Whether a dream catcher is cultural appropriation depends on how you use it. Use of the dreamcatcher in insensitive or mocking ways is seen as inappropriate.
But you can do some things to make sure you appreciate Native American culture while using a dreamcatcher.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know, from what counts as appropriation to how you can avoid it, and when using dreamcatchers is cultural appropriation.
As the concise Very Well Mind definition states, cultural appropriation is:
“the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression and doesn’t respect their original meaning or give credit to their source.”
We can break it down into five core issues or ideas:
- It occurs when the dominant culture uses the culture of oppressed minorities
- It often reinforces stereotypes and misconceptions about this culture
- It can contribute to how the dominant culture oppresses this minority
- It disrespects this culture by erasing its significance, use, or even roots
There are many ways major cultural artifacts can be used disrespectfully, and some of them can be interpreted differently to others.
So for clarity, we’ll stick to objects from Indigenous cultures (you can see more examples here).
Let’s take native headdresses as an example.
Headdresses are exclusively Native American, as far as we know. They’re one of the most valuable items in a tribe. They hold immense significance and are passed down generations from one leader to another.
Despite their value, non-native people have mass-produced them and made serious bank off of them.
They’ve stereotypically used them to depict natives in negative ways and toyed with them in costume parties. It doesn’t respect the culture.
This is cultural appropriation in a nutshell. It’s exploiting a culture for your gain or amusement with no regard to how members of this culture view or feel about it.
At best, this is offensive. At worst, however, it can mean further marginalizing said communities, robbing them intellectually, and even seriously crippling them professionally and financially.
In order to answer this question, you have first to ask yourself whether you are honoring its origin, value, and use while using it?
If you are honoring dreamcatchers and their cultural origins, then there’s usually nothing wrong with hanging a dreamcatcher above your bed or even your car.
However, if you’re considering using them in ways that don’t respect the culture, you may be appropriating indigenous culture.
Related Article: Are Bandanas Cultural Appropriation?
While cultural appropriation erases the roots of a dreamcatcher, culture appreciation does the opposite and puts love and support forward for the Native American community.
There are a few ways you can make sure you’re using this native artifact respectfully and in appreciation instead of appropriating its culture.
One of the most important things you can do as an individual is to make sure you’re giving your money to an authentic source.
So if you’re planning on buying one, make sure you’re directly buying from a Native American business. This may sound cumbersome, but it’s quite necessary. Non-natives profiting from traditional items is blatant appropriation.
A great and more wholesome alternative to this if you’re unable to buy yours from an ethical business is to make your own. You’ll find plenty of tutorials, including ones from Native American creators
Related Article: Are Hoop Earrings Cultural Appropriation?
To figure out how your use compares to its original purpose, you must learn about the origin of dreamcatchers.
If you think it looks cool and you just want to have one hanging from your bag or keychain, for example, then this doesn’t really relate to its original use.
Alternatively, it may be used as a totem to have in your space that eases your anxiety just because of the “dream-catching” idea behind it. If that’s the case, then you’re using it as intended.
Finally, once you’ve acquired your dreamcatcher, it’s best to use it for the same purpose that indigenous people used it for.
Dreamcatchers are used to attract negative energy, spirits, and nightmares. Therefore, they were often placed above beds, living areas, or at different entry points around the house, such as doorways and windows.
You can use it the same way or put your twist on it, like using it in your car. However, it would be out of context or even against its purpose to have it on a t-shirt or as an accessory, for example.
Dreamcatchers can be offensive cultural appropriation or a heartwarming appreciation of Native American culture. The difference between those two can be simple.
To avoid appropriation, make sure that you understand the history behind dreamcatchers, their intended purpose, and that you’re using them correctly. It’s also important to source them from a Native American business.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.