatchers bear little resemblance to traditional style. They are now made, exhibited, and sold by new-age groups; many traditional Native American people find this an undesirable form of cultural appropriation.”
Is It Appropriation Or Appreciation?
The popularity of dreamcatchers has a sparked an important debate about appreciation versus appropriation.
According to Oxford Languages, one definition of appreciation is the “sensitive understanding of the aesthetic value of something.” This requires a genuine approach to understanding an unfamiliar culture.
Appropriation is another story. It’s defined as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”
When Vanessa Hudgens wore a dreamcatcher in her hair back in 2016, it blew up on social media for all the wrong reasons. Critics accused her of appropriation, making sharp remarks like, “I love her and all but it’s culture not costume.”
“You constantly go out of your way to disrespect cultures to look ~boho. It’s rude as f–k,” said another commenter.
A third added, “Don’t put dreamcatchers in your hair! That you have to constantly be told not to do this and dragged means you are not listening and it’s frustrating af!!’
Meanwhile, defenders of the pop star essentially asked what the big deal was.
“Some people are too quick to be overly-sensitive,” remarked one fan.
Another chimed in and said, “Too many people love to find reasons to be offended about something these days.”
Skeptics were justified for raising an eyebrow. Given that dreamcatchers are sacred charms meant to protect innocent children, it was probably in poor taste for Hudgens to wear one as a fashion statement. Tagging Coachella in her pics, as opposed to making any mention of the Native American traditions that “inspired” her, was another tone-deaf move.
But Hudgens is hardly the only person who is using Native American culture to her advantage. Tribal imagery has long been used to promote retail products, sports teams, and other commercial enterprises.
How Appropriation Is Commercialized
Take something as seemingly innocent as Halloween. The marketing of cheap feather headdresses and sexy Pocahontas outfits at big-box costume stores completely ignores the brutal history of Native American colonization. Or even worse, it supports a revised version of Native American history.
“When it comes to Halloween in the Native community, it’s like a big eye roll,” Henu Josephine Tarrant, a member of the Ho-Chunk, Hopi, and Rappahannock tribes, told NPR in 2019.
“It goes deeper than what you’re dressed like,” she said. “When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know they’re all rooted in a historically violent past…It really is a reflection of how we look to [non-Native Americans] and what we are to them.”
How To Avoid Cultural Appropriation Of Dreamcatchers
So you’re still interested in purchasing a dreamcatcher—this information is a great place to start! But before you do, take the time to do some research before you spend your hard-earned money. The best and most responsible way to go about it is to find Native American artisans or companies that are Native-owned. Native Languages of the Americas provides a comprehensive list of websites where one can buy genuine, handcrafted items.
Be careful when it comes to mega retailers, which often sell goods that are mass-produced in factories overseas. It’s also important to hold these businesses accountable for unethical practices. For instance, in 2012, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit against Urban Outfitters, Inc. (whose sister brands include Free People, Anthropologie, BHLDN, Terrain, and Vetri) for violating trademark dilution laws.
The Navajo Nation also took issue with Urban Outfitters’ use of the word “Navajo” in its item descriptions. They believed this was a violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990—a law that requires that Indian crafts be marketed without misrepresentation.
Urban Outfitters responded by claiming that “Navajo” was an adjective used to describe a style. Even if this argument held up, did the company hire and compensate Native American artists to create their merchandise? Again, perhaps the more feel-good choice is to buy directly from tribe members.
Another suggestion for consumers is to make sure that dreamcatchers are used strictly for their intended purpose. Native American artists who make dreamcatchers specify that they are meant for bedrooms and cribs. They are rarely, if ever, marketed as a fabulous interior design addition (or hair accessories)—at least not by respectable producers.
At the end of the day, it’s important to research unfamiliar objects and cultural traditions before adopting them into your own life. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating diversity, as long as you’re not strictly doing it for Instagram likes. Being honest, mindful, and curious will come a long way in minimizing harm to marginalized communities.