The folk-charm we know today as the ubiquitous “dreamcatcher” was originally a very small charm, a tiny hoop, usually of willow-wood, filled in with an interlaced webbing of sinew or plant fibers to resemble a spider’s web. The first dreamcatchers were crafted by the Ojibwa people (Chippewa) and were probably derived from or inspired by snowshoe designs.
Most dream catchers were used as protective charms for infants. The “spiderweb” would trap negative spirits that cause disease, nightmares, etc., and protect the child. The negativity caught in the web would be destroyed by the rising sun. According to most sources, the original dreamcatchers were made in honor of Asibikaasi, or Spider-woman, whose magical webs even had the power to trap the sun.
Over time, these charms were adapted by other bands, each of whom developed their own methods, materials, and origin stories.
There is some argument over what constitutes a ‘genuine’ dream-catcher. The monster-sized, ornate leather wrapped dreamcatcher with large feather dangles, stones, and beads is largely a product of the modern resurgence of interest in native cultures that occurred in the sixties and seventies and do not represent any actual ancient traditions. Likewise, even though many modern tribes have adopted and modified the design, they are not traditional in the strict sense, and neither are many of the ‘ancient legends’ associated with them.
Ojibwa Dreamcatcher, early 20th century