What is a Dreamcatcher?

The dreamcatcher, or asabikeshiinh in the original Ojibwe language, is a traditional Native American trinket of the Ojibwe tribe with deep meaning and significance in Native American culture. The word asabikeshiinh literally means ‘spider’, and the web of the dreamcatcher is a spiderweb. Spiders are held in very high regard in Ojibwe culture.

What is a Dreamcatcher Made Of?

The dreamcatcher is traditionally made of a willow branch for the hoop, nettle fiber or sinew for the webbing, and feathers hanging below. Many dreamcatchers out there are made of plastic but don’t buy those ones as they are not real dreamcatchers.

Normally there is only one bead, to signify the spider that spun the web. Traditionally the web has eight corners or spokes, representing the eight legs of the spider.

How Does the Dreamcatcher Catch Dreams?

Dreamcatchers are traditionally hung above the bed where children sleep, because dreams and nightmares fly around above the sleeper. Nightmares get caught in the web of the dreamcatcher and are stuck there until they die, but good dreams trickle down the feathers and fall onto the dreamer, so they can dream those dreams.  

Dreamcatcher Collage

Where to Put My Dreamcatcher?

Traditionally the dreamcatcher goes above you while you sleep, but if you’re not actively trying to filter out nightmares and improve your dreams but just like it because it’s pretty, you can put it anywhere you like. Hang it from your rear view mirror, decorate your window with it, wear them as earrings. Some Native Americans may take offense to misuse of the dreamcatcher however, so do be sensitive to Native American culture and educate yourself as to the cultural meaning behind your dreamcatcher.

Never Get a Dreamcatcher Tattoo

Unless you are literally a member of the Ojibwe tribe, do not get a dreamcatcher tattoo, ever. You probably won’t offend any Native Americans, but you will definitely offend your tattoo artist, and anyone who has to see it. Dreamcatcher tattoos are well-known for being cliché, tacky, and unoriginal. If you really insist on getting a dreamcatcher tattoo, ask your tattoo artist how to make it more original for you. If they care about you and/or their reputation as a tattoo artist they will do their best to talk you out of it, but if they can’t they will do their best to redeem it.

If you are Native American, it is a part of your own culture, so go ahead. If you are not, might I recommend getting a tattoo of the Chinese characters 愚蠢的外国人 on your back instead? You don’t need to know what they mean, they look pretty.

The Ojibwe tribe

The dreamcatcher originated with the Ojibwe tribe and spread to other Native American tribes as it became more popular. Now dreamcatchers are popular around the world but we must be sensitive to the Ojibwe tribe regarding the dreamcatcher so as to not appropriate their culture.

Ojibwe can also be spelled Ojibwa, Ojibway, or even the anglicized version, Chippewa. ‘Anglicized’ basically means “pronounced wrong by so many people and for so long that it’s widely accepted now”, like a nickname given to a foreign kid with a name that’s difficult to pronounce.

Cultural Appropriation

Dreamcatchers used to be a very meaningful icon of Native American culture, but have been sold globally as tourist trinkets for so long that the meaning is almost gone. Very few people who have a dreamcatcher know anything about it other than that it’s pretty, and most dreamcatchers today are made with no adherence to the spiritual significances behind it. For example, I mentioned earlier that there should only be one bead to represent the spider. Many dreamcatchers have multiple beads because the maker didn’t know this and/or didn’t care.  Likewise, dreamcatchers should be small but many today are oversized.

Legends of the Dreamcatcher

There are two main legends behind the origin of the dreamcatcher. One is an Ojibwe legend, one is from the Lakota tribe. If we had to pick one we would go with the Ojibwe legend because the dreamcatcher is of Ojibwe origin. But we don’t have to pick one, we can have both, and they’re both great stories! Besides, they’re not really mutually exclusive. Asibikaashi brought the dreamcatchers to the Ojibwe and Iktomi brought the dreamcatchers to the Lakota.

The Ojibwe Legend of Asibikaashi the Spiderwoman

Asibikaashi the Spiderwoman was responsible for looking after the Ojibwe tribe, particularly from the nightmares that haunt them. You see, nightmares and dreams fly around the bedroom at night, invisible, and come to the dreamer for them to dream. But as Spiderwoman she had the ability to catch them all, filtering out the evil nightmares and letting the good dreams get through. Asibikaashi loved everyone but she particularly loved children, so they were her main burden and focus.

Gradually over time, the Ojibwe tribe grew bigger and bigger, settling down over a greater area of land. As they expanded, Asibikaashi found it more and more difficult to get to every bedroom at night in time to catch the nightmares. Even with her great powers, she could not move that fast. It troubled her deeply that some children were beginning to have nightmares again because she was not fast enough to get to every single household in one night. So she designed the asabikeshiinh, the dreamcatcher, to catch the dreams and filter out the nightmares in her absence.

The dreamcatcher is a mystical spiderweb to be hung above the children’s beds. Both the dreams and nightmares get caught in the webbing, but the nightmares get stuck there until dawn comes, and the sunlight of morning shines on them and destroys them. The good dreams trickle down the feathers to land on the dreamer. Asibikaashi taught the women of the Ojibwe tribe how to make the dreamcatchers so that they could all protect their children from nightmares. Thus Asibikaashi was able to protect her tribe from nightmares, no matter how big the tribe grew.

The Lakota Legend of Iktomi the Trickster

ornamental-red-indian-chiefA long time ago when the world was still very young, an old Lakota spiritual leader was on a high mountain meditating. He was seeking guidance for a problem he and his village had been having: nasty, horrific nightmares, that caused them to wake up in a cold sweat, shaking.

He had brought up the mountain with him a collection of things for an offering – a willow hoop, some feathers, horse hair and a single bead. As he sat on the mountain, appreciating the great view before him, he tied the feathers to the hoop with the horse hair to give his fingers something to do, much in the same way as people today knit – while his mind drifted over the problem of the horrible nightmares that he and his village had been having. What could he do?

Suddenly, there on the mountain, he had a great vision. The trickster Iktomi came to him in the form of a spider, and spoke to him in a sacred language only the spiritual elders could understand. Iktomi took the willow hoop that the elder had been working on, and began to spin a spider web within the hoop as he spoke.

Iktomi spoke to the elder about many things, they had a real ‘heart-to-heart’ together. He spoke about the cycles of life – about how we start as infants wholly dependent on others, gradually getting more independent as we grow older into adulthood. But then as we grow older and older, we become weaker and more dependent on others until we need to be taken care of like infants, eventually returning to the earth. Our death in this way mirrors our birth, the cycle is complete.

“But!” Iktomi said, still weaving the web within the elder’s willow hoop. “Many times in life, we are faced with forces. Some forces are good, some bad. If you listen to the good forces, you will be guided in the right direction. If you listen to the bad forces, you will hurt yourself and those who love you, and you will be steered off the path and become lost”.

He continued, “There are many of these forces in our life, many different directions to go and different decisions to make. Some of them help us, some of them distract, interfere, and lead us astray. Listen to the forces that guide you to have deeper harmony with nature, and with the Great Spirit.”

Iktomi did the finishing touches on the web he was weaving, tied in the single bead, trimmed off the excess web and tidied it up. He gave it to the elder, a finished dreamcatcher. “I know you and your village have been having nightmares. Hang this above your bed, the nightmares will stop”. The elder thanked Iktomi and the two friends parted ways. The elder returned down the mountain and spoke with his village about the wisdom he learned from Iktomi, and the dreamcatcher that he made for them.

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