With short, kicking steps that skim the earth, jingle dress dancers rise and fall. The sound of hundreds of metal cones chiming together rings through the air as women answer the low boom of the drum.
“It makes me happy, knowing the background and the history of how the dress came about, and how it’s supposed to heal people and make people happy,” says Mary Not Afraid, 30, Crow/Gros Ventre/Cree, who has danced jingle dress since she was a young girl. “I like making people smile and the feeling that it gives me. It heals my spirit.”
Whether it’s at a healing ceremony or a pow wow competition, the sound and style of the jingle dress dance make it popular and distinctive. There are several different stories that tell the origin of the dance, but they all center on healing and the Ojibwe people who live on both sides of the border shared by Canada and the U.S. near Lake Superior. One tells of a man in Whitefish Bay, Ontario, who had a vision of how to make a dress and dance steps that would heal his sick daughter. In another, a man dreamt of four women who taught him the healing dance.
Tara Browner, Choctaw, is a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA who has studied jingle dress extensively. During her work she has learned that in Ojibwe/Anishnaabeg culture sound is at the very heart of the universe, and that through creating sound people can connect with deep levels of Mother Earth. “To me it’s such an Anishnaabeg dance because of the emphasis on sound as a healing property,” she says. “It’s such a culturally specific dance, but it’s really swept across Indian country.”
Browner says that some jingle music also carries information about Ojibwe/Anishnaabeg culture. “The Ojibwe have a kind of sacred numerology, and you can hear it in the old songs,” she explains. “It’s fascinating because European music tends to have four-beat phrases—there’s a very specific evenness of phrase structure—whereas old Ojibwe songs have a five-beat phrase structure that comes from the sacred numerology.”
Karen J. Pheasant is an Ojibwe/Anishnaabeg educator from the Great Lakes area who lives in Alberta. She says jingle dress started among the ogitchedah dah kwe, or warrior women, from the Lake of the Woods region of Ontario and Minnesota. Now in her 50s, Pheasant has danced jingle dress since 1989, when the community of Whitefish Bay invited women from across the Northern Plains to hear stories of the dance. The dance they shared was a collective, sidestepping action, where women danced close together in harmony. The footwork involved graceful lifting steps, with feet skimming over the grass. Soon the lifelong shawl dancer was dedicated to jingle dress.
The dance has changed over time, and Pheasant says today it often reflects the glitz of casino-sponsored pow wows, involving more high-stepping, individual dance than the one that began in the early 1900s, and what she learned in the 1980s. The dresses are also different, as the availability of brilliant synthetic fabrics and sequins make new, eye-catching designs possible. Pheasant learned to sew the cones, which were formerly made from the rolled up lids of snuff tins, in several parallel rows, though there is great variation in this today as well.
While the dance is changing, young dancers like Not Afraid remain attuned to its healing powers. “There are people out there who are sick and need to feel happiness,” she said. “I carry tobacco and sage in my purse, and when there is a sick person before the song starts, I’ll be praying for them. My grandmother and sister have already passed on, and I’ll ask them to come down and dance with me and heal these people.”
In addition to the important place jingle dress holds in her life, Pheasant says that the overall pow wow experience strengthened her young family years ago, and continues to do so. “As a struggling single mom, there are very few things you can do on a limited income, and I found pow wow to be one of the best,” she says. “Now I have five grandchildren, so I’m inspired and motivated to keep in good physical condition. I’m taking care of my health. I have mentors in front of me who are 70 and 80 and dancing, and I want to do that, so I can dance with my grandchildren.”