August 30, 2010

Dreamcatchers lose cultural significance

Are Dream Catchers Losing the Native Tradition?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.
And: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."
Comment:  On the one hand, I'm concerned about the harm of cultural appropriation. When dreamcatchers are used as earrings and keychains, they lose their cultural significance. It would be like using the Christian cross or the Star of David as earrings--something we might discourage but not forbid.

On the other hand, I question labeling everything attached to a Native belief "sacred." Is every bell, book, and candle in a Christian church sacred? I don't think so.

Native artists make kachina dolls, sand paintings, and totem poles as well as dreamcatchers for sale. Are these objects sacred if they're made to be sold? Can a sacred object become non-sacred in a secular context?

For more on the subject, see Dreamcatcher = Healing at Stanford and Dreamcatchers for Jill Biden.

1 comment:

John R. Platt said...

Some thoughts:

Should dreamcatchers only be made by Ojibwa? That ship sailed a long time ago.

I think it's a shame to see machine-made dreamcatchers, especially if they're made by non-native companies.

I have a few dozen dreamcatchers made by members of several tribes. The best are works of art, something unique crafted with and influenced by the artist's personal style. Like many native artists, the best bring something personal and modern to traditional artforms.