While many tangible aspects of Native American culture have found popularity in modern America, from moccasins to beaded bags, none seems to have resonated like the dreamcatcher of the Anishinabe. Although they have been given tribal names like Chippewa in the United States and Ojibway in Canada, the word that these people actually use for themselves is “Anishinabe” or “original people.” Straddling the border between the north-central United States and Southern Canada, these Native Americans or First Peoples have managed to continually occupy their original territories, unlike neighboring plains groups who were forcibly relocated. Because dreamcatchers can now be found everywhere from the tribes of the northern plains to groups in the Pueblo Southwest and even Central America, the origin stories of the dreamcatcher differ. Most, however, tend to at least share a similar use which, as the name implies, involves catching bad dreams while letting the good ones pass through.
According to the Anishinabe, it is Spider Woman whom we can thank for the dreamcatcher. Until her people spread to distant lands, she journeyed to every new infant in their cradleboard to weave her magical protective web. As the people migrated however, Spider Woman eventually had difficulty getting to all the cradleboards. Mothers, sisters, and grandmothers took over, creating their dreamcatchers by using willow for the hoop, leather to wrap the hoop, and sinew or cordage for the net. In some versions, the number of points where the web connects to the hoop numbers eight for Spider Woman’s eight legs. In the early 1900s, a traditional dreamcatcher among the Anishinabe had no feathers or beads and was only about three inches in diameter, a size one might expect if dangled from a baby’s cradleboard. Today, however, for the different Native groups who create dreamcatchers, including the Anishinabe, size varies and the feathers and beads hold different meanings, sometimes symbolizing breath, or used to allow good dreams to float down, or simply deemed entertaining for a baby to watch. The dreamcatcher tattoo captures this same variability, where no two seem alike. However, what dreamcatcher tattoos hopefully all share is their admiration of Native art and the invocation of traditional protective power–not to mention sweet dreams.