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Origins of Women's Jingle Dress Dancing

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There are few pow wow dances as ebullient, or as symphonic, as the Jingle Dress Dance, especially when there are multiple female dancers moving together. The rows of metal cones, called ziibaaska'iganan in the Ojibew language, dangle from the dresses and rattle and clink as the dancers move. The traditional dance required the dancers to never cross their feet, never dance backward, and never complete circle. They kept footwork light, nimble, and close to the ground. Their dresses chirped as they moved. Modern Jingle Dress Dance allows more fluidity, the dancers can cross their feet, can complete full circles, and can dance backwards. The dresses are designed so they can move more freely, but the metal cones remain, singing along, while the dancer often carries a feather fan during the dance. The Jingle Dress Dance grew in popularity, and cultural significance, from the 1920s to around the 1950s, only to decline, go back to the dream-state from which it sprang, and rise back to life in the 1980s with the advent of pow wow expansion and competition.

By most accounts, women's Jingle Dress Dance has its roots in some part of Ojibwe country, be it Wisconsin to the Mille Lacs Ojibew community in north central Minnesota, to White Fish Bay, Ontario. The time period is reliably around World War I. Of the number of accounts that tell the origin story for this beloved style of pow wow dancing, the one most often found is that the dress and dance were bequeathed to the Ojibwe from a vision.

The various origin stories are told in books such as Reflections on American Indian History, which was edited by Albert L. Hurtado with an introduction by legendary Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Pearl Mankiller,and Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow Wow, by Tara Browner, an ethnomusicologist of Choctaw ancestry who was a jingle dress dancer on the pow wow circuit for seven years. The most consistent element is of a an Ojibwe man (occasionally he's credited as being a medicine man) who had a vision that he was being given instructions for a style of dress and the specifics of a dance that would help heal a young girl.

In Reflections, this story is told in Chapter Five by Brenda J. Child—during World War I, an Ojibew girl became very sick, possibly from the widespread Spanish influenza epidemic. Her father feared he was going to lose her, and sought a vision to save his daughter. He saw the dress and the instructions for the dance, and went about putting the dress together for his daughter, then asked her to do a few "springlike" steps, in which she always kept one foot on the ground. She started feeling better, and kept dancing. Finally, she recovered completely, and kept on dancing, and eventually she formed the first Jingle Dress Dance Society.

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In Heartbeat of the People, Browner gives a name to that little girl from the Jingle Dress Dance origin story, Maggie White. According to Browner, it was Maggie who was sick and gave no signs of recovering, so her father searched for a vision. That vision of a dress and a dance came to him in a dream. He constructed the dress and put it on his sick daughter. He instructed her from his vision how to perform the dance, and as she did she was cured. Little Maggie sought out other girls, showing them how make a dress in the four sacred colors (red, yellow, white and blue), with four rows of jingles made from snuff cans. She and these three other girls became the heart of the Jingle Dress Dance Society.

One aspect of the Jingle Dress Dance tradition that makes it so important in Indian Country is that the dance coincided with the suppression of Native American religion in the United States in 1921, with the outlawing of religious dancing. Yet according to Child, Ojibwe women disregarded the new ruling as historic photographs show them in their jingle dresses around 1920, and every decade thereafter.

The dance faded from popularity later in the century, only to explode back on the scene when as competitive dancing and the pow wow circuit expanded, giving tribes in different regions of the country their first real exposure to the dance. Back in chapter five of Reflections, Brenda J. Child discusses how legendary Wilma Mankiller, the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, had been given a jingle dress by Red Lake tribal chairman Roger Jourdain in the 1980s, a moving gesture because the jingle dress is a "strong cultural reference to the power of women." Childs' chapter on the jingle dress dance really focuses on the connection between the dance and the power of Native American women. As the dance spread throughout Wisconsin and then on to the Dakotas in the 1920s, Child focuses on how the jingle dress and its rituals were closely associated with how active Ojibwe women were in keeping up the health and spirits of their communities during the harsh conditions in the Great Lakes area. Once the pow wow circuit grew, and the dance moved beyond its original borders, the dance was adopted by more Native communities because of its connection to prayer and healing, something tribes from all four corners know a lot about.