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In Between Dreams

rachelr's picture

The exact origins of the dream catcher are unclear due to the destruction of oral Native American tradition by white settlers, but it seems that the dream catcher originated with the Ojibwe people, who refer to themselves as Anishnabe, meaning “first people.” As the most powerful tribe in the Great Lakes region, heir territory covered what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba.


The Story of the Dream Catcher

Long ago, on Turtle Island, Spider Woman would travel across the land taking care of her children before the sun rose. However as her children grew in number and spread across the island, Spider Woman could no longer visit each child before the sun would rise. So she taught the grandmothers to weave magical webs to hang above the children’s beds when they slept. The round shape represented the sun that traveled across the sky, and the webs filter out the bad dreams by catching them and holding them tight; the good dreams come in through the hole in the center and travel down the feathers to the sleeping child. And when the first morning light touches the web of the dream catcher like it does on the dew-covered spider webs, the bad dreams perish. Traditionally the number of points where the web touches the hoop is eight, for the eight legs of Spider Woman. When we see little Spider Woman we should not fear her, but protect and respect her as she protects us.

This project of constructing a dream catcher was an idea that stemmed from my previous paper where I advocated for a reinvention of learning structured around stories. I didn’t know quite how the dream catcher would work, but I was convinced that I was going to make it; in starting to think about why I felt the need to make this and in talking it out I came to understand why it makes sense as my final piece of learning in this course.

First of all, I have never made a dream catcher before. My father had an incredibly large one when I was younger but for some reason it hung in his closet; I remember standing between his clothes looking at it. For me, then, the process of making this dream catcher was one of learning. I looked up videos and instructions on making them, and I read essays such as “The Re-Invention of Tradition and the Marketing of Cultural Values” and “Protecting Tribal Stories: The Perils of Propertization” that discuss some of the issues connected to mainstreaming things connected to Native American culture such as the dream catcher. And after I learned I engaged in the active process of knowledge application to create something tangible.

After the base of the hoop and weaving is done, dream catchers are then personalized to reflect the one who it is made for; feathers are commonly used as they signify air, essential to life, and if they are feathers from an eagle they represent wisdom. For my dream catcher I wandered the campus looking for things to use. I had been hoping to find feathers, perhaps by the pond, but there were none. Dejected I went through Morris Woods, collecting stones, sticks, and some foliage. As I was leaving I saw I vine that had wrapped two tendrils around a broken stick- it was prefect. I ended up using much less than what I originally collected. Leaves seemed like they would be a bad idea, not so good for keeping long-term, and though I found things like a fake yellow flower and a metal washer, I decided to keep this man-made litter out; the process of making the dream catcher is enough of a sign of human intervention and creation.

Much of this course focused on self-advocating and the individual process of interpretation. As with any class the readings brought forth a multitude of literary lenses, but the weekly site sits presented the internet world with very personal experiences, experiences that were unique and can never be fully communicated to others. At the start of the course I struggled with the breadth of our readings: this is the outer webbing of the dream catcher. Not only was the reading at times challenging but so was the dynamic of our outdoor classroom, both for the differences the site itself brought to us and the individual differences that each member brought to our classroom. As I was making the dream catcher I had doubts about the end product- would I have enough string to complete the web? Would it look the way I wanted it to? Would it appear seamless, or would the parts feel disjointed? I asked myself some very similar questions during the course, as I know others did. As we became more comfortable both in our space and with each other there was a shift in the class, a shift that I didn’t recognize until our trip to Ashbridge Park: this is the inner webbing of the dream catcher. By the time our shared learning, inside, took place, I could see the final weavings of the dream catcher pull the entirety of the web of learning we created over the semester into place. There were some knots along the way, and not every piece was equally shaped, but it was a whole and it was beautiful.

I hope that these final web events are to the course what the stones and branches and vines are to my dream catcher. The final accents, the finishing touches on a creating that is meant to be used, and used for good. The dream catcher does not only catch the bad dreams and ignore the good dreams; it does not only catch the good dreams and let the bad dreams slip by. Rather it collects them all, and with the help of Spider Woman, makes sure that the bad dreams disappear in light of the good. As the dream catcher filters, so did our ecological imaginings. We were at times overwhelmed by the crisis as often described, we found fault with methods of ecological communication, and we struggled. But as is evident from our final shared learning, the hopelessness is not what traveled down the feathers to us. We found opportunities for leaning in communication with others, newfound gifts from senses that are sometimes overpowered by sight; we personalized our own experiences in the course with what we each saw to be foregrounded and backgrounded as directed by our shared reading, learning, and experiencing. 

I made some adaptations to the Ojibwe dream catcher, mostly because of what was available to me. Anne asked me in our discussion about this project about how adaptations might be needed for life and ecology today, but I do not have a clear answer for this. For me the process of making the dream catcher made me more aware of the evolution and creation of the course, and in finishing it I wanted to include things from our shared landscape and my focus on the wood and stone is a reflection of those times when we stood up and became active, rather more passive and seated, learners. I do not believe that there is one “right” adaptation of the dream catcher for life and ecology today, nor do I even believe that it needs to be adapted at all. I can imagine a dream catcher made out of willow and sinew and nothing man-made at all; I can imagine a dream catcher made entirely out of “found” objects that are recycled into a new function; I can imagine my own dream catcher, a combination of found, natural pieces as well as sought-out, man-made ones.

What comes with my dream catcher is a story within a story. It is the story of our ecological imaginings, through the story of my creation of this dream catcher. I hope to continue to use the many lessons that my eyes, ears, nose, feet, and hands have brought to me this semester. I end with a few passages that stood out to me and that I continue to reimagine:

“Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order – including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem.”

“Development practices are in fact a war on subsistence.”

“How come there are so many mountains named after small men? Who were these guys?”

“… natural law is the highest law, and it would be folly to figure that you can outwit natural law.”

-       The Winona LaDuke Reader


“The oral tradition is more than a record of a people’s culture. It is the creative source of their collective and individual selves… the oral tradition is a living body.”

“The stories do not necessarily imply that difference is punishable; on the contrary, it is often her very difference that makes her special adventures possible.”

“But the foregrounding of sassafras or maple in no way lessens the value of the other plants or other features of the forest. When a woman goes after maple syrup, she is aware of the other plant forms that are also present.”

“There is no ‘point of view’ as the term is generally understood, unless the action itself, the story’s purpose, can be termed ‘point of view.’”

-       Paula Gunn Allen, Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale


“Contact with nature, and with the aesthetic, will mend the bridge between subject and object… Subject and object require a certain environment in which they can join up together. Thus is born the special realms of art and nature, the new secular churches in which subject and Object can be remarried.”

“Art could help ecology by modeling an environment based on love (eros) rather than death (thanatos).”

-       Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature






Anne Dalke's picture


...I especially appreciate the way your dreamcatcher came to symbolize the process that was our class--I love the echo of our outside "circle" of chairs here!

Srucara's picture

Your Dreamcatcher

Is absolutely amazing. I can't believe you made it! It's beautiful.