Are Dream Catchers Losing the Native Tradition?


Last Updated: 3 years

Though some tribal members say they see no problem with the practice, others regard the marketing of dream catchers as another example of their culture being picked apart.

When Millie Benjamin was growing up, she spent her nights sleeping under a dream catcher, a traditional Indian object believed to ward off nightmares.

Benjamin drew comfort from her dream catcher. These days, though, she shakes her head to see them worn as earrings, hanging from car windshields and even sold as key chains in convenience stores.

“It has gotten out of hand. It’s disrespectful for our people. It means something to us, it’s a tradition,” said Benjamin, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Benjamin isn’t the only American Indian dismayed by the marketing of dream catchers. Though some tribal members say they see no problem with the practice, others regard the marketing of dream catchers as another example of their culture being picked apart.
“In order to be a good, traditional person, you have to live that life. There’s things you have a right to wear and things you do not,” Benjamin said.

According to Indian tradition, dream catchers should resemble a spider web and are to be placed above a baby’s cradle. The web filters out nightmares, allowing only good dreams to pass through to the sleeping child below.

A dream catcher is supposed to be made in intricate, ceremonial steps that include giving thanks for the spirit of the wood used in it. Those steps fall by the wayside when a person buys a make-it-yourself kit from a discount store, says Gerald White, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

“The dream catcher, to us, is a sacred item,” White said. “It’s lost a lot of meaning, even in our own tribe. It’s like losing our language, our culture — another symptom of a larger thing.”

White acknowledges that dream catchers are an important source of money for some Indians. Indeed, since the terror attacks of September 11, business has picked up, says Colleen Heminger-Cordell.

Heminger-Cordell, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, has been making dream catchers since she took one apart and learned to put it together again 15 years ago. Her work, starting at $14.95 for a 3-inch dream catcher, is sold everywhere from a Paris boutique to a Sioux City, Iowa, strip mall.

Most orders are from non-Indians who want more than 100 at a time, she said.

“I just never thought there would be that big of a market,” Heminger-Cordell said of the post-Sept. 11 demand. “Companies are buying them wholesale.”

Heminger-Cordell says she’s never known anyone to be upset by her dream catchers, even though she sometimes embellishes them beyond the traditionally simple twine-and-wood design to satisfy personal requests, like a pink or blue catcher to give as a baby gift.

At Lake Mille Lacs, the shiny string in Ruth Garbow’s dream catchers reflects sparkles of light throughout the gift shop at the tribe’s museum. Garbow, an Ojibwe, had a dream catcher over her bed as a child, as did her son.

Now, Garbow makes the catchers and says it’s important that customers understand their meaning. She sees the dream catchers as a chance for her to display her talents.

“If people like and enjoy having Indian crafts. I feel great,” Garbow said.

But Garbow puts limits on the selling of Indian culture, including jewelry that uses the four colors of the medicine wheel — which are supposed to be restricted to certain rites — and some ceremonial dresses.

“People tend to adopt things they like from other cultures, of course, but they may just put it on because of what it looks like without thinking where it comes from and what it’s for. You don’t really care for that culture then,” White said.

Dark Feather Red Eagle, a storyteller and elder of the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux, learned how to make dream catchers from a Cree woman three decades ago.

He has sold more than 1,000 dream catchers in six years, ranging in color from aqua to peach. Selling at $3 to $35 apiece, the dream catchers are made by his family at their Crowley, Texas, home.

Red Eagle, 79, said no one has objected to his work. He would never sell sacred objects like medicine pouches and ceremonial pipes, he said.

“A dream catcher is supposed to serve a purpose as far as dreams are concerned, as far as children are concerned, and that’s not something that’s meant to be sacred,” Red Eagle said.

Shortly after she was born on the Coutchiching reservation in Canada, Martha Jourdain had a dream catcher placed over her cradle. When she was expecting children of her own, Jourdain made dream catchers using ceremonial rites taught by her ancestors. Now, she’s taught her own children the tradition.

Jourdain, who is a cultural assistant with the Fond du Lac tribe in northern Minnesota, thinks dream catchers should be given away, not sold.

“It’s kind of like they’re making a mockery of it because it’s a sacred item and sold in convenience stores all over,” Jourdain said.

Recently, Jourdain has been teaching her children how to make traditional dance outfits, another item that has been showing up in shops around the country. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” Jourdain said. “It’s happening everywhere.”

Benjamin finds comfort in knowing the truth behind the dream catcher.

“As long as I know what it really means, I’m happy, and that’s what I teach my children,” she said. “We know what it is and what it does.”