While dreamcatchers originated in the Ojibwa Nation during the Pan-Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, they were adopted by Native Americans of a number of different nations. Some consider the dreamcatcher a symbol of unity among the various Indian Nations, and a general symbol of identification with Native American or First Nations cultures. However, other Native Americans have come to see dreamcatchers as over-commercialized.
According to the Encyclopedia of Insects, spiders had a great impact on the Native American culture that related to dreamcatchers. Each tribe had a different significance relating the two. As for the Cherokee people, the spider brought fire. Naʼashjéʼii Asdzą́ą́ʼ was the “Spider Woman” in Navajo culture and taught the women in the culture how to weave, and she was the “core of creation” in Pueblo legend. In the Sioux Indian tribes the term dream catcher means “spun by a spider” and they are used to catch good dreams.
American ethnographer Frances Densmore writes in her book Chippewa Customs (1929, republished 1979, pg. 113):
Even infants were provided with protective charms. Examples of these are the “spiderwebs” hung on the hoop of a cradle board. These articles consisted of wooden hoops about 3½ inches in diameter filled with an imitation of a spider’s web made of fine yarn, usually dyed red. In old times this netting was made of nettle fiber. Two spider webs were usually hung on the hoop, and it was said that they “caught any harm that might be in the air as a spider’s web catches and holds whatever comes in contact with it.”
Traditionally, the Ojibwa construct dreamcatchers by tying sinew strands in a web around a small round or tear-shaped frame of willow (in a way roughly similar to their method for making snowshoe webbing). The resulting “dream-catcher”, hung above the bed, is used as a charm to protect sleeping people from nightmares. As dreamcatchers are made of willow and sinew, they are not meant to last forever but are intended to dry out and collapse as the younger sleepers enter the age of wonderment.
The Ojibwa believe that a dreamcatcher changes a person’s dreams. According to Konrad J. Kaweczynski, “Only good dreams would be allowed to filter through… Bad dreams would stay in the net, disappearing with the light of day.” Good dreams would pass through and slide down the feathers to the sleeper.
Another explanation of Lakota origin, “Nightmares pass through the holes and out of the window. The good dreams are trapped in the web, and then slide down the feathers to the sleeping person.”
These conflicting accounts about how a dreamcatcher works may be proof of its antiquity. While this traditional symbol has survived, its original meaning has been lost and subsequently reinterpreted in many different ways.