As part of the Cherokee Nation, my family and I have attended pow wows my entire life. About five years ago I felt the call of the drum. My mom’s best friend Brandi Brown—who has danced her entire life—took me in, taught me the history, traditions and pow wow etiquette. To her I owe my understanding of the importance and meaning behind pow wow regalia and the basics to jingle dancing.
I’m a two-time cancer survivor and I loved the healing power I feel during jingle dancing. With that healing comes great responsibility to the medicine contained by the dress and to the Tribe and ancestors from which it descends. My fellow Center for Native American Youth Champion for Change, Sarah Jo Schilling and her mother Audrey, (Traverse Bay Band of Odawa) have also taught me their stories, customs, and beliefs about jingle which I honor and follow.
Every dancer wears unique beadwork and regalia. We are often inspired by other dancers but we all strive to stay original to ourselves, the dance, or our tribes, and so we do not copy anyone else’s beadwork or dress. There’s no end to my admiration for well-crafted regalia; here are some of the pieces I always consider with care.
Beaded Moccasins: Currently, my mother is working on my first fully beaded moccasins and leggins (yes, they’re really spelled that way). My mom has never beaded anything this advanced and they are already my most treasured pow wow items. Most tribes and regions have different styles of moccasins. Traditional Cherokee moccasins are ankle height pucker toes with side flaps, while Plains style are often high-top moccasins. Further north, they wear mukluks with fur for warmth.
Men’s Headdresses: Men’s headdresses vary from dance type and dancer but they all evolve from old forms of warrior dance. The style of dance or tribe dictates the style of headdress. Otter fur turbans are worn by Prairie and Southern Plains tribal men. They are made with the otter body and tail. Many are beaded or painted depending on the dancer’s heritage. Other dancers wear a feathered roach made of porcupine fur, moose fur, deer fur or feathers. Many tribal men wore scalp locks which involved using deer fur and turkey beards as adornments. The Mohawk are often associated with roach hairstyle as well as Southern tribes such as the Pawnee. My personal favorite is the full feathered headdress also known as the Dog Soldier Headdress worn by traditional dancers. This headdress is a great honor and should be revered as such. There are active Dog Soldier Societies within Indian country today. Most dancers wear actual eagle feathers (as well as feathers from hawk, osprey, and owl) and earning those feathers bestows great honor on the dancer.
Breastplates: Breastplates are worn by men and women both. There are distinct differences in Northern and Southern style breastplates. Women’s Southern Plains breast plates are short in length and Northern Plains breastplates are full length, as just one example. Historically, breastplates were worn like armor during battle.
Dance Sticks and Staff: Dance sticks fascinate me. Just like beadwork, each dance stick is original to its style of dance, dancer, and purpose. As with most regalia, dance sticks come from our warriors. Originally, they were used by riders to make their horses run faster. Often, the warrior decorated his stick with his horse hair and some dancers continue that tradition today. But new materials abound such as vinyl tape, feathers, and even fully beaded sticks.
Fancy Shawls: Fancy shawls are breathtaking in motion. To dance fancy shawl, each dancer must be graceful like a butterfly and in great physical shape. It is a high energy dance with high steps, jumps, and spins. Like all regalia, each shawl is unique to each dancer. It is a Northern dance that is fairly modern. While Ladies cloth and buckskin dance are slow, deliberate steps that encourage swaying movements, fancy shawl is a fresh and modern take on more athletic dance moves. There are no required steps a dancer must make but intricate footwork is expected.
Ladies Cloth Dresses: There are Northern and Southern styles of dancing Ladies Cloth. Dresses can be made out of cotton fabric or wool broadcloth. The dresses tend to be in a T-shape and long. Dancers wear high top moccasins that are at least partially beaded. Many dancers also wear a wrap that resembles an apron which can be plain, ribboned, or fringed. Women wear a breastplate with this dress that is two-sided; on their belts, women wear a drag, awl case/knife case, strike bag, and tobacco pouch. Your tribe determines where on your belt you wear such items. Ladies cloth dancers also carry a purse, fan, and shawl. It’s an elegant dance and you must know your honor beats in the song.
Otter Skin Hair Ties: I’m obsessed with otter skins worn as ladies hair ties. I love how they move with each dance step and how the fur glistens in the daylight. A pair of otter skins are on my wish list but Santa (aka my mother) said I’m still on the naughty list for convincing her that she could fully bead my leggins easily and quickly. #sorrynotsorry #nativeproblems.
Buckskin Dress: When worn in women’s traditional dancing, buckskin regalia is considered by many participants to be the most graceful and beautiful. The dancer must move with smooth, flowing steps to sway the fringe just right. Northern Buckskin dancers wear a fully beaded top known as a cape as well as fully beaded hightop moccasins. Southern Buckskin dancers wear intricate beadwork more as an accent with their hightop moccasins (also partially beaded). Northern dancers wear ankle length breastplates whereas Southern dancers wear half length breastplates. Beaded hair barrettes, crowns, and fur hair ties are worn by all. Dancers must carry a fringed shawl and purse.
I would love to dance buckskin someday and I hope my mom would help me bead it. But don’t tell her, since she’s stressing out over my leggins. For now, I’ll just enjoy bucksin dancers from afar…