I was lucky to meet some very interesting traditional First Nation people this summer. I always learn so much when my walk leads to someone with a lot of knowledge about my people and their traditions and culture.
When I was growing up in Attawapiskat I rarely had the opportunity to learn about Native culture and traditions. We were brought up with a spiritual belief that was really more religious and based on the Roman Catholic faith. The missionaries had brought this belief to the people of the James Bay coast and to Native people right across North and South America. I did not really understand when I was young that it had not always been that way.
It was surprising to me that we had a spiritual way, culture and traditions before the coming of the European. My Elders have been able to tell me something about those days but most of my learning has come from traditional Elders, healers, medicine men and people who have a more intricate knowledge of the ancestors.
This summer I learned much about dream catchers from Marcia Martel-Brown of Brunswick House First Nation. I met her at the annual Wabun Youth Gathering where she was providing teachings on the dream catcher. My first knowledge of the dream catcher is similar I imagine to most other people. I always just thought they were Native craftwork that had something to do with keeping bad dreams away.
The funny thing is that most white people I know have these dream catchers in their cars for some kind of protection from accidents I imagine. Strangely, most First Nation people I know from up the coast have a picture of Jesus, an image of the cross or St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, in their cars. So, I find that kind of amusing. It is also very telling.
Actually, the true origin of the dream catcher has to do with healing and a complex process that revolved around the making of this item. Marcia explained that our ancestors used the making of the dream catcher as part of a healing journey.
Long ago when Native people still had their own spirituality, culture and traditions, the dream catcher was an important tool for a community. If someone was feeling emotional or physical pain they might choose to go on a healing journey that involved the making of their dream catcher.
This person would contact a healer or medicine man in the community and ask for assistance for this journey. A person would have to get permission from his or her family to do this because it meant that the family would have to survive without the constant presence and help from the person who was seeking healing. Once there was agreement then the seeker of healing worked closely with his or her healer to learn the ways of dealing with or healing a hurt.
Marcia explained that this was a very big deal in a community. When someone decided to go on this healing journey and begin the making of their dream catcher it was up to the community to support this person and his or her family. The community had to pitch in and assist that person and their family so that they would survive while this journey was being taken. The entire community knew about this journey and there was a huge feast to celebrate the decision.
Once the journey started the person on the healing quest and healer spent much time together. There was no set limit for this process and sometimes it took seasons and even years to complete. It all started with hunting and gathering to find the items needed to make a dream catcher. Some of these items included willow branches, sinew, stone and various other items as decided on by the healer.
This meant they would have to travel out on the land to hunt and gather what they needed. During this time they spent days and days together discussing the life history of the person on the quest. The dream catcher then actually started to take form. First the selected willow branch was bent to either cross or meet in a circle. This represented the person’s beginning of life to the present and all that happened in that time. Then slowly the healer helped the person produce the sinew and string it inside the circle like ribbons of time. At times in the slow and patient construction of the dream catcher stones and other items would be hooked into the emerging web of sinew that might represent significant events and perhaps times of pain.
After much time, work and the process of reflecting on life the person on the dream quest would arrive at a place of learning with a finished dream catcher. This was always the hope. At that point that part of the healing journey came to an end or you could also say there was a new beginning celebrated in a ceremony. The dream catcher was burned and the pain and turmoil that had been hurting the person seeking healing disappeared in the flames.
That last part of Marcia’s explanation helped me understand why our people never had proof or evidence of dream catchers from long, long ago. None of them survived as they were given over to an important part of the healing process when they were burned.
So, I say a big Meegwetch to Marcia for bringing me the story of the dream catcher so that I could in turn tell it to you. I wish you sweet dreams.