It was traditional to put a feather in the center; it means breath or air - essential for life. The baby would be entertained watching the feather, but he/she would also learn that air is essential for life. The feathers used are different between boys and girls - the woman's feather is from the owl, signifying wisdom. The eagle feather is for courage - a man's feather. Native Americans are very specific about gender roles and identity.
Dreams catchers crafted today may have 4 stones/gems rather than the feathers - some species are protected. The four gem stones represent the four directions. Finally, adult dream catchers do not use feathers.
Starting in the 1960's and 1970's, dream catchers became popular with other Native American tribes. They came to be seen by some as a symbol of unity and as a general symbol of identification with Native American or First Nations (Canadian) cultures.
The following is another view of how dreams interact with dream catchers. This legend is from the Lakota tribe.
Long ago when the world was young, an old Lakota spiritual leader was on a high mountain and had a vision. In his vision, Iktomi, the great trickster and teacher of wisdom, appeared in the form of a spider. Iktomi spoke to him in a sacred language that only the spiritual leaders of the Lakota could understand. As he spoke Iktomi, the spider, took the elder's willow hoop which had feathers, horse hair, beads and offerings on it and began to spin a web.
He spoke to the elder about the cycles of life . . . and how we begin our lives as infants and we move on to childhood, and then to adulthood. Finally, we go to old age where we must be taken care of as infants, completing the cycle. "But," Iktomi said as he continued to spin his web, "in each time of life there are many forces -- some good and some bad. If you listen to the good forces, they will steer you in the right direction. But if you listen to the bad forces, they will hurt you and steer you in the wrong direction." He continued, "There are many forces and different directions that can help or interfere with the harmony of nature, and also with the Great Spirit and all of his wonderful teachings."
All the while the spider spoke, he continued to weave his web starting from the outside and working towards the center.
When Iktomi finished speaking, he gave the Lakota elder the web and said . . . "See, the web is a perfect circle but there is a hole in the center of the circle. Use the web to help yourself and your people to reach your goals and make good use of your people's ideas, dreams and visions. If you believe in the Great Spirit, the web will catch your good ideas -- and the bad ones will go through the hole."
The Lakota elder passed on his vision to his people and now the Sioux Indians use the dream catcher as the web of their life. It is hung above their beds or in their home to sift their dreams and visions. The good in their dreams is captured in the web of life and carried with them . . . but the evil in their dreams escapes through the hole in the center of the web and is no longer a part of them. They believe that the dream catcher holds the destiny of their future. (From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press.)
This page from NativeTech.org gives instructions on how to make your own dream catcher.
Dream-Catchers.org is all about dream catchers, the history, the legends from tribe to tribe, etc.
If Native American Indian items are are of interest for either buying or collecting, become familiar with them. Visit museums to study the various forms, materials, tribal affiliations and designs. Go to art shows that showcase Native American artisans. Antique shows are also a good venue - go through the booths of vendors selling these items. If they are passionate about what they have, they will answer your questions. And, of course, inter-tribal powwows are excellent venues to look and ask.
You can also go the The Indian Arts and Crafts Association for a listing of registered and certified Native American Artisans.
Above all, any art form being marketed as a genuine Native American handcrafted item must legally be just that. The spirit of the law is that any artwork or craft fashioned by a Native American, the artisan must be a member of an Indian Tribe, and their membership has been verified and certified.
These Native American artisans are practicing their art perhaps as a livelihood. And, through their art, they are keeping their culture, history and spirituality alive.
Native American Arts has free e-books covering the subjects of
Collecting and Fraudulence that are excellent!