Dreamcatchers are an authentic American Indian tradition, from the Ojibway (Chippewa) tribe. Ojibway people would tie sinew strands in a web around a small round or tear-shaped frame--in a somewhat similar pattern to how they tied webbing for their snowshoes--and hang this "dream-catcher" as a charm to protect sleeping children from nightmares. The legend is that the bad dreams will get caught in the web. Traditionally Native American dreamcatchers are small (only a few inches across) and made of bent wood and sinew string with a feather hanging from the netting, but wrapping the frame in leather is also pretty common, and today you'll often see them made with sturdier string meant to last longer.
During the pan-Indian movement in the 60's and 70's, Ojibway dreamcatchers started to get popular in other Native American tribes, even those in disparate places like the Cherokee, Lakota, and Navajo. So dreamcatchers aren't traditional in most Indian cultures, per se, but they're sort of neo-traditional, like frybread. 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. Some Indians think dream-catchers are a sweet and loving little tradition, others consider them a symbol of native unity, and still others think of them as a tacky type of souvenir.
So where can you find one? In Indian territory, almost everywhere. People are making dreamcatchers 0n just about every Indian reservation in the US or Canada, and you can find them at any powwow or Indian event. But on the Internet, oddly enough: practically nowhere. Most of what you see when you search for "Native American dreamcatchers" has been mass-produced overseas in an Asian sweatshop.
However, since the Pan-Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, dreamcatchers have been adopted by Native Americans of a number of different Nations. They came to be seen by some as a symbol of unity among the various Indian Nations, and as a general symbol of identification with Native American or First Nations cultures. The resulting "dream-catcher", hung above the bed, is then used as a charm to protect children from nightmares. Dreamcatchers made of willow and sinew are not meant to last forever but instead are intended to dry out and collapse over time as the child enters the age of adulthood.
As a photographer and visitor, while traveling on a reservation for photo shoots, I generally purchase small items from vendors who are trying to make a living with their artwork. Here's where you can buy authentic handmade dreamcatchers priced from $10-20. I tend to purchase quite a few and then give them away as gifts to special clients or at birthdays and Christmas.
It's recommended to hang the dream catcher above someone sleeping to guard against bad dreams. The Ojibwa believe that a dreamcatcher changes a person's dreams. Only good dreams filter through and slide down the feathers to the sleeper. Bad dreams are trapped in the web, disappearing with the light of dawn.
Photographs by: ©Marilyn Angel Wynn/Nativestock Pictures