The Story Behind the Dream Catcher That Became a Healing Symbol for School Shooting Survivors
Days after a gunman murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, Anthony Salvatore was sitting at his desk, in a daze, thinking about the victims.
As a former assistant principal at Sandy Hook, Salvatore knew most of them.
Out of the blue he got a call from a woman in Minnesota, with a tale that left him sobbing. Students from Red Lake Senior High School in Minnesota, where seven people were killed in a 2005 shooting, wanted to drive to Newtown, Conn., to give them a dream catcher, a Native American talisman that is meant to fend off bad dreams, to help the Newtown community heal.
The dream catcher was made after two students killed a dozen students and a teacher in a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. After the Red Lake shooting, some Columbine students took the dream catcher to the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
A Gift for Columbine Survivors
“We were like everybody else, we thought we would give something that came from our hearts,” said Debra Gutowski, a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Muskegon, Mich., who created the dream catcher.
“We were sorrowed and saddened, too, so we gifted the dream catcher to heal the people, as we do with our children,” said Gutowski, who had made dream catchers for years and who was asked by students she works with to make one for Columbine. “We gift them to our babies so that they heal, have good dreams, [and] wake up to do good things.”
The dream catcher Gutowski created is encased in a shadow box frame, and it bears an inscription in the Ottawa language, that, loosely translated, means “all our relations,” or “we’re all family.”
The gift was never supposed to travel beyond Columbine. But in the years since, it has been passed to five other school communities devastated by gun violence. It was driven from Columbine to Red Lake in 2005; to Newtown, Conn., in 2012; to Marysville, Wash., where four students were shot and killed at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in 2014; to Townville, S.C., where a 6-year-old boy died in 2016 after he was shot on a playground at Townville Elementary School; and to Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February.
Salvatore got “chills and goose bumps” after Stephanie Hope Smith, who first called him, told him the dream catcher’s tale.
But he was also touched that the students wanted to make the hours-long journey to his community to deliver it personally.
“I thought it was a phenomenal gesture that they would drive all the way to deliver the dream catcher,” he said. “It was a healing process for them as well to do something for our community.”
Parkland Students Received the Dream Catcher
There is no hard and fast rule about which communities the dream catcher will go to, and it has not been to every community that’s been affected by a school shooting.
“There’s no real format,” Salvatore said. “It’s as the spirit moves people.”
In fact, earlier this year, the dream catcher was supposed to go to Benton, Ky., where two students were killed and more than a dozen others injured in January during a shooting at Marshall County High School.
Then the Parkland massacre happened, and school officials in Townville decided to take the dream catcher to Florida, Salvatore said. It was presented in early March to members of a student club during a small ceremony that included a moment of silence for the victims on the grounds of Stoneman Douglas High School.
Salvatore said the Parkland students asked whether the dream catcher could have a permanent home so that it would not have to travel again.
Salvatore thought the National Teachers Hall of Fame in Emporia, Kan., would be an ideal place to house it. The dream catcher was presented formally during a ceremony last month in which the Hall of Fame added the names of 10 educators to the National Memorial to Fallen Educators, which honors school employees who were killed on the job. Half of those 10 educators were killed in the school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas.
The dream catcher has always been personally delivered to the community affected by school violence, and it’s always accompanied by individuals from communities affected by gun violence, who are now part of the “dream catcher family.”
“You don’t have to say anything for them to understand that you are there to support them,” Salvatore said. “And whether it’s holding hands or just hugging, the message [is] clear: that we’ve been where you are, we are all struggling through this, we will continue to struggle through our entire lifetimes, and the message is you’re not alone.”
Gutowski, who runs an Indian education program in Muskegon’s schools, had no idea the dream catcher had traveled across the country until she was contacted by a reporter some years ago for a story.
She has since met some of the people from the communities that the dream catcher has visited, and they have shared stories of their recovery in the aftermath of the shootings. Some said reconnecting with nature helped, she said.
“It did what it needed to do,” she said.
Gutowski is of two minds about what the dream catcher intended for one suffering community has become. One is that it brings comfort to those who’ve been affected by gun violence, but unfortunately, the violence continues to afflict new communities.
Lasting Symbol of Sympathy and Healing
Smith has taken on the role of making arrangements to get the dream catcher and members of the "dream catcher family" from site to site.
The communities have all responded differently, she said, in the same way people grieve differently. Members of the “dream catcher family” also visit victims and their families, attend funerals, or attend school board meetings in the affected communities. Others exchange phone numbers, emails, and other resources so that those affected can follow up in the future, she said.
“Part of it is just the gift of presence—meaning that I am just going to be with you; I am just going to be a silent person in the room; and you are not alone,” Smith said. “That’s the key message. We are grafted together, and it’s not anything that anybody chose. It’s just a fact. We have a connection. We are all related, and we are going to be here with you and for you. That’s been very well-received. People seem to understand.”
“They may never even understand or know the story of the dream catcher,” she said. “It was like ‘wow, someone from Marysville came and spent time with me and my family during my time of grief.’”
She said that it’s remarkable that of all the artifacts that people have donated to victims in the aftermath of a shooting—cards, balloons, teddy bears, letters—the dream catcher is the one that has traveled from site to site for nearly two decades.
“I think that speaks for itself,” Smith said. “That there is something that’s very special about the family, about this particular gift.”