Wednesday, 20 August 2014

How to use a dreamcatcher

I'm going to be using a dreamcatcher in my book so I need research! Not too much depth - it only has a walk-on part - so the Googlenet should do very well. I just need to make sure the way I introduce it isn't inconsistent with historical reality or culturally problematic.

WHO DEVELOPED DREAMCATCHERS AND WHEN?

Everyone associates them with American Indians, but more specifically...?

The answer is that it's difficult to find out where they originated because a) they were ephemeral objects and few old ones survive; b) the traditions surrounding them were originally oral and therefore hard to date.

Possibly they were developed by the Ojibwe people and spread to other Indian and non-Indians groups quite recently (60s?). As they spread, oral traditions developed around them and 'back-dated' them within each group's consciousness. On the other hand, I've found one reference to dream-catcher like objects in pre-colonial Central American murals (but no reference to where these murals may be seen). I've seen Ojibwe dreamcatchers of the early 20th century which resembled spiderwebs rather than today's net shapes, and read one article which claimed the 'spiderweb' version was a modern variant. American Indian groups have diverse and sometimes mutually incompatible stories about their origins and mechanisms. Non-Indian groups recognize them as a 'dream-technology' of often unspecified Indian origin, and vary as to how they think they work.

HOW WERE THEY USED?

The likeliest explanation is that they were a simple article made mostly for babies and small children. The web filtered out bad dreams while the feathers acted as a visual stimulus, much as mobiles do in contemporary western culture. Some traditions say the feathers guide good dreams to the sleeper, others that the dreamcatcher must face the rising sun so trapped nightmares can be exterminated by its light. One nice story says that as the Ojibwe tribe expanded, Spider Woman could no longer take care of all the children so mothers and grandmothers made substitute webs to hang above the cradles.

THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF DREAMCATCHERS

This is something we writers need to pay quite a lot of attention to, so bear with me.

Dreamcatchers now include some truly astonishing works of art as well as a lot of kitsch American-Indianobilia. Although the original dreamcatcher wasn't a particularly sacred or proprietorial article, the commercialisation and New Age spiritualisation of American Indian culture upsets some people. The accessibility of the dreamcatcher means it's often used to introduce children of all cultures to American Indian culture. As a side-effect it sometimes starts functioning as a symbol of 'Everything I Know About Indians' rather than a 'Thing For Catching Dreams'. It's a heavy burden for a baby-soothing device to bear! Besides, lots of Indians have a whole lot of issues with the content of 'Everything I Know About Indians'.

Responses to this type of situation are very varied and contextual (examples here, here, here). There are conflicting needs and values at work: a) the need of Indian groups to subsist in difficult circumstances, such that it's annoying to see others profit from Indian artistic traditions; b) the desire to retain control of cultural meanings which might become swamped by non-Indian interpretations AND the need to control how Indians are perceived; but conversely c) the desire to forge positive relationships with other groups by sharing some parts of Indian culture and understanding. There's even the simple question of whether a person's cultural values lean towards fusion or authenticity.

Non-Indian children who've been exposed to the craft early enough also effectively have it 'bequeathed' to them more than they 'appropriate' it and may grow up to create artistic, commercialised or spiritualised versions on their own terms. Not to mention the New Agers, I've seen dreamcatchers which rely on very Europeanised traditions of lace-making and crochet for their webs... 

DO DREAMCATCHERS WORK?

The million-dollar question...!

My daughter was offered one of the more kitsch dreamcatchers when she was still young enough to suffer from nightly bad dreams. I told her it 'might be able to stop them', hoping for some placebo effect. Perhaps it would reassure her, like a security blanket or a teddy bear? Not an unreasonable hope but unfortunately nothing would do for my kid but the nightmare-slaying power of direct maternal intervention! Your mileage may vary...

More importantly for me at the moment, will it work in my book?

Pretty well, on the whole. I'm starting from dreamcatchers in their contemporary context so everything about their origin and current distribution works for me. I wish I could integrate something about their role as a female-centered piece of parental technology, but I'm not sure I can fit it in. As for upsetting people, I'm not using the problematic New Age or 'Everything I Know About Indian' tropes at all. What I am doing is using the dreamcatcher in a culturally fluid way, partially 're-inventing' it for the purposes of a story. I don't expect to keep everyone happy while doing that, but what seemed important to me was to avoid an object whose meanings are highly charged (for example, one which can only be used by certain people, in certain ways, or has complex and specific meanings). My story is also structured in such as way that it 'quotes its sources' by which I mean that the Indian origin of dreamcatchers and the cultural process of 're-invention' are built in to  the narrative.

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