Dream Catcher (cultural appropriation)

If dreamcatchers protect children from nightmares, Carol Edwards is ensuring that all the kids in Tuolumne County have sweet dreams.  Edwards, 52, of Sonora, is hoping her dreamcatcher — 28.3 feet in circumference and 9 feet in diameter — will make the pages of the “Guinness Book of World Records.”  If you are interested you can write the article author at rhowes@uniondemcrat.com

ANDRÉ'S NOTEI am an enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe.  We do not make dreamcatchers.  This woman is guilty of cultural appropriation.

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." 
8 responses
I can really appreciate the way Native People feel when parts of their culture and heritage is appropriated. In many instances it it wrong but sharing is also a Native Tradition and if some people enjoy dream catchers, or Native Art, jewelry or pottery, then this is good and can be a way to build bridges and also be a way for First Nations Peoples to not only introduce other to their rich heritage but also create jobs which help families raise money. I think that non natives should be careful and respectful in regard to Native American Culture and how it is part of their life. One way non natives can show gratitude to to learn more about the people, the source and use Native Items and decide if it is proper to use of display it. I also think it is important to support Native Artists and Native Charities.
The problem becomes when you link something like a dreamcatcher to all native cultures. It was something very specific from a specific tribe. It wasn't meant to be a bauble for your rearview mirror
This is so true and I totally agree. I like them but would never think of them as a trinket. I have read up on them and know where they came from. I went to a Pow Wow this weekend and I same hundreds of them being sold of all kinds and styles. I know the traditional way of making them and many were not, in act most and were being sold by Native people made by Native people. So, I guess it's become profitable to market such things. I agree with you when you say theta it' wrong when the object  is used as a trinket hanging from some car mirror or relate then generally to all Native traditions. This is where education is so important. 
Thanks for your comment on my comment, Dano
Sorry about my typing but I think you got the idea. LOL, I type terrible and think faster than I can type. Too many non-natives generalize what little they know about "Indians." I wonder too if because of the general trend of the western culture that has developed that tribal ways will be further generalized and watered down as the larger culture keeps absorbing everything from all kinds of cultures and traditions and eventually making it into a kind of pop culture or fad? That would be sad. It was so good to see so many young people taking part in the Pow Wow. This is a good event even though there are a lot of vendors selling indian stuff, pottery, art, jewelry and dreamcatchers. The only thing certain is change but hopefully along with change we will preserve the best of the past and cherish it and hopefully learn for the past and leave the worse behind us.
Thank you for this post. I make jewelry and last night I made a dream catcher-like piece. The idea of selling it as jewelry didn't seem right so I turned to google to see what opinions I could find. I'm non-native but I grew up in a town with a fairly large native population so I try to be respectful of Canada's original people and their culture. I've slept under a dream catcher for as long as I can remember, and now that I think about it I hardly ever get nightmares. :)
Sooo, my sister was super nice and bought my girls some gifts when she came to visit. A couple of the gifts was a make-your-own dreamcatcher kits. I questioned whether this might be cultural appropriation (especially since they were Made in China and imported by the dollar store she bought them from) and took to the Interweb with my question. Your website was helpful. There was not a bit of wood to be found in ours, and the ceremonial steps were obviously left out of my (frustrating) making of this object some hold to be sacred. So, what is a mom to do? Throwing it in the garbage seems disrespectful, too (and also of my thoughtful sister). Any ideas of where I and my daughters can learn more about this from those who might know? We live near Ottawa, Canada.
I am a white person with Cherokee blood (unverifiable, but oh well), but I am still interested in learning about the different Native traditions and what the symbolism of items are and their uses. If I could would that still be considered cultural appropriation? Not all people (white or otherwise) want to be disrespectful when using or wearing items in a way that could offend someone. I am highly spiritual and honor the gods and my ancestors.
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