Is There An Inoffensive Way For Non-Natives To Own A Dreamcatcher?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions everyday and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red at the bottom is the takeaway of the discussion.

Question:

Is there an inoffensive way for non-Natives to use/possess dream catchers or is it generally a no-no?

Native Responses:

Not really my tribe, but I feel like there are some exceptions as far as if the person who made the dream catcher is in fact Native. I see cheap imitations and knock offs being sold at gas stations and travel centers. Maybe if one is gifted to you from a Native person or was bought in support of one. I know we have a few around my house but to be honest, I don’t fully know the origins other than they being gifts, but I’m not aware of them being used in my culture.

I feel that it depends on where you get your dream catcher. Did you attend an event, learn something about a specific tribal nation and/or meet a Native person and choose to support their art by purchasing one from them? Then yes. Did you see it at your favorite shopping center and know nothing bout where it came from? No.

Can I just say that a hoop with doilies sewn in it and ribbon tied to the bottom of it is not a dream catcher.

As a Mohawk (not Anishnaabe/Ojibwe), I’d say that if you have one from when you were a kid and want to keep it, then you could. But that’s not okay today- you should know that settlers teaching about us like we aren’t even here to do the teaching is disrespectful and shouldn’t be done today. We’re still here and if a teacher wants their students to learn about a certain culture, they need to ask someone from that culture to come in and be appropriately compensated for their time and knowledge. It bugs me that people think that this type of knowledge sharing shouldn’t be as equally compensated as any other guest speaker.

As a Native person, I’ll use it as an indicator of your poor judgment. Aka if I see it in your house/car, I will totally secretly judge you.

Many Navajo people make a living on road side sales and other locations selling dream catchers. They are hand made which really hold no significant meaning except it appeals to non-Native people. To me it seems non-Natives come to reservations in search of some mystical experience and to take home trinkets to show they were amongst Native people. A lot of the Hollywood stereotypical accessories and jewelry sell so Native sales people use that to their advantage.

I think that it’s bullshit that non-native people come with the stereotypical version of who we are, as in what Hollywood portrays us to be. If our Native people can make a living on what is being sold, I think it’s good for them, but it doesn’t change the fact that Native people are always adjusting to White privilege. It is annoying AF how they come wanting some mystical meaning or answer like “umm it’s just a fucking dream catcher that supposedly catches bad dream.”

I also see at powwows fellow Natives selling overseas knockoffs just to get by….

I’m from a tribe that is not Ojibwe. I’ve seen Natives all over Oklahoma sell dream catchers, some handmade, some probably made in Asia and branded with tribal logo and sold in tribally owned gas stations and shops. Personally, I wouldn’t buy those either, because they aren’t Ojibwe. This is another example of how Natives are so diverse–buying from an Indigenous person is a good general rule, but Natives also appropriate each other in a way. These subtleties are so hard to get as an outsider. So that would be a big reason I’d say no to it.

White Responses:

I studied textile design/craft at university in Canada-that has an Indigenous arts program- and learned all about the ways that appropriating indigenous handicraft permanently damaged the reputation of Indigenous art sand compromise the way that Indigenous folx can make a living through their work. I forget the dates and there was a specific period of time where this type of appropriation was rampant. Essentially what happened originally is that a bunch of White people outsourced the creation of Indigenous work- especially beadwork-to be produced overseas and sold in North America for a fraction of what Indigenous folx could sell their work for. (Beadwork is very labour intensive and takes a lot of time to create.) Not only did this push Indigenous folx out of the market, the mass-production of cheaply made, knock off Indigenous work pushed all Indigenous handicraft into the “kitsch” category. This is something that Indigenous handicraft and the people who make it have never fully recovered from. That initial period of appropriation shifted society’s perception of the value of things like beadwork, which can take someone tens if not hundreds of hours to make. Decades later, this still limits Indigenous folx ability to charge for what their work is actually worth. So. Dream catchers. Definitely don’t buy a mass produced one. I’m no one to say where or not it’s okay to buy one from an Indigenous craftsperson. I do think it’s important to recognize, however, that objects don’t exist separately from the cultures who made them. So appreciating- and possibly owning-the art of another culture comes with the respectability of engaging with that culture fully. Which means educating yourself on their current reality and the complexities that come with it. Because taking what’s pretty and leaving the rest if just another form of colonialism. Which is wrong.

Questions to consider: do you know the maker? The origin of the piece? Do you know the cultural significance? I don’t have a full answer. Only questions to consider in working towards that answer.

Hey! I’m White, that’s just a solid nooooo.

I would assume that using dream catchers made by Native American artisans/artists for their original purpose is respectful. Buying cheap plastic fake dream catchers or/and using them for a “hippy” decoration is not.

Woof, for me this has always been a hard no. I’ve only ever seen them sold mass marketed by White artisans. Similar to how I feel about smudging, this is a religious/spiritual practice that is not mine.

White American. So I looked up the history and it’s originally from the Ojibwe people, but became bastardized over time. Now many reject them, but they can in rare instances be OK. Buying directly from Native artists should work out, with emphasis on artists who are Ojibwe. Do research and asking is the right step. So mostly no, but not no all the time.

