Dream Catchers: Totally Not Pagan, You Guys

I love perusing Etsy and Pinterest and getting great ideas and seeing all the clever crafty things that other people are doing to celebrate their spirituality, I really do. But for the love of Zeus’ kidney, y’all. DREAMCATCHERS ARE NOT WICCAN. They’re not even NeoPagan, if we use NeoPagan in the context of “modern Paganism based upon proto-Indo-European religious beliefs.”

Want a dream catcher? Consider the cultural context.

They’re Native American. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating Native American spirituality, it’s completely a terrible idea to appropriate it. In other words, if you’re not Native American, you are lacking the cultural and societal context in which something sacred like a dream catcher actually works.

Now, before you send me an angry email, or comment below with OMG UR SO DUMB DON’T TELL ME WUT TO DO, let me clarify this. Can you create a dream catcher of your own if you want to? Go for it, I’m certainly not going to drive to your house and scold you. I learned how to make them myself, and it’s a fascinating and meditative process. But it’s really important to consider the WHY of the creation. It’s also super important not to cheapen it – in other words, if you want to create one to hang in your home because it calls to you spiritually, that’s great. But if you make one out of plastic and neon and hang a bunch of shitty fake crystals on it and sell it in your Etsy shop as a REAL WICCAN DREAM CATCHER NATIVE CRAFT, it’s possible that some of us will judge the shit out of you.

Taté Walker is Mniconjou Lakota and an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and blogs about issues of interest to Native culture. She says, “The savvy among us know appropriation encourages the dominant culture to forget Natives are modern, contemporary people struggling to overcome nearly 600 years of campaigns to wipe us off the map.”

Walker suggests that if you really want to honor Native culture and show your appreciation for it, there are other ways to do so besides buying a bunch of dream catchers. She has an excellent article on how non-Natives can be allies to the indigenous peoples and their beliefs and practices. In short, she recommends:

  • Supporting Native artists
  • Learning about and backing Native-led movements
  • Calling out appropriation when you see it
  • Supporting non-Native businesses that actively honor Native culture and craftsmanship

Fordham University Law professor Susan Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This includes, obviously, spiritual objects, such as dream catchers.

Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law recommends, in an article over at Jezebel, that you “Consider the 3 S’s: source, significance (or sacredness), and similarity. Has the source community either tacitly or directly invited you to share this particular bit of its culture, and does the community as a whole have a history of harmful exploitation? What’s the cultural significance of the item — is it just an everyday object or image, or is it a religious artifact that requires greater respect? And how similar is the appropriated element to the original — a literal knockoff, or just a nod to a color scheme or silhouette?”

The History Behind Dream Catchers

It is believed that dream catchers originated with the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, peoples of North American. Tribal communities existed primarily around the northern part of the United States and the southern regions of Canada, in particular, around the Great Lakes. Today, the Ojibwe people make up the fourth largest First Nations population in America, and the second largest in Canada. Their history is a long and fascinating one, and the dream catcher stems from one of their earliest legends.

In Chippewa mythology, Spider Woman, who was called Asibikaashi, cared for the people of the land, but especially the children. It was Asibikaashi’s job to teach them the stories of their people, and to keep them safe, but as the population grew and spread, it became harder and harder for her to keep a watchful eye upon everyone. In Spider Woman’s honor, the grandmothers began making webs of their own, made of sinew and plant fibers, wrapped around tear-shaped hoops fashioned from the pliable willow branches that were so abundant.

These handmade spider webs were hung over children’s sleeping areas, to filter out bad dreams and only allow good thoughts to pass through. Feathers were hung at the bottom of the web, and the idea was that the good dreams would travel down the feathers to the child, allowing him or her to ignore the bad ones, trapped in the netting.

According to Native Languages, “During the pan-Indian movement in the 60’s and 70’s, Ojibway dream catchers started to get popular in other Native American tribes, even those in disparate places like the Cherokee, Lakota, and Navajo. So dream catchers aren’t traditional in most Indian cultures, per se, but they’re sort of neo-traditional, like fry bread. Today you see them hanging in lots of places other than a child’s cradleboard or nursery, like the living room or your rearview mirror.”

Today, many Native Americans see the commercial wholesaling of dream catchers as cultural appropriation – again, going back to what non-Natives may see as cultural appreciation, many people of tribal backgrounds see as a way of perpetuating and profiting from stereotypes.

So, does this mean you can’t have a dream catcher if you want one? Not at all – the dream catcher police aren’t going to come over and confiscate it. But, like so many other aspects of modern spirituality, if you’re not a Native American, it’s important to think about not only why you want a dream catcher, but how you go about obtaining it.

Dream Catcher image from lininhamonfredini via Flickr, Licensed through Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-2.0)

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