The Native American dreamcatcher and its lore catch on

October 03, 1994|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Special to the Sun

It was a little more than a year ago when craft show shoppers began stopping by Bea and Gene Heilpern's custom-made jewelry display to ask if they had any dreamcatchers.

At the time, the Edgewood couple didn't know much about the traditional Indian artifact and the spiritual lore surrounding it. But a Native American acquaintance taught them how to weave the delicate round web of a dreamcatcher and adorn it with precious stones, beads or feathers.

Now they make tiny dreamcatcher earrings and necklaces, and their friend, Bettie Acks, makes larger wall hangings and door decorations. At an arts and crafts festival in Harford County last summer, they sold more than 100 dreamcatchers, ranging from $5 keychains to large door decorations priced about $35.

"They went like crazy," Mrs. Acks says. "It seems that everyone who sees one wants one."

"Dreamcatchers are my best seller," Mrs. Heilpern agrees. "I cannot keep them around. People are absolutely fascinated with the legend."

Perhaps it is the beauty of that legend that accounts for the growing popularity of dreamcatchers among adults and children. For the pre-teen and younger teen, however, dreamcatcher jewelry is a trendy, cool, must-have accessory for school.

Dreamcatcher jewelry and wall hangings of all sizes are showing up at craft shows, trendy accessories shops and sterling silver jewelry stores. You can even make your own from a kit.

Today many Native Americans place the sacred good luck charm over a baby's cradle or in a window to help ward off nightmares, says Gordon Chrisjohn, cultural affairs director of the Shako'Wi Cultural Center of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

The story of the dreamcatcher has many variations, but it is generally believed that they originated with the Oneida Indians of the Northeast many hundreds of years ago, says Mr. Chrisjohn. Some say that good and bad messages are sent by the spirits at night, bringing happiness and health or sorrow and suffering. Others believe that good and bad dreams leave the sleeper at night to become reality.

The dreams are attracted to the dreamcatcher's web by the dream spirits, and the bad dreams are trapped in the web where they are burned off by the first rays of the morning sun. Only the good dreams pass through the hole in the center of the web and drip down the feathers onto the dreamer to become real.

Dreamcatchers originally were made as wall hangings and have more recently been adapted into jewelry. A few years ago, the jewelry was primarily available from Native American craftsmen who would display their work on colorful blankets on the streets of Southwestern cities such as Old Town Albuquerque, N.M.

Now, buyers for fine sterling silver jewelry shops travel to the West to purchase authentic Native American dreamcatchers. Handmade dreamcatcher jewelry has been available in the Baltimore area for several years at Harbor Silver and Gold, in White Marsh and Harborplace, and Fire And Ice in Towson Town Center.

Earrings and pendants range from $25 to $65 at Harbor Silver and Gold in White Marsh Mall. The shop also has dreamcatcher wall hangings made from leather, beads and feathers that range from $12.95 for a small circle web to $45 for one the size of an automobile tire.

In recent months, accessory shops have begun to sell a line of dreamcatcher costume jewelry that is manufactured by non-Native Americans in the United States and overseas.

Claire's Accessories, a national chain that sells costume jewelry and novelties and has about a dozen stores in the Baltimore area, has a display of dreamcatchers in each store.

"Dreamcatchers have come in and overwhelmed the Power Rangers," says Jamie Foley, a district sales manager for Claire's in the Baltimore area. "They're doing fantastic and I think dreamcatchers definitely are hot."

Afterthoughts, a national jewelry and accessory chain with 23 stores in Maryland, has dreamcatcher ear cuffs, barrettes, key chains, chokers, tiny earrings for men, earring/necklace sets, beaded and rope necklaces and pins.

The jewelry is made of silver or gold plate and multi-colored titanium with variations that are not always true to the Indian tradition, such as heart-shaped rings and adornments of tepees, eagles, Indian warriors, the moon, sun and stars.

Dreamcatcher kits are available for do-it-yourselfers at stores such as Ben Franklin Crafts. The artistry is simple with a web made from an uncomplicated series of half hitch knots. Some shoppers buy supplies separately, customizing wall hangings with macrame rings, suede strips, thread, beads and feathers.

Glen Folck III, 15, a North Harford High School sophomore, makes dreamcatchers to sell to his mother's friends or to customers at his grandfather's business.

"The Western look is popular now," says the Harford County youth, who likes to create a natural look by using real turkey and other bird feathers and grapevines.

Younger children are learning to make dreamcatchers at Scout meetings and camp-outs, and adults are signing up for dreamcatcher workshops.

Linda Coates, Native American program coordinator at PECO Energy's Conowingo Visitors Center, has conducted several dreamcatcher workshops in the past two years.

"The first one you make should be given away to someone you feel will value the tradition," says Mrs. Coates, who is Cherokee and whose Native American name is Silver Otter. "I have a dreamcatcher over my bed and I have found that it works very effectively for me."

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