The Dreamcatcher’s Odyssey
I possess these gold dreamcatcher earrings. My father bought them for me at the Grand Canyon gift shop in Arizona several years ago. More years than I care to count. He bought them in the way he always buys things for me – a lot of huffing and puffing, loudly bemoaning the cost of keeping me happy, dramatically aggravated by the thought that I only hang out with him for material gain, but immediately shutting me down and slapping money on the counter the moment I suggest paying for it myself. I wear these earrings remembering his antics, the gentle jingle they make attuned to the roll of my eyes and the slow curl unfurling in the corners of my lips.
After high school, I planned on travelling the country for a year to find myself (it ended up taking two years, only to discover finding myself was probably a life long journey), with Arizona being one of the stops I planned to make. I hoped to work on a tribal reservation either there or in New Mexico, helping out in the community and communing with long lost ancestors. Caroline, a friend of the family, had stopped by during the packing process, and snorted at my excitement about bringing my dreamcatcher earrings with me.
“I’ll wear them to show, hey, look, I’m Native American too.”
“Don’t do that.” Her voice was flat. “They don’t like that.”
Caroline was white, and I bristled at being lectured on cultural appropriation and indigenous etiquette by her of all people… but she had also been married to an indigenous woman for over a decade, and I couldn’t toss her words aside so easily.
Excitement about the earrings dimmed. A light bulb fading from white to parchment paper yellow, to that dying speck of amber, that orange gold. The same color of the dulled metal bent into a circle, shaped into a dreamcatcher, pierced through my lobes. To me they were beautiful. A sign of my distant heritage. A token of a trip my father had taken me on. But they were also something once sacred, made into commercial commodity, sold and bought without reverence. A necessary sacrifice to keep indigenous communities afloat.
A few days of moping, and then I packed the earrings anyway.
After Arizona, came Los Angeles, then New Orleans – long stretches of road in between, the greyhound busses driving through desert. More desert than I ever knew existed in the states. More sand and mountain than I ever could have imagined. So little water, so few buildings. So many more stars than I knew had hung in the same stretch of sky blackening my home.
The earrings survived every trip. Whether packed away, or crushed beneath my cheek, tangled in unruly curls, they clung to me from state to state.
My first international trip alone was to Guatemala. I stayed in a small town called Antigua, boarding in a Spanish language school. My room was directly above one of the teachers, who hosted dinner on weeknights for the students who stayed over. In exchange for living there rent free, she cooked for us and cleaned the rooms.
The town had an active nightlife. Even better than Guatemala City because the bar crawls were so easy, and the police far more lax. Despite what should have been a dangerous combination of high heels, cobblestones, tequila and darkness, I made it home safe every time. But one of the downsides was having to sneak past Ana and her family whenever I wanted to bring a friend back to the school. The muscles in my tummy tensing up as we walked the stairs, our shadows ducking beneath the lamp guarded window, freezing at the sound of Ana’s toddler daughter stirring, mumbling for her parents.
I remember one night, sneaking into my room. Jumping and shrieking with laughter at a roach crawling out of the sink in my small kitchen. Swatting at my friend’s shoulder to get rid of it, no don’t kill it! I remember hopping around, earrings bouncing against my neck, golden feathers poked into my skin, trying to shake off the disgust. I remember warm hands cradling my face, gently calloused fingers toying with my earrings, wine soaked breath savoring reassurances.
That whole night had been a toll for my earrings. Flying on the back of my friend’s vespa, rubber tires clashing with cobblestones. Endless dancing – in the bar, on the streets, and then the way we fell back into cheap, cotton sheets. At some point, rolling into an endless tumble, somersaults in darkness, the earring slipped out.
The remaining weeks were dotted with the occasional, idle wonder of where the missing dreamcatcher had gotten to. The floor of my bedroom was smooth, too easy for jewelry to slide into the various dusty corners. Hidden beneath the bed, the television cabinet, the kitchen sink, the sunken depths of the shadow drenched space beneath the dresser.
As my trip neared its end, I thought about throwing away the remaining dream catcher. It was unpaired now. Useless now. My finger played with the golden feathers. I packed it into a ziplock bag with my other jewelry, and kept it.
I spent the summer working at a movie theater in my neighborhood. An awful, terrible job, but at the end of it I had enough money to go back to Antigua, and resume my studies there. The summer had been so awful; too long and too hot, but all that bled away into sweat, the Guatemalan sun pressing down onto my skin, squeezing out every last drop until I was smiling again.
It was the same language school, though a different room. No more need to sneak so quietly. Ana was still there, with her adorable apple cheeked daughter and quiet husband. Still cooking meals. I remember sitting down at the table with a completely new batch of students. Around my neck I wore a dreamcatcher I had bought myself (when I had travelled alone to Arizona). Ana stared at it, and I was aware of her stare. My skin prickled in discomfort, not thinking it was the necklace she was so fixated on.
“Amanda… you wear dreamcatchers a lot?”
I touched my necklace, my mind flashing back to that conversation earlier that year with Caroline. Oh no. Ana and her family all had distinctly indigenous features. I tried furiously to remember if dream catchers were solely a northern Native American thing, or if Aztecs or Mayans or Incas or whatever tribe the Guatemalan indigenous belonged to also used them. Had I offended her?
Bemused by my silence, Ana pushed back her chair and stood up, continuing to talk while disappearing into the bedroom. “Because… I have this…” She returned after a minute, something dangling in her hand. A glint of gold caught between her thumb and forefinger.
My dreamcatcher earring. I laughed in surprise, reaching across bowls of soup and glasses of water, eager to have it placed in my palm again. Ana told me she had found it in the dusty corners of my room, but wasn’t sure who it belonged to. She’d kept it just in case. Now, many months later, I’d returned, and she’d been reminded of it by my necklace. I know I must have thanked her but I don’t remember. I know I didn’t thank her as much as I should.
Thank goodness Ana had kept the earring. Thank goodness its mate was waiting back home, kept dangling on a small hook in my room for no discernable purpose. I hadn’t even been holding out hope for its twin’s return.
Thank goodness, thank goodness, but after so much goodness, can you believe I hardly ever wear any of this jewelry anymore? My tastes have changed, I no longer feel like wearing them as often as I used to. They have transformed into ornaments. Cheap, gold painted trinkets in the guise of something sacred, but now is sacred because of the stories I can tell about them. My dad’s antics, a lecture on indigenous ethics, a playful tumble in the darkness, the sting of loss, the joy of rediscovery. I don’t wear them anymore. I look, and I feel. Does that make them art?