As long as they are from a Native buyer. A lot of the problem that comes from non-Natives having Native/Native inspired items is that they are made by people who don’t support Native arts – see Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Hi! I’m White, cis female from Canada. I work with indigenous folks and have asked similar questions – have always been told to ensure that I am supporting an indigenous person when purchasing any traditional item and to understand the depth and meaning of it. i.e. not just because it’s cute and never buying from Target or TJMaxx or whatever. I also think it is suuuuuuper important to remember that (in Canada at least) a lot of traditional practices and items were illegal for many years, and so for us to use/benefit from them feels to me disrespectful. So much to unpack – thanks for facilitating these conversations.

My initial reaction is NOPE. Unless it’s a gift from someone belonging to the culture that dream catchers belong to. As far as USING dream catchers, not being form the culture they come from, I’m sure don’t actually know enough about their intended purposes and how thye should by respected and be used. But, if we’re going with the common pop culture idea that they prevent bad dreams, I would recommend that the person asking research their heritage and see what some of THEIR ancestors supposedly did for things like that. If you’re White, chances are there are plenty of written histories about your people e(even if it’s not directly your immediately relatives). White people have told their own stories and ignored everyone else’s so you have the privilege of being able to read your own past. So, research. And work from your own history and heritage and don’t steal someone else’s. And don’t get it tattooed. Please.

I only knew of dream catchers as the one my mom purchased from some dope tribal man and my entire childhood good dreams and nightmares depended on the dream catcher about my bulletin board- but will I tattoo it on my White skin, overfetishize the display of this gift rather than respect the meaning and appreciate it for what it is? Nah.

How about if we made them at school when we were learning about the history of our land and the settlers (especially the history of the Native peoples of our land)? Should I, as a student speak out about that to my teacher? We were learning about their culture and doing it in a respectful way but I kept my dream catcher that I made in that class in 4th grade because I found the meaning very significant to me at the time (even now). Is this a huge no-no?

To me this is a huge no. While I believe that getting dream catchers from an indigenous person is okay, classroom settings often ignore histories of colonial violence. If it was truly respectful, the school board would bring in an Indigenous educator + pay them to do a workshop. When non-Native led activities on sacred/traditional practices, they are speaking over Native people, ignoring the intention behind it. Even if the motives are good, it is still a platform of education that should not be open for non-Natives to pick + chose from.

From my experience living in northern Canada as a White settler, crafting when being taught/facilitate by an Elder or other Indigenous person is okay. If the person teaching you is not Indigenous and doesn’t have those teachings or permission to pass them on, absolutely not. It comes down to ownership of the knowledge and maintaining connection to the protocol and tradition it is meant to be done with. It is not something you can look up online or teach yourself as a settler.

POC Responses:

I’m mixed with White and Asian and I feel like if you have a teacher having you make Native things, you do have a responsibility to speak up and say it’s culturally appropriative. If there is a Native person in the class, they’re probably feeling like their needs are less than and being an ally to them would be speaking up. It also trickles down because what happens in 5th grade is mirrored in kindergarten. If you allow appropriative and problematic behavior in 5th grade that is going to go all the way down to the little ones. At my old school, I saw older kids calling the clay dirt “Indian clay” and all the stereotypical nonsense and meanwhile my friends’ Native child is going home calling the clay “Indian clay” without realizing their identity and how that phrase is bullshit and harmful. That kids parents were understandably upset and no one seemed to take that seriously. And this is the same with making dream catchers­– it’s objectifying a group of people that are already reduced to stereotypes and harmed because of that. It’s the clay, it’s the dream catcher, it’s the headdress like no- these cultures are so much more and the people are not their objects. A lot of schools protect the White kids and their own ingrained racism without considering that it could hurt Native people inside their community or out of it. There’s not much staff can do if they’re alone fighting this battle (like a lot of staff who see this as problematic are) – change starts with the students: a student saying no and getting their friends on bard is more powerful than a classroom assistance bitching to admin about class activities. So I know how it’s super special to have these things you made when you learned about spirituality in a reverent way. The reverence is what we crave but the cost is this pseudo materialistic experience of another persons culture. And chances are, if it’s happening in your class, it’s an ingrained insensitivity to Native people and starting a dialogue is critical.

The dream catcher I own, I made while spending time on a Native reserve in Canada with the help of a Native woman. She taught me all about it and prayed over it as well (not sure prayer is the correct word here, but she spoke over our making). It was a very special and intimate moment and that’s why the one and only one I own, I think is okay. Because it was made in the presence of a Native woman who showed me and explained how it worked… and it wasn’t a tour. She was a friend of a friend. It means a lot to me and I respect it greatly.

Takeaway

No. Unless gifted to you by a Native person just stay clear of purchasing. Native artisans can be trapped into feeding into the wants of a consumer, So the more you buy, the more you may be perpetrating the romanticism of Native people.

The origin of the dream catcher is unclear due to the damage done to Native American culture by European colonizers, but is attributed to the Ojibwe/Chippewa tribe as the first ever documented observation of it.

This doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before and in other cultures.

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